The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 20 of my “forum.” The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from “intelligent” conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. That’s all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page — unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
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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: We were talking a little about Spoon River Anthology, published way back around 1915, I think it was, by Edgar Lee Masters. Indeed, the poems in this collection are strangely and quietly compelling. But then, I’ve always enjoyed walking through old graveyards and wondering about the life stories of the people buried there. J.B., you mentioned how tough people used to be, and how much things have changed, stating, “Vices become habits. Luxuries become necessities.” I’m curious. What effects, if any, do you think our life of modern convenience has on those of us laboring in the arts? What effect is it having on our work? Not just the way we go about it. Have we also softened in our thinking? Do we try for less? Are we more likely to settle? Are we less able to work through adversity? Have we adopted more of a short-term outlook?
John Berbrich: Very clever, asking like six questions at once. This is a gigantic & thorny region in which to tread. Modern conveniences give you more free time if they are used w/ intelligence. Most people I know are simply too busy to do anything really useful or creative. “Too much of nothing,” as Bob Dylan so eloquently expressed it. Regarding artists, well, every age has its artists, & ours is no different. I can’t begin to compare ours to the ancients. Genius emerges unexpectedly & sporadically, & artists always struggle, either against the world or against themselves; they wrestle w/ the Muse. We have plenty of adversity, although of a strange kind: the angst caused by a plethora of choices. Short-term outlook? Maybe — eternity is out of fashion at the moment.
William Michaelian: Maybe like a certain one of my father’s old ties that I remember fondly — a favorite of mine that, when I first discovered it in his closet over thirty years ago — it was already old then — I went into a sort of shock, it was so bright and so wide. I wore it several times back in the day. I was celebrating something: being alive, I guess. Sorry to blast you with so many questions. A bad habit of mine. But one question leads to the next, and it’s hard for me to stop. I do have faith in the unexpected and sporadic emergence of genius. And the artistic struggle, of course, will go on. And then there is the modern, psychological dimension of adversity. I knew you would see that. In many ways, it is much easier to struggle against the elements than it is against these invisible forces. Nowadays, it is common to be surrounded by other people, yet the average person is more isolated and alone than ever. Isolated and alone, and also afraid to be alone — afraid of solitude, which, in fact, can be a great healer.
John Berbrich: It’s a foreshadowing of death — which puts your life into perspective. Speaking of fashion, I’m reminded of a scene in Walden. Thoreau is at the tailor’s shop (a surprise in itself), telling the fellow how he wants his suit designed. The tailor shakes his head & protests, “but they do not wear them thus.” Thoreau wonders how what they wear could have any possible effect on his sartorial choice. We must become our own destinies, living in our own eternities, our own elements, inventing & following our own fashions. (Sound like Whitman?) The artist must be strong to follow his own vision. Ask all the questions you want, I was kidding. How static & dull if everyone followed fashion. Like insects, you can’t tell one from the other. But maybe insects can tell....
William Michaelian: Nah, they’re just a bunch of stupid bugs. We are the intelligent ones — we can crush bugs. And we can crush our fellow human beings like bugs, and then rationalize it. What really frightens me fashion-wise is the uniform, whether military, police, or cub scout, or the various corporate shirts and caps forced upon employees — uniforms give me the jitters. And really, when people fall prey on a mass scale to advertising and embrace current clothing fads and trends, they too end up in a kind of uniform. And speaking of Whitman, here’s another question: how do you pronounce Paumanok?
John Berbrich: It’s not a word one hears spoken very often, if ever. I could be all wrong, but I think I’ve heard mostly PAW-ma-nok.
William Michaelian: I figured that would be it, but I thought maybe the Pau part might be two syllables instead of one: Pah-oo-mah-nok. And then I was wondering about the nok part, whether it rhymes with knock or if the o is long. Either way, I like the word, and the way it looks in print. I’m now reading the first part of Whitman’s notes on the Civil War, about his visits with the wounded men. In one place, he makes note of seeing a pile of severed limbs and hands and feet. What an impression he creates. I also made it to Page 560 of Finnegans Wake earlier today. Wonderful book. The darned thing has almost become a way of life.
John Berbrich: Tis a heady goulash of tropes & puns. Thick air to breathe, quite a contrast to the reality blast of Whitman’s Civil War notes. In Leaves of Grass there is a section called “Drum Taps,” Civil War poems. While these poems are very moving, I prefer the simple prose account presented in Specimen Days. You can see the gaunt faces of those young soldiers. What did they think of it all, the slaughter, the butchery? It’s hard sometimes to imagine what life was like — everything was so far away back then, & communications moved so slowly. Driving through Virginia today one sees cattle grazing on slopes, fast food joints, affluent suburbs in the sun. Less than 150 years ago the place was a war zone. The hills rang w/ the echo of cannon blasts; the sky was darkened by smoke. Whitman captures the horror of it pretty vividly, along w/ tender human moments. He shows you the actual casualties, the boys dying for someone else’s reason. The man led quite a life.
William Michaelian: He did. He wasn’t content to be a spectator. He was a participant with a heart and keen powers of observation. And, bless him, he didn’t have to read Finnegans Wake, or try to make sense of Beckett. And yet, I suppose he paved the way for each, at least in part, for he was a mountain visible even from afar.
John Berbrich: Here’s a poem I love by Ezra Pound:
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.
William Michaelian: Excellent. It speaks volumes — about old Ezra, pride, humility, acknowledgement, and the need to forge ahead. And that really is the key, isn’t it — to see past the empty ruins in our thinking, and then to go on building.
John Berbrich: Yeah. If you stop & stagnate, you’ll see the past as like this museum of sacred artifacts, things always to be venerated. Well, you can acknowledge your debt to the past & then move along, discover your own genius. You have no idea where your path will lead until you take the first step. And then another and another. Not necessary to spend all of your time worshipping what’s gone on before. Create, celebrate the future! It’s coming, so make it a good one.
