The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Wow. I was afraid we werenít going to get out of the last page alive. Finnegans Wake, Faulknerís bloated, ghosly, bloodless grapes, the Hardy boys ó itís almost more than I can stand. J.B., you seem awfully well-versed in the Hardy boys. Our kids read quite a few of those books years ago, but I confess that I read only one or two when I was that age. I read mysteries, of course. I remember one called The Mystery of the Flying Skeleton. I think itís still around here somewhere. It might have been set in Florida. I think there was a hurricane involved. I used to like mysteries. I went through a mystery phase, a pioneer phase, a sports story phase, an animal story phase ó hey, what about Jack Londonís Call of the Wild? Did you read that?
John Berbrich: Yeah, but thereís a funny story behind it. I loved Call of the Wild. We were assigned it in sixth grade. I read it over and over, lingering lovingly over the parts where the dogs were fighting, Buck and Spitz. Those were the best parts, plus the gruff exotic characters of the French Canadians. But I thought the book was entitled the Call of the Wind. In fact I read it several times before I realized my mistake. And I loved the Hardy Boys, reading dozens of those books. I also read Tom Swift for science adventure, Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett for sports. I hated Chip Hilton, the superboy of high school jocks. He was way too perfect. I also read a couple of the Happy Hollister family-adventure-mystery stories with no ill effects.
William Michaelian: You remember that stuff a lot better than I do. I read hundreds of books when I was a kid, but I donít remember the names of the characters. Buck and Spitz, yes. And probably a few others, if something were to trigger that musty corner of my mind. I remember the reading experience: the old library, the books, the type, the binding, their smell, their appearance on the shelves, and especially the thrill of finding out what happened next. But come to think of it, Iím not very good at remembering peopleís names anyway. I remember faces, voices, and mannerisms. I think when I meet someone new, I must be paying more attention to those things. Call of the Wild is a great story. One of Londonís short stories that stands out in my mind is ďTo Build a Fire.Ē Iíve read a couple of his novels ó we talked about The Sea Wolf ó Martin Eden was another. But it was almost twenty years ago. I like your Call of the Wind. Another good title would be Gone with the Wild. I did the same thing once in the fourth grade. We were supposed to read some story about a porpoise. The trouble was, I had never seen the word and from the beginning to the end, I read it as purpose. Then when the teacher started talking about the story and asking questions, I was completely in the dark. When my turn came to say something, I said, ďI thought it was purpose.Ē Everybody laughed. It was a great moment.
John Berbrich: That sort of thing always happened to me too. Everyone else seemed to know just exactly was going on, but me. I remember the first day of first grade. My mother had pinned an index card with my room number on it to my shirt. Well, the buses unloaded and everyone ran to their classrooms, except me. I was left all alone in the hall. A kind teacher found me sniveling by myself and led me to the proper room. How was I supposed to know that the number on the card on my shirt corresponded with the correct room number? Everyone else did, somehow.
William Michaelian: I remember quite a few similar situations. It was a mystery to me how some kids just seemed to know what the teacher meant, what was going to happen next, where things were, where we were supposed to be, and so on. But even then, I felt I was aware of things that they didnít even know existed. Some kids were like minature mathematicians or insurance agents, while others were angelic and seemed to be made of dreams and light. Others were tough, like hardened pioneers.
John Berbrich: I know just what you mean. When you look at the old photos now, they all just look like kids. But back when you too were a kid, they looked much more grown up ó like you say, hard or angelic. I always wondered what I looked like, I mean to the other kids. What a wild trip childhood is ó I mean, youíre just thrown out there with hardly a clue. And you are supposed to make sense of all this crazy motion and emotion. Find your place, et cetera. Become a Man (or a woman). Donít step on the lines, or the grass. Read the signs ó no-no, not those signs, those other signs. Those big ones over there. And WHY are you wearing that shirt again? Eat your broccoli. Turn off that television. Get outside, itís beautiful out. No wonder weíre messed up.
William Michaelian: Especially when you consider that the adults guiding us were on a wild trip of their own ó actually the same trip we were on, only a different leg of the journey. We know this now, in our ďwisdom.Ē Talk about an unfinished symphony. Speaking of which, how are things coming with Finnegans Wake? About how far along are you now?
John Berbrich: Iím on page 142. Took a short break. Read a science-fiction novel by Michael Bishop, No Enemy But Time, and poetry by Louis MacNeice. I needed some normalcy ó does that sound strange? I was going to dive back into the Wake yesterday but I forgot my glasses. I need glasses only for reading and only indoors. Did I tell you about last weekendís show at the cafe?
William Michaelian: No, only about the poetry reading coming up. Was it another wild night?
John Berbrich: It was different. We had a yo-yo master performing. This kid is 20 years old and he has devoted his life to ultimate proficiency with the yo-yo. He performed for 90 minutes. I was quite amazed. Never seen anything like it.
William Michaelian: How refreshing. He sounds like a youth with a real direction, drive, and determination. Very impressive. I wish I could have seen it. I remember when I was a kid and yo-yos and tops were all the rage. But I never got beyond the basics with yo-yos, and spent most of my time getting tangled and untangled. I recognized it as a higher calling, requiring devotion and sacrifice. I loved spinning tops on the sidewalks at school. It was a very competitive sport, engaged in by the boys only. Our tops were all scarred from doing battle, gouged by each otherís metal tips. There were the plastic-pointed tops, of course, but those were sneered at ó although I did have one that was two tops in one. When you released it and it hit the ground, the top half would jump out and the two halves would both spin. A fine top for recreational use ó a good way to unwind, you might say. Ahem! Anyway.
John Berbrich: Nice. Tops and yo-yos and hula-hula hoops ó remember those? I thought the coolest thing was a gyroscope. Our parents played jacks and marbles. Now they play video games. Whatís next?
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, while we were spinnng our tops in grade school, some of the girls were playing jacks. We also collected and played marbles, but the game was on the wane and not taken as seriously as when our parents were kids. According to my father, there was an actual marble season. So. We can discuss your troubling need for normalcy later. For now, tell me about Louis MacNeice.
John Berbrich: Born in Ireland in 1907. Lived much of his adult life in London. Good friends with Auden. Lectured in the USA, returned to London where he worked for the BBC. Died in 1963 of pneumonia. Hereís a poem:
After the legshows and the brandies
and all the pick-me-ups for tired
Men there is a feeling
Something more is required.
The lights go down and eyes
Look up across the room;
Salome comes in, bearing
The head of God knows whom.
William Michaelian: Wow ó that is normal. Or maybe reserved would be a better word. Not a bad little setup, though, for the entrance of Salome. Is the tone of that poem fairly typical of him?