William Michaelian: That’s something people so often fail to realize — the power we have to create the positive. It’s easy to throw your hands up in despair, but no one wants to deal with the result. Better to use your energy doing your best work, whatever that work happens to be, and creating positive vibrations and connections for others to feed on and be inspired by.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah — we’re all in this together. It goes back to my theory of art — that triangle where you have artist, art object, & art appreciator at the three points. The ideal goal is that the art object inspires the art appreciator enough to nudge him to the next point, that of artist. This keeps the cycles turning, the new artist creating more art to inspire more new artists. It’s a perfect system. Each artist gives. And each appreciator takes until he can give. Of course this account does not exactly tell us what art is, but does outline a process of generation & proliferation. Perhaps art is any created thing that inspires.
William Michaelian: Really, that could be a good definition. The way I see it, living itself is the highest art to which we can aspire. If we are eager and observant and live and work creatively, we are artists, and are bound to inspire others. So many discussions of art assume that art is somehow superior to homemaking, for instance, or farming, or anything you can think of. I think that’s a mistake. Everything we do is art when it is done to the best of our ability, and done with love.
John Berbrich: I agree w/ you completely. Living well is the highest art. That is in itself a Whitmanesque idea. Read through his poetry & you’ll find he considers every form of life an art — even bankers & politicians, provided of course they operate in a decent manner. Like you said, do whatever you do w/ love & you won’t miss the mark very often.
William Michaelian: Better to miss the mark that way, than by trying to squash someone under your boot. Say, speaking of inspiration, have you sent out the spring issue of the Yawp yet?
John Berbrich: I worked on it today. We’re almost done. I think I can guarantee that they’ll all be mailed out by the end of May. There is so much going on, I sometimes feel like a man juggling porcupines, know what I mean?
William Michaelian: Oh, yes — I know exactly what you mean. I’ve grown quite accustomed to doing things in small bits. It can be frustrating, but it certainly teaches you to make use of the time you have. And it is proven time and again that good work can be accomplished in small increments. Your magazine is an example. Even the fact of its existence is inspiring. You breathe life into it, and it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
John Berbrich: Thanks, Willie. That’s the synergy part of it. That’s what E.E. Cummings was getting at when he said that 2 + 2 = 5. He wasn’t trying to be irrational & thumbing his nose at the scholarly oxen; he was talking about synergy, soul, magic, poetry. There are plenty of words for it, but they all add up to the same thing — way more than you’d expect! What’s the difference physically between a living person & a corpse? The parts are all still there. There’s some divine animating spark. That must be the thing we try to capture, & occasionally do, with art. The art of living, living well. With spirit, zest, creativity. I’m bouncing off the ceiling now.
William Michaelian: Oh? No wonder the magazine isn’t ready. But it beats believing you have to remain anchored in your chair. What a drab assumption. So. In addition to saying that art is a created thing that inspires, perhaps we can say it is a created thing that reminds — reminds us that the animating spark is in everything, everywhere, including ourselves. It reminds us, in other words, of what we already understood as children. And this reminder is what stirs us to action.
John Berbrich: We’re getting close now. Art reminds us that inspiration is possible — & found in all sorts of unlikely places. Plus art recreates earlier experiences of inspiration. The wonder of it all. Careful — you’ll bounce off the ceiling too.
William Michaelian: So be it. I don’t mind. As proof, here is a poem I wrote back in February — a tribute, perhaps, to this whole revolutionary process.
The Waiters (Long Live the Revolution)
Someday, my friend, we’ll have a table in the sun.
(There will be tables in abundance, I assure you.)
We’ll sit for hours, drinking, smoking, and talking about
Crazy street-side performers and newly minted books,
The balloon-man’s enormous mustache, and children’s eyes,
How they reflect musicians, poets, and colorful signs.
We’ll loudly discuss the uprising and other hysterical events,
The rapidly falling price of apple pies, cooking oil,
And a pound of éclairs, solé non broubon fondueliz, the girl on the stairs,
The uniformed men marching on Boomblatz Strasse,
All of them late for the train, brightly Phoooooooooo! sounds the whistle
Heedless of their solé fon armament, stomp, stomp, stomping
In their leather-gouted, maniacal shoes.
Have faith, I tell you, for the day will surely come:
Perhaps later, perhaps never, but certainly soon.
Be prepared: there will be more to say than there is to know.
See those men there? The arrogant ones with blood on their hands?
You can tell by their eyes they’ve lied on a thousand occasions.
Labor is beneath them: they thrive by deceit alone.
And the serfs at their elbows? We are here to chew their food.
How easy it would be to set fire to their hair! How paltry, yet grand!
My friend, these criminals are but a gust away from flames.
And you and I, by a lucky twist of parfait, are here to watch them burn.
John Berbrich: Good work, Willie. I love that, “Stomp, stomp, stomping.” I can hear those shoes on the pavement, as senseless & uncompromising as a machine.
William Michaelian: Thanks. I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but maybe there’s a hint of Vachel Lindsay there. And then there’s the made-up French which adds to the rhythm. Anyway. I’m nuts. So what else is new? Ah — your letter arrived today. Thanks for sending the article about the Russell Library. Very nice. I love small town news and small town newspapers. If I could, I’d subscribe to all of them, or at least several hundred, from different parts of the country. Your involvement in library doings is commendable — and not a surprise. One more porcupine to juggle, eh?
John Berbrich: Yeah. We had a meeting last night, in which not much got done. Our library is pretty cramped. It’s a small building, filled w/ shelves & shelves of books. We even have a few computers now. Anyway, the place is totally crowded & growing, so we need more space. We’ve been working on a building fund for a few years so we can add on; fund-raisers take a lot of time & don’t generate much cash. We write letters to legislators all the time — even wrote to Oprah! — looking for grant money. Even a small addition will be expensive. And we’ve run across a lot of strange esoteric legal issues during our research of who owns what & just who is responsible for that. To receive a grant from the state you need a plan for everything. This is perhaps good practical thinking, but it slows any apparent progress to a lethargic crawl. Very discouraging. And the thing is — we run the library, & never have to open a book. Never have time to open a book.