John Berbrich: He is generally wary of modernity. You always get the impression that something is crumbling. Hereís an excerpt from a long poem, ďAn Eclogue for Christmas,Ē a conversation between a city man and a country man:
And over-elaboration will nothing now avail,
The street is up again, gas, electricity or drains,
Ever-changing conveniences, nothing comfortable remains
Un-improved, as flagging Rome improved villa and sewer
(A sound-proof library and a stable temperature).
Our street is up, red lights sullenly mark
The long trench of pipes, iron guts in the dark,
And not till the Goths again come swarming down the hill
Will cease the clanguor of the pneumatic drill.
William Michaelian: Very interesting. This sounds like the work of a serious, thoughtful, educated, neatly dressed man with good posture ó until very late in the evening when he finally lets himself go and he unties the laces of his shoes, sighs, and runs his fingers through his hair, ruffling it slightly as he looks around the room and makes note of the ticking of the clock, dreading its chime. What a shame the clock was a gift ó otherwise, long ago, he would have cast it into the Thames. He hears laughter, goes and checks the rooms. No one.
John Berbrich: Very good, Willie ó that sounds about right. Here are the first few stanzas from a poem called ďSlow Movement.Ē
Waking, he found himself in a train, andante,
With wafers of early sunlight blessing the unknown fields
And yesterday cancelled out, except for yesterdayís papers
Huddling under the seat.
It is still very early, this is a slow movement;
The viola-playerís hand like a fish in a glass tank
Rises, remains quivering, darts away
To nibble invisible weeds.
Great white nebulae lurch against the window
To deploy across the valley, the children are not yet up
To wave us on ó we pass without spectators,
Braiding a voiceless creed.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. I see. MacNeice, it would seem, did not use ordinary pen and paper, at least in the early going. Rather, he worked with a jewelerís tiny hammer, tap, tap, tapping his words into place. When they were properly wedged in, he picked them up in verses and pressed them whole onto the paper ó or pressed the paper onto them and rubbed the surface with colored chalk until the poem appeared. No wonder he was so worn out in the evenings, and so suspicious of clocks. He didnít trust their crude hands, moving in such awkward increments as seconds, minutes, and hours. You also mentioned Michael Bishop. How was his book?
John Berbrich: Bishop is always worth reading. Iíve read a short story collection of his and three or four novels. He takes his time with a story, delineating realistic details, building characters, making the incredible seem quite plausible. You wonít find action merely for the sake of action in a Bishop story. They are usually slow and steady but never dull; the writing is poetic and even funny, yet never overpowering the story itself. In No Enemy But Time, a chrononaut is sent back two-million years and joins up with a band of proto-humans in East Africa. The descriptions of life on the savannah are amazing. You can feel the dry heat and hear the roaring, bleating, and trumpeting of the many animals. Itís a good book, all in all.
William Michaelian: Sounds interesting. Itís been so long since Iíve read any science fiction, maybe I should give him a try. A few days ago, I read about a book set in the future, called We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Itís set in the year 2600. Have you heard of it? Zamyatin was born in 1884; the book was banned in Russia in 1921. In Zamyatinís future, all but a few citizens of the One State are happily numbered and regimented, and music from the Music Plant thuds sway steadily in the background, always playing the same song, ďThe March of the One State.Ē Hereís a little excerpt about a mathematician-engineer named D-503, when he was out for his compulsory walk:
. . . And then, just the way it was this morning in the hangar, I saw again, as though right then for the first time in my life, I saw everything: the unalterably straight streets, the sparkling glass of the sidewalks, the divine parallelepipeds of the transparent dwellings, the squared harmony of our gray-blue ranks. And so I felt that I ó not generations of people, but I myself ó I had conquered the old God and the old life, I myself had created all this, and Iím like a tower, Iím afraid to move my elbow lest walls, cupolas, machines tumble in fragments about me.
Then ó a leap across centuries, from + to - (evidently an association by contrast) ó I suddenly remembered a picture I had seen in a museum: one of their avenues, out of the twentieth century, dazzlingly motley, a teemng crush of people, wheels, animals, posters, trees, colors, birds. . . . And they say that this had really existed ó could exist. It seemed so incredible, so preposterous that I could not contain myself and burst out laughing. . . .
John Berbrich: Whereíd you find that book, Willie? It sounds fascinating. I think Iíve heard of Zamyatin, but maybe not. Donít tell me that the book was translated by that darn Connie Garnett. Or was it written originally in English?
William Michaelian: He wrote in Russian. We has been translated several times, but I havenít come across the name of our dear Constance. I first read about Zamyatin in a daily newsletter I receive from Today in Literature, a site Iíve mentioned before. His work got him into big trouble with the early communist authorities. In his 1998 book The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, author Martin Seymour-Smith says ďWe is far above even Nineteen Eighty-four.Ē His life follows the difficult pattern of many Russian writers in the early part of the twentieth century. He was arrested more than once and attacked by party-line critics. His works were banned and removed from libraries. Finally, after writing to Stalin, he was allowed to go into exile with his wife. They moved to Paris in 1932 and lived there in poverty until his death in 1937. We was his only novel. Zamyatin wrote essays, edited several journals, and lectured on writing techniques. He also edited Russian translations of Jack London, H.G. Wells, Romain Rolland, O. Henry, and Anatole France. Fascinating, indeed.
John Berbrich: Imagine having the guts to write to Stalin, one of the most dangerous men who ever lived. And then waiting for the reply. And then actually being allowed to leave, breathing the free air of France, perhaps leaving paranoia behind. Itís a great story. Wonder if Zamyatin encountered the Surrealists, Andre Breton and the boys.
William Michaelian: My thoughts exactly. I love the name, Zamyatin, whatever it might happen to mean. Hey, wasnít that poetry shindig going to be last night?
John Berbrich: Yeah, we had a blast. The attendance was a bit low due to an important local hockey game. But two English professors from St. Lawrence University showed up to read, with me making three. The total crowd numbered about 14 at max. I went on first and read for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, then the lady prof read for maybe 10 minutes. She was followed by a gentleman professor who read perhaps 10 or 15 minutes of really nice stuff laced with humor, mostly regarding mundane things like gardens and kittens. When they were done I read for another 15 minutes or so. Lots of good vibes in the air, positive energy.
William Michaelian: Thatís good to hear. Is the place very big? Is the layout such that everyone hears and ends up listening, or is it big enough that some people are able to not pay attention if theyíre not interested or not in the mood?
John Berbrich: The cafe is pretty small, with an absolute seating capacity of maybe 30. There is a little room attached where five or six people can sit around a single table if they want to get away. Which is exactly what two girls did when I started to read. I smiled. Like I said earlier, being underground lends a cozy atmosphere of privacy. You donít have big windows to stare out of, or through which pedestrians peer in. The walls display the colossal stones of the buildingís foundation. Very elemental. We had a fine time. Lucas is considering scheduling one poetry reading each month.
William Michaelian: Well, that shouldnít damage his reputation too badly. And it adds a little more variety. What would have been funny, though, is if once the girls were in the little room, a door had locked behind them and a speaker had come on to broadcast your reading. Then, after they had fallen unconcious, Lucas could have fitted them with Bracelets of Control. I donít know where it would lead ó I guess that depends on what kind of guy Lucas is, and whether or not he wants to control the universe.
John Berbrich: He wouldnít mind. Bracelets of Control, huh? Thatís a good idea. Willie, you are always thinking. The little room the girls ducked into does not have a door, but maybe we can fix up some kind of force field or something, a way to keep them inside. Willie, if I ever attain stardom, will you be my manager? And weíll need to hire some roadies to haul around the boxes filled with Bracelets of Control. Talk about a captive audience.
William Michaelian: The roadies, too, will be wearing Bracelets of Control. And they will never sleep ó or even blink. As for being your manager, I would be honored, of course, to add you to my stable of artists. Iíll be just like Albert Grossman, who handled Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Iíll hang out in your hotel room and ride around with you in your limousine, and be on hand to swear at hotel clerks and stupid, meddlesome reporters. And Iíll make deals ó really big deals. Weíll have you reading your poetry in cafťs all over the country. Oh ó I just thought of something. Weíll need a really big coffee can for the money.
John Berbrich: I have lots of little ones, mostly Maxwell House. I fill them with coins and use them as bookends. Tell me more about the Bracelets of Control. I mean like how do they work, whatís the power source? Is this something Farrago cooked up? At first I thought you meant handcuffs.
William Michaelian: No, no ó nothing that ordinary. The Bracelets of Control are evil, yet exquisitely beautiful. People love them. They want to wear them. Best of all, they derive their power from their victims. Once in place, they are strengthened by admiration.
John Berbrich: Wow, if we could mass produce them, it could be more lucrative than poetry readings. Do you have lots of these items?
William Michaelian: Unfortunately, theyíre tied up in litigation. The outfit that makes Bracelets of Conformity claims I stole their idea, which is absolutely untrue. Both bracelets work in a similar fashion, but the results are vastly different. Those fitted with Bracelets of Control are happy, because they have such beautiful bracelets. Those wearing Bracelets of Conformity act like zombies, or even worse ó they take on the demeanor of shoppers in a mall. And the bracelets tarnish over time. The good news is, I found a big coffee can. Have you ever read your poetry on street corners? I think weíll start you out that way. I can arrange for one of my sons to accompany you on guitar.
John Berbrich: Sounds great! Where do we start?
William Michaelian: Well, unless you can compose on the spot, it will depend on how much material you have stockpiled ó also on how long you can perform. If youíre willing to walk out occasionally into traffic thatís backed up and waiting at a light, we might head straight to some of the bigger cities. Very lucrative market. Or, if youíd rather warm up in smaller towns, we can do that for a month or two and then work our way up. I just signed our youngest son, by the way. Told him about it over supper, and he says it sounds like great fun. He plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, so we canít go wrong. I assume youíre willing to quit your job in order to embrace this opportunity of a lifetime. After all, if weíre going to go into this, we have to be practical.
John Berbrich: Thatís why youíre my manager ó you are the practical one. And your son and I ó while weíre performing on street corners weíll wear false Bracelets of Control. The audience will love them, and weíll sell real ones, along with poetry chapbooks. The Bracelets will become this fad thing ó everybody thatís cool will wear one. This sounds like the first step towards world domination, something we discussed earlier. I think I was gonna appoint you Minister of Defense or something. You can also be in charge of Bracelet manufacture and distribution. Sound good?
William Michaelian: Better than good. Itís thoroughly commercial. And with my media contacts . . . Anyway. Iíll draw up a contract. If I remember correctly, I was going to be Minister of Whatever. Weíll change that to Manager. You know, I like this. I feel sleazier already. Sloozy. Slezeasy. Slurzy. Oh, no. Itís happening again. Another bout of Finnegans Setback.
John Berbrich: The remedy is a bit harsh, Iím afraid ó pounding you over the head with an ashplant for 25 minuets, I mean minutes. That Setback stuff is contagious, Sillie, I mean Dillie, I mean Willie. Sorry. Sloozy suits you in a way, although itís a great name for a woman of loose morals ó Sloozy. Anyway, whereís my ashplant?
William Michaelian: Donít tell me itís musing. I mean mything. Uh, missing, rather. I donít know mow huch store I can mand. Iím on Page 272. Not even halfway home. Itís the chapter with notes ó some of them musical ó in both margins, and footnotes besides. Some great humor and wordplay here. Iíve laughed adlood several times.
John Berbrich: Youíre about 100 pages ahead of me. Iíve gotten sidetracked again. But listen to this sentence Iíve found: ďMore than the Ďissuesí themselves, a farrago of tepidly endorsed causes, what is intriguing is the sense you get of a mature soul being grafted onto the characters.Ē Thatís from an essay by Christopher Sorrentino called ďThe Ger Sheker,Ē which I found in a collection of essays about comic books. That crazy little word gets around.
William Michaelian: Come to think of it, I havenít seen it yet in Finnegans Wake. I remember reading about Christopher Sorrentino somewhere. He has a book called Trance. But thatís all I remember, being in something of a trance myself. Whatís the collection of essays called? The comic book world is one I know nothing about.
John Berbrich: The book is entitled Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! Itís a hardcover collection of 17 essays by different authors, of whom Iíve heard of only one, Jonathan Lethem. Being nearly halfway through, I can say with full authority that the writing is well executed throughout. Most of the pieces deal with the way in which the author related to comics as a youngster. Thereís a lot about the great Marvel-DC rivalry. I liked comics as a kid, but wasnít a rabid fan like some of my friends. A good comic book can be a real friend.
William Michaelian: Indeed. The one we used to get years ago was Walt Disneyís Comics and Stories. My brothers read it, I read it, and our father read it. It made a fine companion under the shade of our walnut tree on a hot summer day. I just read about another interesting book. Have you heard of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton? Apparently, it contains something of everything under the sun. Burton was born in 1577. Thereís a shortened paperback version available ó it contains 1,392 pages. Hereís what the author says on the title page:
The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, with all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of It. In Three Partitions. With Their Severall Sections, Members, and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up. By Democritus Junior. To Which is Prefixed, A Satyricall Preface, Conducing to the Following Discourse.
And hereís a short excerpt on those afflicted with loverís melancholia:
Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen jugglerís platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squisíd cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, nare simo patuloque [snub and flat nose], a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witchís beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin. . . .