William Michaelian: Such involvements are both rewarding and frustrating. You know what needs to be done, and yet you can’t just do it. Simple, obvious solutions are always met with red tape. Maybe you can ask a retired couple with a large house to convert their premises into a library, and they can act as custodians and live in the basement. A childish notion, I suppose. An eccentric retired professor with time on his hands?
John Berbrich: A good idea, but retired professors don’t live in these hills. Listen to this: Backwaters Press of Omaha, Nebraska, has sent me for review a beautiful paperback of poetry called Dynamite on a China Plate by Jay Leeming, a BoneWorld alumnus. I was reading it in the coffeehouse in Potsdam tonight. For some reason I thought of you when I read these opening lines from “The Barber”:
The barber is someone who creates
by taking away, like a writer
who owns only an eraser.
He is like a construction company
that begins with a large office building
and ends up with a small wooden house.
I can easily imagine you writing these words, & I can imagine you drawing a picture of this poem too — some guy w/ a big mustache & a pair of shining clippers. I read half of the book tonight — it is really good.
William Michaelian: That’s always nice to hear. Oddly enough, the barber creating by taking away reminds me of the countless hours I spent years ago pruning in the vineyards and orchards on our family farm. Pruning is the same. In fact, I’ve said many times that I could be a good barber because of my pruning experience. I also write as I pruned, editing as I go. Fascinating. How many pages in the book? Has Backwaters Press been around for awhile?
John Berbrich: The book is a beautiful 87-page production with a full glossy cover & ISBN. I don’t know how long the press has been around, but the fact that Robert Bly & Naomi Shihab Nye have written blurbs on the back suggests that they have connections. Here’s a short one:
Sometimes when eating an apple
I bite too far
and open the little room
the lovers have prepared,
and the seeds fall
onto the kitchen floor
and I see
that they are tear-shaped.
William Michaelian: I like it. The poem accomplishes an important mission: it makes you look again, and draws your attention to the miracle. How can readers get a copy of the book?
John Berbrich: Okay, the address for Backwaters Press is 3502 North 52nd Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68104-3506. The price on the book is $16, & I suppose they’ll want something for shipping. Here’s another shorty:
Subway at Rush Hour
The slim Asian woman
with long black hair
gets off at Grand Street
I feel the warmth
her hand has left
on the metal pole
William Michaelian: Hmm. That’s nice too. But to me, the last three lines don’t sound quite right. This, maybe?
I feel the warmth
of her hand
on the metal pole
By leaving out “has left,” the fact of which is readily apparent anyway, the image of the hand becomes a little stronger. Then again, who asked me, right?
John Berbrich: Actually, Willie, you might be right. Either way the poem gives you something to ponder. Here’s a longish one:
Man Writes Poem
This just in a man has begun writing a poem
in a small room in Brooklyn. His curtains
are apparently blowing in the breeze. We go now
to our man Harry on the scene, what’s
the story down there Harry? “Well Chuck
he has begun the second stanza and seems
to be doing fine, he’s using a blue pen, most
poets these days use blue or black ink so blue
is a fine choice. His curtains are indeed blowing
in a breeze of some kind and what’s more his radiator
is ‘whistling’ somewhat. No metaphors have been written yet,
but I’m sure he’s rummaging around down there
in the tin cans of his soul and will turn up something
for us soon. Hang on—just breaking news here Chuck,
there are ‘birds singing’ outside his window, and a car
with a bad muffler has just gone by. Yes...definitely
a confirmation on the singing birds.” Excuse me Harry
but the poem seems to be taking on a very auditory quality
at this point wouldn’t you say? “Yes Chuck, you’re right,
but after years of experience I would hesitate to predict
exactly where this poem is going to go. Why I remember
being on the scene with Frost in ’47 and with Stevens in ’53,
and if there’s one thing about poems these days it’s that
hang on, something’s happening here, he’s just compared the curtains
to his mother, and he’s described the radiator as ‘Roaring deep
with the red walrus of History.’ Now that’s a key line,
especially appearing here, somewhat late in the poem,
when all of the similes are about to go home. In fact he seems
a bit knocked out with the effort of writing that line,
and who wouldn’t be? Looks like...yes, he’s put down his pen
and has gone to brush his teeth. Back to you, Chuck.” Well
thanks Harry. Wow, the life of the artist. That’s it for now,
but we’ll keep you informed of more details as they arise.
William Michaelian: Whew. I’m exhausted. Still, it’s good to be informed, especially by veteran reporters who saw Frost and Stevens in action. Guys like that always get it right, even though they have no idea of what’s really going on. Poor Jay Leeming, talking to himself. I know the feeling well. Does the poet write the poem, or does the poem write the poet?
John Berbrich: Seems like they hold hands & walk together. Here’s one more, a prose poem:
An oar is a paddle with a home. This arrangement seems awkward at first, as if it were wrong; the wood knocks in the oarlock, and would much rather be a church steeple, or the propeller of an old airplane in France. Yet as it bites deep into the wave it settles down, deciding that the axe and the carpenter were right. And you, too, are supposed to be sitting this way, back turned to what you want, watching your history unravel across the waves as your legs brush against the gunnels. Your feet are restless, wanting to be more involved. But your back is what gets you there, closer to what finally surprises you from behind: waves lapping at the shore, the soft nuzzle of sand.
William Michaelian: Yep. I’ll go along with that. Nicely woven piece, with a nice rhythm and sound. What part of the country is Jay Leeming from? Has he moved around much, or do you know?
John Berbrich: Jay grew up in Ithaca (echoes of The Odyssey), New York. He spent eight years living in Minnesota playing in rock bands, then moved to Brooklyn. That’s all I know. This info comes from a letter he wrote me back in October 2000.
William Michaelian: Ithaca, Minnesota, Brooklyn. Saroyan’s novel, The Human Comedy — a title he borrowed from Balzac — is set in Fresno. But instead of calling the town Fresno, he calls it Ithaca. And the main character, a young boy who delivers telegrams on his bicycle, is called Homer. And Homer’s little brother’s name is Ulysses.