According to the article, Burton was an Anglican priest, a scholar, and a librarian. What do you think? Instead of reading Proust after Finnegans Wake, maybe we should tackle this one.
John Berbrich: Kinda like reading a Thesaurus. Yuck. I feel slimy and gross and need a shower with lots of hot water. I like gubber-tushed, though. Iíll try that one at the office today as a compliment ó ďMy gubber-tushed cubicle neighbor, Suzie, can you go make another pot of coffee and run down to room 307 and grab me another brownie off Joyceís desk? Thanks.Ē
William Michaelian: Hmm. It almost sounds like you donít want to read the book. Okay, back to Proust it is. Or Farragoís similarly excessive work on dentistry, Remembrance of Things Flossed. That oneís only 4,000 pages. Of course, I realize this is all very foolish. Weíll never finish Finnegans Wake, it will finish us. I wouldnít mind reading We, though, that book by Zamyatin. And a couple of days ago, I chanced upon a nice used copy of Steinbeckís East of Eden for only two dollars and brought that one home. Itís only 600 pages and written in plain English, but my guess is itís still worth reading.
John Berbrich: Just so you know, I didnít try gubber-tushed on Suzie. She was experiencing a melancholic day of her own. She seems to suffer this malady in something like a monthly cycle. And speaking of floss, listen to this: ďOn another occasion, I searched everywhere for the Ďoriginalí of Eugene Sueís Mysteries of Paris and reluctantly settled for The Wandering Jew, an even more horrific farrago of malignant plots and tortuous intrigue, set in motion by Jesuits who would have scared the pantaloons off Torquemada.Ē Thatís from an essay by Gary Giddins on the old Classics Illustrated comic book series. Sounds like the evil dentist is making a comeback ó thatís two mentions in only 20 pages.
William Michaelian: Truly inspiring. I think we proved long ago that a great comic could be built on Farrago. The name is perfect, and when we combine that with peopleís deep-seated fear of dentistry, how can we go wrong? And thatís some interesting writing by Gary Giddins. If this keeps up, I might have to grab a copy of the book myself. I mean, I donít always have to read epic tomes or sixteenth century laundry lists. Fact is, Iíve been known to bring home some wide-ranging material, including books on horse-racing, roulette, studies of the human brain, yoga, photography, and the manufacture of cigars. I do prefer, however, when several of these subjects are combined. The Yoga of Cigars. Excuse me ó mind if I smoke?
John Berbrich: Go right ahead. Mind if I inhale? Did you ever watch the old TV show, The Addams Family? The wife Morticia would occasionally say to a visitor, ďMind if I smoke?Ē After the guest nodded his approbation, wreaths of smoke would emanate from Morticia. So, Willie ó you can smoke in any way you choose. Giddins, by the way, wrote a column for the Village Voice for years, so heís quite familiar with pens and words and stuff. This book is worth reading simply for the high quality of the writing. Edited by Sean Howe. 2004, Pantheon Books, a trademark of Random House.
William Michaelian: Excellent. Iíll make a note of it ó right alongside my reminder to buy more Consolidated Dust. But whatever you do, donít speak French ó it drives me wild. Ah, yes. The lovely Morticia, and her charming husband Gomez, taking already-lit cigars out of his pocket and smoking them while standing on his head. What child-like enthusiasm. He was brilliant, as was the butler, Lurch. You rang?
John Berbrich: I see you were a fan. Gomez was the show, though, & you hit it on the head w/ your ďchild-like enthusiasmĒ remark. He loved his life more than anyone else. Ironically the Addamses were possibly the most well-adjusted family on TV. And they stuck together. A heart-warming program.
William Michaelian: And letís not forget Uncle Fester, played by Jackie Coogan, who also appeared in several of the old ďPerry MasonĒ episodes. He, too, seemed to be enjoying himself. But, as you said, Gomez Addams was the show, with his inspired cigar-smoking, fencing, and dancing. So. Moving along, I see that Garrison Keillor included a poem by one of your chapbook authors, Nancy Henry, on his daily literary program, ďThe Writerís Almanac.Ē Congratulations to both of you.
John Berbrich: Thanks. It was really a surprise when Mr. Keillorís secretary called our house. I wasnít home, but Nancy was. She then drove all the way to town, 13 miles, to tell me. Iím especially glad for Nancy Henry. Sheís a talented, hard-working poet, & deserves any bit of recognition she gets.
William Michaelian: I enjoyed her 2002 chapbook, Anything Can Happen, and I look forward to reading her new chap, Hard, which contains the poem Garrison Keillor read on his program. Thatís a good thing he does, reading a poem on the radio every day, and talking about things that happened on that date in literary history. Itís similar to Today in Literature, though not quite as extensive. A nice daily dose. Every once in awhile, Iíll catch a bit of his ďPrairie Home Companion.Ē I get a kick out of Guy Noir, Private Eye, and all the sound effects that other guy makes ó his name slips my mind.
John Berbrich: Yeah, that is a good show; I listen to it occasionally. Listen, we had a great time last night at a hockey game in Potsdam. Clarkson University hosted Cornell, one of the top teams in the ECAC, & emerged victorious, 3-1. I love going to those games, there is just so much energy in the air. For the pre-game show, both pep bands were going at it like crazy with brass & drums, while the PA system blared some raunchy rock music and both teams skated around smacking pucks at the goalies, just warming up. The air was electric. The schools up here go nuts for hockey.
William Michaelian: Iíll be darned. I didnít know you were a hockey fan. Thatís one game I never really got worked up about, though I attended a few many years ago. But if the conditions are right, as you described, and the teams arenít just going through the motions, it can be quite a spectacle. Itís something when you think about it, that such a wild game can take place on a field of ice ó the coordination, speed, and balance required are amazing. Did you ever learn to skate, by any chance?
John Berbrich: Me? No way. I canít even stand up straight on skates, much less actually glide anywhere. No, no ó I prefer a pair of sneakers, barefoot is better, weather permitting. And about the hockey, Iím not really a fan. We go to a game every year or two, just for the experience. Of course, itís always extra fun when the home team wins. Plus the radio station that Howie & the Wolfman broadcast from is on the Clarkson campus, so itís hard sometimes not to get caught up in the excitement, plus we give hockey scores as part of our sports coverage so in that way I at least know if we have a good team or a crummy team in any particular season. I never watch professional hockey. Something about salaries, steroids, & media coverage has ruined pro sports for me.
William Michaelian: Iíve pretty much given up on professional sports myself, for exactly the same reasons. It makes no sense to sit and watch a bunch of multi-millionaires strutting for the camera, sometimes trying and sometimes not, and to watch them being fawned over in predictable interviews by adoring sports announcers. Itís a far cry from sitting in Candlestick Park and watching Mays, McCovey, and Marichal, and listening to the vendors yell ďCold beer! Get your red-hots! Peanuts!Ē As for ice-skating, Iíve never even tried, and wonít. Havenít skied, either, on snow or on water. And I wonít jump out of an airplane, unless it has already landed. But I love to hike in the mountains.