John Berbrich: I actually have a review that appeared in the New York Times when The Human Comedy was published. The review was written by Wallace Stegner, dated February 28th, 1943. Stegner says: “It is profoundly romantic, deeply sentimental, indiscriminately compassionate, full of the curiosity of childhood and the naivete which sometimes disturbingly approaches wisdom and sometimes only appears to.”
William Michaelian: Interesting. A mirage or a mouthful, I’m not sure which. How long is the review, and how did you come by it?
John Berbrich: It’s in a collection I have of selected New York Times book reviews from 1860 to 1961. I’ve had the book for years. Saroyan is sandwiched chronologically between Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) & Animal Farm by George Orwell (1946). Pretty good company. Also reviewed are such seminal works as Tom Sawyer, Catcher in the Rye, & Leaves of Grass. Saroyan’s review is two pages and includes four cool photos of him. I’ll try to photocopy it, but the book is an oversized paperback published in 1964 & I don’t wanna break the spine. I’ll try.
William Michaelian: Thanks, but I don’t want you to do anything that would shorten the life of the book. Better just skip it. I’ll read it when I come for a visit in 2022. Have you read Catcher in the Rye? I did several years ago, when our daughter was reading it in high school. I don’t remember many details, but I do remember not being overly impressed.
John Berbrich: I really enjoyed Catcher in the Rye. I loved the slangy, wiseguy style of it. Some lines & scenes stand out vividly in my mind. Plus I’ve been to many of the places mentioned in the Manhattan narrative section & therefore can see those very clearly. I don’t know if it’s a classic or not, but I liked it. Salinger has a very convincing way w/ ordinary dialogue.
William Michaelian: I’ve read snippets of his stories, and that seemed to be the case. Looking back, I think my general feeling was that Catcher in the Rye was somewhat overrated, probably because of its huge reputation, kind of like The Great Gatsby. Both, I know, have their ardent defenders. Different writers altogether, of course. From the little I’ve read about F. Scott Fitzgerald, I gather he sincerely wanted to write good books. Plenty of sadness in his life. Salinger, I don’t know. I liked Catcher in the Rye a lot more than Gatsby. There was more to it. The story had to be a novel, whereas Gatsby was a novel that could have been a short story.
John Berbrich: For some reason I’ve never read Gatsby. Fitzgerald I’ve always avoided. We’ve discussed this before, many pages ago, authors we’ve never gotten around to reading because the name was unappealing or the author had a funny face. Evelyn Waugh is an example of the former. I’ve read a couple of Salinger’s short story collections w/ pleasure. They all seem to be related, like each is a section of a large mosaic, but I can’t see the big picture yet. I think that Salinger might still be living; at least I haven’t heard of his demise.
William Michaelian: I’m pretty sure he’s still around. Well, not around around, since he’s an official recluse. Maybe he’s even a registered recluse, and a member of the Society of Recluses. Doesn’t attend the meetings, of course. We can add Willa Cather to the list of authors I will probably never read. No particular reason. How about Theodore Dreiser?
John Berbrich: I’ve heard good & bad about Dreiser, & the good to me sounded mostly dull. His books look fat & uninviting. I’d sooner read Cather, I think, although I’ve been pretty successful at avoiding her thus far & I see no reason to change that situation. How about Lord Dunsany? It’s a pretty good name, you have to admit.
William Michaelian: Lord Dunsany? Never heard of him. Is he also someone you’ve been avoiding?
John Berbrich: No, he’s someone I’ve been looking for. Someday I’ll come across him in an old bookstore, on a dusty shelf, surrounded by his forgotten friends. We’ll throw a little party.
William Michaelian: They’ll be grateful, I’m sure. By now, they could probably use a drink. And Virginia Woolf? For years now, I’ve been meaning to bring home one of her books, but I never have. Maybe I’m only fooling myself.
John Berbrich: I read one of her novels, Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps a decade ago. It was a pretty good book, I suppose. I recall several scheming females & a man who committed suicide by falling from a window. He landed on a fence, I believe, in what seemed like a very painful demise. The image stuck in my head for days &, as you can see, it’s still there. But I’m not afraid of Virginia Woolf & may try her out again.
William Michaelian: I like your review: “It was a pretty good book, I suppose.” As a matter of fact, it was less than a month ago that I saw a book of hers at a store here in town: To the Lighthouse. Why didn’t I buy it? If it’s still there the next time I go, maybe I’ll go ahead and get it — that is, unless I decide to read the collected works of Edith Wharton first.
John Berbrich: I have To the Lighthouse but haven’t read it yet. We have a few Whartons on our shelves, but I’ve given them no more than a cursory glance. If I remember correctly, one is a reminiscence about growing up in old New York called A Backward Glance, a borrowing of part of Whitman’s phrase. That one should be interesting; at least it has possibilities.
William Michaelian: In that case, I’ll wait for your report. If it isn’t filed within ten years, then I’ll reconsider the situation. Speaking of New York, what do you think of Dorothy Parker?
John Berbrich: On our flight back from Utah in March I read a small pocket book comprising three of her short stories. I was very impressed w/ her technical skills. The dialogue is sharp & witty. Everything is straight lines, no wisps of mist. The characters are clearly drawn, & they are direct, as city people often are. High marks for Ms. Parker.
William Michaelian: I have a collection of her stories called Here Lies. She is everything you said, although in general, to me, the stories don’t seem to run very deep. Hers is definitely a city voice, street-wise and sharpened by the city’s sights, sounds, and busy human exchange. Street lights instead of stars. While we’re in this vein, there are a couple of other writers I wonder if you’ve read or know much about. One is poet Howard Nemerov, the other is Nelson Algren. I have a quote from each. When Nemerov was serving as poet laureate toward the end of his life, he apparently met often with high school students. When one asked him where he got his ideas, he said, “I don’t think a poem comes from an idea. Walking is good for poetic inspiration. Something drops on your head. You get the first line, see something, and it gives you the last line: ‘Goodbye,’ said the river. ‘I’m going downstream.’” Algren said, “A writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. The farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes.”
John Berbrich: Okay, I’ve read some Nemerov poems along the way w/ apparently few ill effects. He’s right about the unexpected suddenness of poetic inspiration, but I think that poems can emerge from ideas, although it may require, as he suggests, something dropping on your head to inspire poetic creation based on some long mulled-over thought. Nelson Algren. As far as I can remember, I’ve read only one story by him, “The Captain is a Card,” which I found in a collection of great fiction published by Esquire magazine. What a great, gritty, hard-boiled piece of writing. It’s the morning after a rough night in the precinct in some big Great Lake city, Detroit or Chicago. The police captain is going one by one through the crooks picked up the previous night. So we get miniatures of each criminal, his life, character, & milieu captured in a few paragraphs of description & dialogue. The captain is a bit of a joker, hence the title. “The Captain is a Card” has been a strong presence in my mind for 10 years.
William Michaelian: There’s a good picture of Algren in an old literary desk calendar I kept. He’s sitting on a concrete block under a bridge, leaning forward, elbows on knees, cigarette in his right hand, his feet next to a pile of trash. He’s wearing round glasses, and his hair is kind of a brush. The photo is by Robert McCullough. It’s a good composition, with light beyond, and two small windows on a sun-bleached wall. Very much fits the gritty type of writing you described. I’ve yet to read anything by him, but intend to. Nemerov I’ve heard of dozens of times, but I haven’t read him either. One of these days. I did read a story by Raymond Carver years ago that was pretty decent, but it didn’t make me go out and find more of his stuff.
John Berbrich: A few years ago I read a collection of his stories called Will You Please be Quiet, Please? It was generally pretty good, mostly concerning blue collar angst. This one story I loved, “Nobody Said Anything,” about this teenage boy who catches a big fish in a cold creek. The home life is messed up, of course. It’s a beautiful story, told straight.
William Michaelian: Sounds good. Straight or on the rocks — I like them both ways. Say, did you ever get back to Finnegans Wake? I thought of you earlier today when I started on the final chapter. I’m now on Page 599. Thirty pages to go.
John Berbrich: Aren’t you afraid to finish it in a way? I mean, what’s next? Fortunately the chapters are fairly lengthy. I’m still stuck at the halfway point, nearly done w/ the annotation chapter. My interests have wandered elsewhere. But I’ve not given up, nay.
William Michaelian: Well, all I can say is that I’ve enjoyed the book more and more as I’ve gone along. It is truly a rich experience. Many rooms, with many doors. Meanwhile, I’m still working on Specimen Days and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. My reading time is very limited lately, but I’ve managed to absorb at least two or three pages of each book a day.
John Berbrich: “Many rooms, with many doors.” I like that. Filled w/ opportunities, one might say. Adventure, tedium, mystery, the quotidian. What more can one ask of a book?
William Michaelian: Quotidian — wasn’t he a Roman emperor? Guards! Seize them! They were caught reading a book! Ogden Nash and Ambrose Bierce are a couple more I haven’t read. Erskine Caldwell? I read a story of his many years ago, but I remember nothing specific about it, not even the title. Since then, though, whenever I come across his name, a pleasant feeling arises — an association like the hint of sweet tobacco about an uncle’s old coat. Maybe it’s just the sound of his name.
John Berbrich: So many names. Like leaves in the wind. Leaves of grass in the wind. The wind in the willows. Of Ogden Nash I’ve read only some of his short poetry, those pithy, joky ones w/ a point. Of Bierce, I am familiar only w/ his numerous cynical definitions, as we discussed several pages ago. Now of Caldwell, I read a story by him years back. Can’t remember the name or subject, but, as you say, the lingering associations are positive. I do have five or six books by Nash & at least one by Caldwell. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a book by Bierce.
William Michaelian: That’s because they were seized and burned by Quotidian. I’d forgotten, we did talk about Bierce, and I have seen some of his definitions. And speaking of past subjects, I’m sure you remember talking about Louis MacNeice and his “An Eclogue for Christmas.” Well, as it happens, I heard from a reader in subsaharan Africa a couple of days ago. He said he has loved the poem for years, but lost the book it was in. While looking for information on the Internet, he stumbled onto our Conversation. He couldn’t find the entire poem online. Neither could I. Do you still have it?
John Berbrich: Yeah, I have the poem in its august entirety. If you give me your gentle reader’s address I’ll send off a copy, or I can mail it to you & you can complete the transaction. Just let me know. And I thought Quotidian was a Pope. Oh — that was Hilarious.
William Michaelian: Right. Followed by Jocularity, also known as Pope Pleasant I. So, just how long is “Eclogue”? Is it something you can photocopy, or would you have to type it in?
John Berbrich: The poems runs five pages. I should have no trouble photocopying it. So what’s next?
William Michaelian: Well, when it’s convenient, why don’t you mail it to me the old-fashioned way. Then I’ll type it up and e-mail the poem as a single chunk. And thank you. He’ll be delighted.
John Berbrich: Great. Send my regards to our African friend. “Eclogue” is my favorite poem in the collection. Say, we could start like an antique & junk shop for poems. Guy comes in, says he’s looking for an old sonnet, early 20th-century, post-Victorian, pre-Modern, sensibilities about to be dashed by World War One, slight French influence but no Surrealist blather yet, maybe something about an old house and an old tree, and the family that used to live there, well, they’ve gone their separate ways, but the tree, see, the tree remembers them & the house does too, in a way, & then one day maybe the little girl returns as a grown woman & there’s like this spiritual reunion between her & the tree & the house bursts into flames or something. Got something like that? Well, I can see you saying, we might have something over here, & next thing you know you’re crawling through a narrow corridor flanked by tall toppling stacks of books — hey wait a minute, that sounds like my house. But I can’t sell any of my books. However I could photocopy them. Could you see yourself doing something like this?