John Berbrich: I tried some cross country skiing a long time ago. The attempt was brief & not repeated. I didnít get my driverís license until I was 34. Always preferred to be on my feet, or traveling by thumb. I have done some mountain climbing & highly recommend it. Regarding sports, there was a good article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago. The writer was saying that the big change in players in all sports these days is that they are huge. There is a gigantic chasm between player & spectator. In the old days, every neighborhood had some guy who just missed it with some team, wasnít quite fast enough or whatever, but he had a real shot. A guy who really worked hard had a chance, or at least a decent chance in his dreams. These days pros look like they belong to a different species.
William Michaelian: Kind of like writers, in other words. Thatís one thing we donít have to worry about, I guess. There will always be room in the Writers League for a seedy person with bloodshot eyes. So. I made it to Page 300 today. Almost done with that weird chapter with the footnotes and colophons. Iíve also been reading a little about William Saroyan, a biography sent to my brother a few weeks ago by a distant relative in Fresno. I just read that in the Thirties, when he visited Europe, he contacted James Joyce to arrange a meeting. When Joyce agreed, and said heíd be free in a few days, Saroyan decided he didnít want to wait that long and continued on his journey. I donít know yet if they got together later or not. He did exchange a few letters with Hemingway early in his career, but the two didnít hit it off.
John Berbrich: I really know nothing about Saroyan, other than the little bits youíve mentioned. Whatís the scoop?
William Michaelian: Well, letís see. He was born in 1908 in Fresno, and died there in 1981. His family was from Armenia, and arrived here before the 1915 genocide that claimed over a million lives. When he was only three years old, his father died of a ruptured appendix, and for a time it was necessary for his mother to place her children in an orphanage near San Francisco while she worked as a housekeeper. The family was reunited a few years later. They rented a house in Fresno, and Saroyan sold newspapers on street corners. Later, he became a bicycle messenger for the telegraph company. He drew on that experience for one of his best known novels, The Human Comedy, which came out in the early Forties and also became a movie, for which he wrote the screenplay and won an Academy award. But he was really best with the short story form. In 1933, he caught the attention of Whit Burnett at Story, a magazine that was publishing some of the best fiction in those days. They published ďThe Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,Ē and that got things going. In 1934, Random House published a collection of twenty-six stories that went to several printings and made his name. The stories in that collection are amazing ó spontaneous, poetic, free-flowing, funny, angry, sad. His most enduring collection ó in fact, like The Human Comedy, itís never been out of print ó is a book set in Fresno called My Name Is Aram. It is so unified it nearly stands as a novel. Several of the pieces appeared in the Atlantic. He also wrote several prize-winning plays, including My Heartís in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life. Later in life, he turned to the memoir. A supremely confident man ó many thought him arrogant, even impossible ó with a warm, intelligent voice, and a sympathy for the underdog.
John Berbrich: Wow. Willie, you should be writing entries for Great Authors of the Twentieth Century or something. That was a beautiful, concise, factual, and sympathetic account. From what you said, Saroyanís soul would have either been shattered to pieces or pounded into a remarkably healthy shape by his early experiences. Have you read his memoirs?
William Michaelian: Most of them. You can read about Saroyan on my Favorite Books & Authors page ó heís the first entry, just beneath my introductory blather at the top. At the bottom of the entry, thereís a link called More Saroyan, and on that page I blab about several of his nonfiction works. Both pages have plenty of excerpts, so you can get a good taste of his writing. But now I must confess, when it comes to Saroyan I have a slight advantage. He was my grandmotherís first cousin, and over the years he visited our house several times.
John Berbrich: Really? Willie, youíve been holding out on me. Do you have some precious personal memories youíd like to share? Or perhaps you saw yourself or a family member in one of his stories?
William Michaelian: He often wrote of family members ó cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmothers. My parents were mentioned by name in a book of journal entries back in 1968, on a day when he visited our house and arrived with a trunk-load of extremely heavy boulders heíd wrestled up the steep bank of a dry riverbed between our place and Fresno. Everywhere he went, he collected things ó fruit, twigs, shells, weeds, you name it. He took them home, studied them, and watched them slowly deteriorate. Once, he ate some toadstools he found growing in our front lawn, and had high praise for a little comic book I had written and illustrated and stapled together when I was about ten. He said it was the best thing heíd ever seen. He was widely read, of course, and seemed to know something about every subject. He was a reckless, entertaining gambler who always attracted a crowd. Distrusted governments, hated war. He also had an enormous mustache, and the loudest voice of any human being Iíve ever heard. I could go on and on. He was a relative. When he was around, he never talked about his accomplishments or fame. Like our other relatives, he simply sat at our table, told stories, and felt no pain.
John Berbrich: That is so cool. Those are wonderful memories. Too bad he wasnít around to share some of your poems & stories with. I wonder if he read Joyce & just what he thought of it. Did he have any kids, do you know?
William Michaelian: Yes, a son and a daughter. The daughter is no longer living. And there are some grandchildren, but weíve never met. Iím sure he read Joyce, which is one of the reasons he wanted to meet him way back when. He met George Bernard Shaw, and a great many other writers, actors, directors, and so on. In the book Iím sort of reading, it says he and Steinbeck were drinking buddies for a time ó a couple of valley boys, one from Fresno, the other from Salinas. And are you familiar with that song Rosemary Clooney sang years ago, ďCome On-a My House?Ē That was written by Willie ó yes, thatís what we called him ó and his cousin, Ross Bagdsarian, who went on to create the cartoon characters Alvin and the Chipmunks. A crazy, entertaining bunch. And there are several other artist-types in the family ó poets, writers, painters, musicians. None of us are really normal, in the usual disgusting sense of the word. We always find a way to turn things into a circus, as I believe I have demonstrated a time or two, and plan to go on demonstrating until Iím carted away, or dumped into a ditch, or whatever my fate turns out to be.
John Berbrich: Well, Willie, that is really cool. I find it fascinating. Yes, I know that Clooney song. I have an album by a strange Los Angeles rock band called Sparks; the name of the recording is Kimono my House. Anyway. Thanks again for the lowdown on Mr. Saroyan. I have one writer in my family that I know of. Thatís my Aunt Joan, my fatherís sister. Only she was an academic, a high school and college English teacher. Actually a professor ó she graduated from Columbia in New York. Google her name, Joan Berbrich, & youíll find a lot of publications. She had some 23 books published, most of them text books w/ titles like, How to Write about Fascinating Things, Fun w/ Grammar, How to Write about People, which were published by Amsco. Some of them are still used in the schools. She wrote a number of mystery novels that never achieved publication.
William Michaelian: I just looked her up. I see she also had a book called Laugh Your Way Through Grammar. I can remember doing just that when I was in school. Did you read any of her mysteries? And what did she think of your own writing and publishing endeavors? Iíll bet she was pleased and full of encouragement.
John Berbrich: Unfortunately she passed on in 1995; we started publishing in 1997. But she had read my poems & stories & said that I had the best feel for language in the family. I do wish that we could have shared BoneWorld. I never read the mysteries; my younger sister typed in the manuscripts & told me that they werenít really very good. Aunt Joan was a smart woman, always studying things. She dearly loved Shakespeare, but conceded that he was only the second greatest writer ever, behind Dante. And something else: I remember when she read Finnegans Wake ó she had 17 reference books piled around her which she consulted while reading Joyceís pages. She concluded that the book really didnít have any deep meaning, that Joyce was merely fooling around & having fun. Hmmmmm.....
William Michaelian: Well, itís hard to disagree. Never argue with your Aunt Joan, honey, or sheíll clobber you with reference books. It certainly must have meant something to Joyce. Maybe it was his lifeline ó the way he kept sane in this strange world. I find myself that it has a calming effect. Listening to the text, even for just a few minutes, is like sitting beside a mountain stream ó meaning is beside the point. Maybe part of his idea was to take the reader away from meaning, to help him start over, in a sense.
John Berbrich: Well, that certainly could be. I know that sometimes the kids have friends over the house at night. Iíll be trying to sleep & those guys are talking & laughing & playing music ó &, you know, it all seems so peaceful, like that mountain stream you mentioned. It all has nothing to do with meaning. The tumultuous cavalcade of sound has its effect. I relax & I sleep.
William Michaelian: Beautiful. Thatís the way it is in our house. Our youngest son ó the one youíll be touring with on your coast-to-coast poetry readings ó routinely stays up until about four in the morning, playing his guitar and singing. Sometimes I sleep through it. But on most nights, Iíll wake up somewhere along the line and listen for awhile, or drift in and out of sleep to the sound. I love it. Itís inspiring to have that sort of thing going on under oneís roof.
John Berbrich: It is. I love falling asleep to the sound of wind or rain, or a speaking voice. Low music, a guitar, a keyboard. Maybe even a trumpet, far off. Or traffic, a steady flow of vehicles moving past on a rainy night, the hiss of water spinning off the tires. Nothing can top a train whistle heard at night from a few miles away, like the love call of a lonely dinosaur.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. But you know, this is interesting, because it assumes one thing, and that one thing is very important ó that we have shelter. These things would sound much different to someone without a home or a safe place to stay. At the same time, having a home is often not enough to ward off a feeling of homelessness.
John Berbrich: Right. Iíve been wet and cold before, so I feel compelled to agree. Not to change the subject, but I had a good laugh today. Do you remember I told you about that journal The New Formalist? Of course you do. In the latest From the Marrow I called their reviews ďcranky,Ē & a bit frightening. Well, I sent them a copy of the Marrow. Today I received a small package from the editor David Castleman in which I found a tiny 48-page chapbook containing a lone story entitled ďHead,Ē plus a 90-page paperback of short stories, both by Castleman. Here is the entirety of the note he included: ďDear John: I am crushed crushed that youíd call us Ďcranky.í All the best, Dave.Ē I cracked up when I saw that. What a wonderful world is the small press.
William Michaelian: Yes, direct dealing and always cutting to the heart of the matter ó spontaneous notes on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper, cigarette burns acting as punctuation marks, handwritten publishing agreements three sentences long and which might or might not include the following clause: ďIf we make any money, weíll send you some.Ē The best part here is that you have two more books to read. I canít wait to see the reviews.
John Berbrich: Oh youíll see them. Nice looking books, with ISBNís and everything. But hereís some sad news ó do you remember Ralph Hasselman Jr., the fellow who ran the small press zine Lucid Moon for years? Well, he died recently. I havenít been able to pin down a precise date, but I estimate right at the end of this past January, less than three weeks ago. Ralph had been in bed for several years, paralyzed by a car wreck. He still ran Lucid Moon on-line. We had published some of his poems years ago in both the Yawp and the Synergyst. He was a character, an enthusiastic and tireless promoter of young writers. He always encouraged us when we were starting out. His dates are 1966-2006.
William Michaelian: Just forty years. A shame. I never had any dealings with Ralph, but I do remember his name. I donít think Iíve seen a print version of Lucid Moon. Wait. Thereís a note from Ralph, Sr., on the Lucid Moon website that says, among other things, that Ralph, Jr., passed away on February 2.
John Berbrich: Lucid Moon began life as a small almost newsletter sorta thing. It grew into a monster, swelling to over 350 pages at one point. Ralph used these heavy industrial staples that looked like they could hold steel I-beams together. Everything was photocopied: quintessential small press. Of course the quality was both questionable & variable, but as I said it was a fine venue for young authors. You could find some crazy stuff in its many pages. Lucid Moon was redolent with the enthusiasm of Ralph.
William Michaelian: Wow ó 350 pages is enthusiastic. I love the sound of those staples. He must have gotten them from a roofing supply store. And when you pry open a zine like that, who knows what or who will jump out ó smoke, voices, crowd noise, maybe even the smell of hot dogs with everything on them. Imagine one of those arriving on your doorstep in the morning, left by a mysterious rider who laughs heartily as the zine lands thump! against your door. You know itís going to be a good day.
John Berbrich: Thatís a good way to put it. Just donít let that thrown zine hit you in the head! Ah yes, Ralphy was all enthusiasm. In the front of each issue heíd tell exactly what music he listened to as he assembled the poems & drawings & bits of this & that: Jimi Hendrix, R.E.M., Talking Heads, whatever. It sounds like a photocopier party. Beer & cigars & great music & poetry. Howís that mall coming theyíre building near you?
William Michaelian: Oh, God. What a disaster. Road work, racket, mud, standing water ó it looks like an open mine crawling with hideous metallic worms. Of course, we canít wait until itís open. Weíre dying to shop. Say, I just read that the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis, wrote a 33,333-line sequel to the Odyssey. Sounds like quite a bold undertaking.
John Berbrich: Really? Now why didnít anyone ever tell me that before? I loved the Odyssey & always wondered what happened to old Odysseus & Penelope after all the hoopla about the Trojan War & the slaying of the suitors died down. The only follow-up that I remember reading was Tennysonís magnificent poem ďUlyssesĒ in which the wily warrior returns to the sea with his old companions, looking for adventure and a new world.