William Michaelian: It would be a nice hobby, after my fingers have become too gnarled to write, and my tongue too gnarled to give dictation. I love the atmosphere. By that time, I will even be finding poems in my beard, like bits of unremembered meals. And our loving wives will be in tiny apartments over the shop, brewing tea in quaint cups, sorting old photographs, painting, nursing stray animals back to health, and listening to Beethoven’s Ninth. Do you think we should tell them, or just let it all happen naturally?
John Berbrich: Oh, let it be a surprise. They could brew our beer, too, & be in charge of the still out back under the oaks. The ladies could also nurse old poems back to health, inserting & deleting commas, unmixing metaphors, & joining those poor infinitives split so long ago. I’m really developing a fondness for this plan, Willie. We’ll be on page 800 of the Forum by then. So many memories.
William Michaelian: Yep — only 780 pages to go: a veritable Finnegans Wake of possibility, reduced to a poetic mish-mash that will keep readers puzzled and entertained for ages. But the healing of old poems is bound to leave behind a certain amount of debris — stray iambs and the like. Maybe they can be combined and used to make some sort of Pound cake?
John Berbrich: Lovely. We must be sure to put plenty of Frosting on top. We can go down to the river & catch some trochees for breakfast. But this is all tripe. Tell me, do we still have regular readers of the Forum?
William Michaelian: Yes, the faithful are still with us. The number of casual and semi-regular visitors to these pages also continues to grow. There are a few reasons: information, curiosity, entertainment, and disbelief. Perhaps I delude myself, but I like to think some visitors even find it comforting to know there are a couple of willing souls chipping away at the universe and trying to see what makes it tick. But maybe the simplest and biggest reason of all is that we are enjoying ourselves and haven’t the sense to quit.
John Berbrich: I’m a little surprised more people don’t pop in & join us. What’s become of Hinshaw, I wonder, & that other poltroon Mr. Buster. We had some great parties in those days. I’m not ready to quit yet, that’s for sure. Still plenty of ground to cover, wilderness to explore, et cetera. How’s Spoon River coming?
William Michaelian: Hinshaw? What can I say? He used to check in on a semi-regular basis, but now it seems he’s drifted, possibly under the foolish assumption that he has a life. Buster, though, I can understand. Not every alley has an Internet connection. As for Spoon River, I’ve read over 200 pages now. That one is easy reading — a bit on the predictable side, I’ve found, but I’m still enjoying it. I like the premise, but occasionally I think, well, it would have been better if the poems were written in different, and, in some cases, less eloquent voices — in the voices of the deceased themselves. That approach would have presented Masters its own problems, of course. Also, he was a bit on the bitter side. It can hardly be called an optimistic book. But he was definitely in a satisfying groove.
John Berbrich: I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. While it may not be the best poetry book in the world, Spoon River is still a valuable creative piece, presenting possibilities.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. Another thing I like about it is the history it contains. And the names on the tombstones are classic: A.D. Blood, for instance, Cooney Potter, Homer Clapp, Jacob Goodpasture. One by one, the dead tell their secrets, and spill those of their neighbors. Some are enlightened in death, others are as arrogant and pigheaded as they were when they were alive.
John Berbrich: It’s as though death really hasn’t changed things all that much. The small town goes on & on, gossiping, enduring conflicts between the generations, marveling at its own remarkable kaleidoscope of characters, forever. Or as long as anyone is willing to read about it. Really quite a monument to one man’s vision.
William Michaelian: It is. And in that sense, Spoon River serves as the poet’s own epitaph. It’s a good way for a person to be remembered. Where else has your reading journey taken you lately?
John Berbrich: Well, let’s see. I’m 1/2-way through a poetry collection by Luis Rodriguez, The Concrete River, mostly about growing up in a Mexican neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Pretty good stuff, contains a few powerful narratives. And then there’s Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers, a memoir of his days growing up in Harlem in the 1940’s & 50’s. Myers is an author generally served up to teenagers in school. He’s a black author, but doesn’t concentrate on racial matters in his novels. He just tells stories. Bad Boy is a lovely account of his youth, containing lots of funny, endearing adventures. Myers does plenty of ridiculous things as a youth & gets into a great deal of mischief. It’s a troubled home life. He doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. I’m nearly 2/3 through — he’s about 15 right now.
William Michaelian: I haven’t read Rodriguez, but I recall that his book about gang life, Always Running, was quite successful, and also that it has been censored a number of times. An active fellow, writing, editing, publishing. Is The Concrete River the first book of his you’ve read?
John Berbrich: Yeah. It was suggested in a roundabout way by a BoneWorlder, a young woman whose opinion & taste I trust. I have a poetry CD w/ “Concrete River” on it, which I’ve played on the Howie & the Wolfman show. The book was originally published in 1991.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes — you can always count on the denizens of BoneWorld. Meanwhile, I just read on Today in Literature that Louis MacNeice was part of the strange group that lived at 7 Middagh Street, the Brooklyn boarding house run by George Davis, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Others were Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, and Gypsy Rose Lee. The article said one visitor described a typical evening as featuring “George naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth, Carson on the ground with half a gallon of sherry, and then Wynstan bursting in like a headmaster, announcing: ‘Now then, dinner!’” Naturally, I was thinking we could open a place like this along with our antique and junk poem shop.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah — we’ll have those apartments upstairs. This is starting to look pretty good, Willie. We’ll put those poets to work stapling Yawps. Then see if we can train them to operate the still & maintain our private brewery. We can clear out a corner of the shop & hold poetry readings & brew tastings. We could have a bacchanalian grand old time.
William Michaelian: What we’ll need is a spacious parlor on the ground floor, visible from the street through a large bare window, light flickering from within at odd hours, shadows on the walls. I doubt many of the poets would be able to make it upstairs. Or, if they did, we might not be able to get them down again. When I read the article, I had a hard time picturing MacNeice in that boarding house. I know nothing about him, of course, except for the stuff I made up when you first presented the sample of “Eclogue.”
John Berbrich: I don’t know much about the man either. Auden wrote a little personal introduction to the collection whence comes “Eclogue,” so I figured they were pals. Auden calls MacNeice’s poems “beautifully carpentered.” No biographical information is included. We need to make a pilgrimmage to the Middagh Street house & steal the doorknob or something, which we can later sell for a hefty profit in the antique and junk poem shop.
William Michaelian: Good idea. Come to think of it, we could have a whole room full of such memorabilia — stolen typewriters and piano keys, ashtrays, pipes, canes, floorboards, Joyce’s glasses, Saroyan’s bicycle, even Steinbeck’s old pickup if we can wrangle it. By the way, I told the fellow in Africa I’d be sending “Eclogue” one of these days. He thanked me and mentioned another poet he liked, Weldon Kees. Is that a name you recognize?
John Berbrich: Yeah. I have read some of his poetry but not much. He committed suicide in the early 50’s I think it was. Well, they found his car parked next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco & he was never seen again, so the assumption was that he had snuffed himself. His poetry struck me as early Beat, lonely & rambling. I might have one or two of his poems in a magazine somewhere in my office — if I can find one, I’ll send you a copy.
William Michaelian: Great — sounds like the antique and junk poem shop has already opened its doors. We might want to give the place a name. Then again, why should we? All we need out front is an address — but not the real address. One we’ve stolen from an obscure writer’s childhood home. Better yet, who was that lord you mentioned awhile back? Lord Tuscany? Lord Dunstan? We’ll take the numbers from the gatehouse on his family estate. While we’re at it, we might as well take the gatekeeper too.
John Berbrich: Willie — it sounds as though you’re about to adopt a life of crime, become a feared raider of cities like our old friend Odysseus. What do you want with the gatekeeper? I don’t know — for a name I kind of like The Antique and Junk Poem Shop. Maybe Shoppe. Man, if you saw that by the roadside you’d have to stop. I know I would. Starving poets could pawn their poems at our place. And spend the money on our home brew. This really could grow into something large and lucrative. Of course we’ll need a website with lots of google advertising.
William Michaelian: The modern right alongside the antique. I like it. And speaking of google, Joyce uses variations of that word a few times in Finnegans Wake. I just read one today — he said “googling.” I don’t have the book handy, or I’d quote the entire sentence. And you’re right about the name. I vote for The Antique and Junk Poem Shop. So — I’m one kind of thief, and you’re another. You’ve got that company store approach nailed down. The gatekeeper might be upset at first, but when he finds out we’ve taken the entire gatehouse as well as the numbers, he’ll settle right in. Besides, these days, gatekeeping has almost become a lost art. This will help in its revival.
John Berbrich: Maybe the guy could give gatekeeping seminars. We’ll have to contact local businesses & colleges to see if they’re interested. Gatekeeping must be a rather dull job — that’s why you need a brewery nearby. This just keeps getting better & better. Everything fits together like it’s fate — or destiny. Or predestination. Okay, so the girls are gonna be our Brewmasters, right?
William Michaelian: Well, it seems a shame they’d have to work that hard. Because I do anticipate a high demand. I don’t know. Elves, maybe. They could also play checkers with the gatekeeper, who I think is bound to be a very old guy, and himself the son of a gatekeeper, from a long line of gatekeepers. Meanwhile, according to my research, gatekeeping is only as dull as the gatekeeper. For instance, I remember a gatekeeper in Armenia who was quite an entertainer, and prone to vigorous outbursts, especially if not given the proper respect. Think about it. A gatekeeper wields great power. You might think you have every right to enter, but if the gatekeeper thinks otherwise, you are out on your ear. My only fear is that our particular gatekeeper would turn against us and not let us in. If he proves to be too temperamental, we might have to send him back where he came from, gate and all.
John Berbrich: Jeez, I had not anticipated these difficulties. But it makes sense, the way you describe it. Maybe we’d be better off with a new gatekeeper, someone without that long, stern background. Maybe put an ad in the paper — “Gatekeeper wanted, lack of experience a plus,” or something like that. Maybe we don’t even need a gatekeeper. We should assemble a committee or task force to figure this out. I like the idea of elves, but can you trust them?
William Michaelian: No, and that’s the beauty of it. Elves always keep you on your toes. But I’m against advertising for a gatekeeper. Too formal. If Lord Tristram’s gatekeeper proves unsatisfactory, I think it would be better to have our derelict poets take turns. It’s bound to happen anyway. Now. I have several other important ideas, but first, what shall we do for music? Are there any pianos in your area worth stealing? You wouldn’t happen to have one yourself, would you?
John Berbrich: I have an electric piano, one of those cool keyboards where you can sound like a church organ, a saxophone, or ethereal noises. But it’s not really mine; see, it belongs to a girl down in Tennessee. But it’s not really hers....it’s a long story but, no, you can’t steal it. We could make wind chimes out of old automobile parts, fenders and hose clamps and catalytic converters, that kind of thing. That’s pretty good music. I wonder what sort of music elves listen to? Not Christmas music I hope.
William Michaelian: Wouldn’t that be something. I don’t mind a little Christmas music when in season, but a steady diet of it would drive me nuts. I know, I know — I’m there already. Anyway, I wouldn’t dream of stealing your electric thingamabob. Sounds like it has a charming history. I recall you have an Emenee rusting away out back, but what I’d really like is an old upright that weighs about 800 pounds — or, better yet, a player piano. And your idea of using old parts fits perfectly with our antique and junk theme. That’s excellent. It reminds me of what they did years ago in Fresno, when they closed Fulton Street downtown and converted it into an outdoor mall. They filled it with all sorts of odd sculptures — piles of twisted junk was the opinion of many, though a few found them charming. When times changed and the mall ran its course two or three decades later, it was turned back into a street. Who knows what they did with the sculptures. I might look into it and drag some to our Shop. Not that it solves our musical needs, but maybe a few of our more musically inclined poets would find them inspiring.