William Michaelian: I havenít read that. That makes two sequels I need to read ó as well as Zorba, not to mention his other book, The Last Temptation of Christ. The article said Kazantzakis also translated Goethe and Dante, and that when he was writing Zorba during World War II in occupied Greece, he and his wife were starving and had to stay in bed to conserve energy. He was about sixty at the time.
John Berbrich: Wow. That is dedication. Never read anything by Kazantzakis. But really, ďUlyssesĒ is Tennysonís best. Itís only about a page & a half. And it doesnít rhyme, somewhat unusual for a Tennyson poem. Iíll never forget the first time I read it, like 15 years ago. It was about 3:00 in the morning & I couldnít sleep. I got up, went down to the kitchen & lit an oil lamp. Then I opened a beautiful hardcover collection of Romantic & Victorian poetry, selecting ďUlyssesĒ at random. It was an experience Iíll never forget. Sound familiar? I think Iíve told you this story before, pages & pages ago.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes. You did mention staying up and eating cereal by the light of an oil lamp ó cereal with wheat germ, I believe. The good news is, I just found ďUlyssesĒ in a free book I picked up a couple of years ago called The Book of Living Verse. I thought it might be in there. The poem is truly wonderful, as these four lines from about three-quarters of the way through demonstrate, followed by the six lines at the very end:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
* * *
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,ó
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Itís inspiring, really. Now Iíd like to get my hands on that Kazantzakis sequel.
John Berbrich: I just love that Tennyson poem. He has bright spots now & then elsewhere, but ďUlyssesĒ shines like a beacon. Poe called Lord Tennyson the noblest poet who ever lived. Now, regarding Kazantzakisís book ó is that a translation, do you know?
William Michaelian: Apparently he wrote some of his novels in French, but the most famous works were written in the language of the Cretan working classes. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, was published in 1938. It was translated from Greek by Kimon Friar.
John Berbrich: Well, if you get a hold of a copy, let me know how it is. I finished that book of poetry by MacNeice plus a lavishly illustrated book called Poets on the Peaks, an account of Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac working as fire lookouts in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950ís. Lots of spectacular photographs of the Cascades and some nice shots of the poets too. Very interesting stuff.
William Michaelian: I read that book about three years ago, I think it was. Borrowed it from the library. Nicely done. What an experience it must have been to spend several weeks in one of those remote fire-watch cabins. And you donít know how something like that will affect you until youíre actually there, and left all alone. Back to Kazantzakis, I bought a copy of Zorba the Greek today at a used book store. Almost got The Last Temptation of Christ too, but decided to put it off for the time being. Unfortunately, they didnít have a copy of his Odyssey sequel. Maybe Iíll try Borders one of these days. But guess what else I found ó Zamyatinís We. So once again, the reading material is stacking up, especially considering that I also have East of Eden waiting in the wings. And then thereís Finnegan. Are you making any progress there? Iíve officially passed the halfway point, but not by much.
John Berbrich: Progress has been unaccountably slow. Iím on page 197. Nearly 1/3 through. At the same time Iím reading something called The Book of Blarney, which just might help to explain Finnegan. The Irish do seem blessed with a certain linguistic gift.
William Michaelian: The Book of Blarney, eh? Thereís a wide-open title for you. Whatís it about?
John Berbrich: It seems to be a light-hearted but basically factual book about the magic of Ireland ó Irish character, the knack for language, vague historical anecdotes, et cetera. As for what Blarney itself is, well, Iíll let author Anthony Butler tell you: ďItís words, gestures, and atmosphere; itís verbal psychiatry when the subject is stretched on the couch of conversation and environment. One thing ó itís no illusion, itís for real. It will seep into the marrow of your bones like a drug and whether we look for love, life or the pounds and dollars falling from your wallet like aged leaves in the gentle breeze of a moon-bronzed Autumn night ó it will work.Ē
William Michaelian: I like it. You know, his definition sounds like blarney itself, a cagey-seductive whisper in the ear. Okay, now I have an update on the Kazantzakis situation. Dollface and I happened to be in the neighborhood of Borders today, so we checked for his Odyssey sequel. No dice. Looked it up on the computer there; three copies were listed, two of which were out of print; a third, published in 2003, apparently, was available to be ordered for twenty bones. On our way out, we wandered into the Bargain Books section. And wouldnít you know it, there was a nice hefty collection of Yeats for $3.99. So we grabbed that and I added it to the pile.
John Berbrich: I always check out the Bargain Books too. Not at Borders very often though ó the nearest one is 55 miles away. Just two weeks ago I discovered that the Potsdam Public Library sells used books in its basement every Saturday morning from 10:00-1:00. I picked up five, plus a used CD of Retro Rock. Iím hot and cold on Yeats. Some of his work is remarkable for its clarity and power. The rest of it does absolutely nothing for me, in fact almost seems juvenile and silly. Youíre not about to drag me into reading this Kazantzakis book, are ye?
William Michaelian: Hey, you know me better than that. On the other hand, admit it ó a 33,333-line sequel to the Odyssey, one of your favorite books, is not something youíre going to miss. The trick will be finding the book. I havenít looked online yet, or at the library, for that matter, but Iím sure there are copies available. Iíll study the situation and file my report. Itís funny youíd mention Yeatsís juvenile poetry, because I found some late last night simply by opening the book. I also found some stuff that was pretty good. Iíve only read a couple of things by him, thatís why I got the book. Last night, after reading a few pages of Finnegans Wake, I started on We, and didnít stop until Iíd read fifty-eight pages. Itís well done, and keeps you turning the pages. So far, I think youíd like it.
John Berbrich: Oh, yes ó that one sounds great. Iíve seldom been disappointed by a Russian author. We is how long?
William Michaelian: Itís a small-format paperback of 232 pages. Quick reading, too ó in fact, I finished it already. Definitely worthwhile. If you like, after I make a few notes, I can mail it to you next week, and after you read it you can mail it back. Just say the word. And it seems there are quite a few copies of the Kazantzakis book available on Amazon, several of which are from a 1958 hardbound edition, more often than not the third printing. There are still a couple of places here in town I can check, though.
John Berbrich: Sure, pass it along. I promise to send it back. I prefer the sound of the Russian to the Greek, although Iím still working on the Irish. Say, have you received HARD yet?
William Michaelian: Nancy Henryís chapbook ó yes. And with any luck Iíll get to it this weekend. But I was expecting my copy to have a shiny sticker that says ďContains work selected by Garrison Keillor and read on the Writerís Almanac.Ē What gives?
John Berbrich: Our sub-minimum wage workers are slacking off. Looks like weíll be forced to cut rations again. Whatís become of my happy kingdom? Sometimes itís all so HARD.
William Michaelian: Nah, you just need a good advertising agency ó you know, a sensitive outfit that understands what youíre doing and why, that understands the small press, and then gets you on Oprah anyway. Then youíll really be in the chips. Thereíll be stickers all over your chapbooks, and your life will be turned into a movie, and donít forget the reading tour Iím organizing ó youíll be famous, I tell you, famous.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I was gonna say that ó I thought you were my manager. Iím not sure I could handle being famous. Think of it ó photographers everywhere, smut journalists hiding under the bed, the IRS rapping on the door. Consider the tabloid scandals. Does sound like fun, in a way. Okay, Willie, thinking about all of this is making me tired. Iím gonna take a nap ó you start organizing things.
William Michaelian: Sure. Just leave everything to me. Iíll wake you up when itís over. Or you wake me. Come to think of it, it would be a shame if we both slept through it. What happens if we wake up twenty years from now and read about all the great things you did, and how famous you were? What if we wake up and everyone is reading poetry on street corners?
John Berbrich: That would be positively awful. We need a broad base of dull, normal people to act as a sort of background for the fabulous inspirational eccentricity of the poets. We need to write our own embellished autobiographies. Choose a year, say 2030, & tell the tale of your life looking back over the most recent 25 years or so as the most prolific ó a glittering manifestation of carpe diem, producing an amazing gallery of art both literary and plastic, idolized by dozens, appreciated by only the discerning few. Maybe we should hire Jian Brichiam to write it.
William Michaelian: It is highly unlikely heíd work for us, at any price. But it seems you are worried about competition. I mean, so everyone is an eccentric poet on a street corner ó in a sense, this isnít far from the truth anyway ó all you have to do is be a greater poet and more eccentric. What could be simpler?
John Berbrich: Iím not sure itís really the thought of competition that bothers me. Iím afraid things might fall apart. I mean, if everyone is wandering around on street corners mumbling poetry ó or even shouting it ó whoís gonna collect the taxes and pass new laws and conduct research on new technology thatíll make life even easier? If everyone becomes a poet, Willie, Iím afraid that Progress in this our Western military-industrial empire will come to an end. Surely you donít want this? Who would build the shopping malls?
William Michaelian: Youíre right. What kind of sick dream am I having? Street corners should be places for proclamations heralding our latest achievements: inventions in the name of convenience; death and destruction in the name of freedom; the opening of the newest, largest, shiniest mall. And the poets, of which there are certainly enough already, should be serving this cause, and working for its glorification, rather than writing the sappy stuff they write now. Ah, yes. Just wait until you read We. Itís all spelled out quite nicely.
John Berbrich: We. Oui? I mean, ja. Si. Itís late. Hope I finish that Blarney book soon.
William Michaelian: Da. It seems to be weighing heavily upon you. Maybe too much blarney is a dangerous thing ó a steady diet of blarney: blarney in the morning, blarney at noon, blarney in the evening, blarney in the month of June. But Zamyatin will snap you out of it, donít worry. Iím almost ready to send you the book, by the way. Is there anything else youíd like? A jar of marionberry jam, perhaps? A cigar or two? A selection of dried figs? I hear Oregon has a new poet laureate. Maybe I could send him. Lawson Fusao Inada is his name.
John Berbrich: Iíd guess Japanese except for that Lawson. Native American? Howís the poetry?
William Michaelian: Have only read a little, which I didnít find that appealing. A little abrasive, a little clever. But maybe Iíll find some more and give him a better chance. Your first guess was right. Heís a Sansei ó third-generation Japanese-American, born in Fresno in 1938. During the war, he and his family spent time in the camps ó first at the Fresno County Fairgrounds, then in Arkansas, and finally in Colorado. Regarding the name Lawson, the American first name was very common among the Japanese I knew in the San Joaquin Valley. Names like Dwight, Edwin, Kenneth, Keith, Eileen, and Elizabeth were typical, whereas middle names would be traditional Japanese names.
John Berbrich: Sounds like he had an unstable childhood. Years ago I read a beautiful novel by Joy Kogawa called Obasan. It was about a Japanese family spending time in the camps. They were nisei ó second generation. Well, good luck to Mr. Inada. May he wear his crown proudly. Our Laureate is still Billy Collins, I believe. A good poet, although some people Iíve met in the small press canít stand him. Jealousy?
William Michaelian: Probably in some cases. Although, obviously, itís a waste of time. Jealous of what? The bit of attention that goes with the job? The stipend? Or do they feel he has sold out in some way? Thatís a common, almost clichť sentiment ó and that, too, is often jealousy in disguise. To me, the real question is what does the individual poet laureate accomplish? Certainly there are laureates who treat the position as a strategic career move, a way to pad their so-called resumťs. And later on, when the dust settles, they will likely be forgotten. But there are other poets who take the job seriously, and maybe even wonder if they are doing more damage than good. Itís an interesting subject.
John Berbrich: Yeah. When he was poet laureate of the USA, Collins started that poem-a-day program in the schools, I forget exactly what itís called. I believe a poem was read over the PA system. Wait, thatís it ó ďPoetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools.Ē One poem once each school day. And the teachers were to ask no literary questions of the students, only to see what effect the poems had on them. Kids hate poetry due in part to the way itís taught. You develop a love for it, then analyze it to death. Itís always easy to take shots at the big guys, they make easy targets, but it seems that Collins was really trying to spread the word without self-aggrandizement. I donít know if the program is still in place or whether it had any effect, beneficial or otherwise.
William Michaelian: Well, either way, itís a neat idea. Iím sure it garnered some snickers from teachers and students alike, and gave some startling secret pleasure to others, which they still remember. Just selecting the poems would be an intriguing challenge. One thing you have to appreciate about Collins is that he doesnít lace his poems with obscure references in order to prove how smart he is. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake aside, time and again, it is proven that common language can be beautiful, meaningful, important, disturbing, and thought-provoking. So many poems are cold and distant because of their precision and vocabulary ó depth and beauty are murdered in order to preserve the ego. Possibility shrivels, dies on the vine.
John Berbrich: Well said, my friend. Words like defenestration & prolixity are great to use & fun to say, but they act as speedbumps to a reader. I find that pretty often while reading poetry for the magazine the simplest thoughts are often expressed in stilted language, using big obscure words in inverted order no less, that throw up barriers to understanding or to any sort of real feeling at all. What you want is the perfect word, not the biggest word. I agree with you. I too love mystery & wonder. I love unpacking an EE Cummings poem, for example. But really his vocab is pretty basic; he just has an odd way of putting his sentences together.
William Michaelian: Yes, especially when you consider the whole visual element. Well. Once again, weíre back at poetry. This is getting to be a habit. But as this page is more than full, itís a habit we will have to consider on the next.