John Berbrich: Actually, I know where those junky old sculptures ended up. They were purchased by St. Lawrence University, located in Canton about 12 miles from our house. The campus is gorgeous, all green lawns crisscrossed by brick walkways, big leafy trees everywhere. Also found everywhere are these big metal sculptures, each one looking like an individual wreck of some kind. “Twisted junk” fits them perfectly, which is how I know that they are the ones from Fresno. I’m thinking that pounding on the sculptures with a sledgehammer would produce some interesting musical sounds and perhaps improve the looks of them too.
William Michaelian: You mean someone bought them? If nothing else, this gives me new hope as an artist. Moreover, I think the current location of the sculptures proves that we are on the right track. Only twelve miles away! I’ll need your help stealing them, of course.
John Berbrich: Of course. They are big though. We’ll need a big van or truck, or maybe a boat, one of those giant freighters. Then we can dig a canal to the St. Lawrence River, a mere 20 miles or so, from there heading up into the chain of Great Lakes, starting with Lake Ontario and ending at the western shore of Lake Superior, near Duluth. Then what? Say, where are we heading, anyway?
William Michaelian: Wow — you sure have a mind for details. I never thought of that. We do need a location. For some reason, I can’t really picture this happening on the West Coast. I’m always open to suggestions, but how about right there in Russell? The opera house? Your house? Oh — I also want that guy’s printing press. We need an old press, and it should be right in the middle of the parlor. An old-fashioned, noisy, self-service setup for the poets. And I figure we’ll be putting out a few odd publications ourselves, maybe some sort of oversized fish-wrap that occasionally blankets the countryside.
John Berbrich: Oh, I guess we’ll have to steal the printing press too. But what’s funny is that I can picture this happening only on the West Coast, not around here. I suppose your region still has that romantic 60’s atmosphere about it, at least in my mind. I picture people living in trees and old school buses, tents filled with smoke and old hippies, Indians picking fruit in orchards and selling beadwork on street corners — and no one caring, everyone getting along rather well with that old live and let live attitude. This is not true?
William Michaelian: It’s exactly as you describe, only then some. The Indians pick fruit in old school buses, and the hippies sell streetwork on bead corners — it all depends on what we’re smoking. Actually, there’s no reason we can’t do it anywhere we want, East or West — build it and they will come. Is something wrong with the East, though? Have the Indians and hippies all packed it in? If so, maybe it’s time for a revival. We can start by selling Brautigan sandwiches — smoke ’em or eat ’em, you can’t go wrong.
John Berbrich: Okay, you win. You can run the concession stand outside the Antique and Junk Poem Shop. Sandwiches, Pound cake, Ginzburgers with cheese, daft beer — I mean draft beer. The Indians around here do little but run casinos. The hippies are completely not organized, although there is a working commune about eight miles from our house. Cool looking place actually. But I think that New York State must have a law against a junk poem shop. Or a special tax. Something, anything, to impede real progress.
William Michaelian: It stands to reason, I guess. Then again, that can be seen as a good sign. There were probably so many people trying to open shops that a law had to be passed. Junk poems could provide a tax base to rival tobacco and booze. But it occurs to me that this has all gotten rather large and out of hand. I really do admire your original idea, whatever it was. Let’s go back to that and skip the thievery, canal-digging, and carnival atmosphere, and just do what we do best — which is . . . uh . . . which is . . .
John Berbrich: Try to stump the other with brilliant Chess-like strategy, open-ended phrases terminating in ellipses, and casual references to recondite authors and works of literature both unknown and unknowable.....
William Michaelian: Ah — that brings us back to the great and mysterious Jian Brichiam. Sort of. Maybe. Nah. Forget it. Either way, I’ve certainly never been accused of having a mind for chess, or for forming what could be called a strategy. I simply plow ahead. Take Finnegans Wake, for instance. Hey — is that one of those casual references? Anyway, by plowing ahead, I have now reached the point where I have only four pages left to read. Imagine — only four pages. With any luck, I’ll be done in a couple of days. Got your letter today, by the way. Thanks for sending “Eclogue.” Haven’t read it yet, but I glanced at it and am intrigued by the format. I did read Auden’s little intro — as well as that great news article about the drunk student who broke into the funeral parlor in Canton and took a nap in one of the caskets. Canton sounds like my kind of town. Maybe that’s where we should set up our shop. I noticed the town was referred to as the village of Canton. Are towns called villages there?
John Berbrich: Well, some of the towns are really just regions filled w/ farms and forests. The village is the downtown part. The town of Canton might be (I’m estimating) 60 square miles. The village of Canton is that downtown section consisting of a few blocks of businesses & houses & municipal buildings & funeral parlors. Canton is much bigger than Russell. St. Lawrence County has only one actual city & that’s Ogdensburg, which has a charter & everything.
William Michaelian: I’ll bet that makes them feel smart. Wouldn’t it be funny, though, if those little villages were able to move during the night? Imagine big stodgy Odgensburg waking up to find several crowded around its outskirts. And then the next morning, half of them could be gone, and Canton could be sitting right in the middle of the main highway leading into the city, stretching and blinking in the sun.
John Berbrich: I’m sure the local legislators would find some way to immediately tax these gypsy towns — a migrant tax or something. But it sure would make driving to work every morning an adventure.
William Michaelian: And adventure is what we’re after. I like that term, gypsy town. The same thing could happen with other landmarks — old trees, barns, grain elevators. I don’t suppose there’s a grain elevator in downtown Russell, but watch out, there could be by morning.
John Berbrich: Well, if my house pulls up its roots & starts wandering in the middle of the night, I could wake up in Oregon or some other outlandish place. I mean, I could drive to work & come home & eveything is gone. This almost sounds like an epidemic of some kind. So who’s behind this, did you say — Farrago? I thought we had given that rogue the slip.
William Michaelian: Maybe Farrago is really just a state of mind. I guess you can’t blame people for expecting their towns to be in the same place day after day and year after year, since that’s the way it has always been. But there might be the seeds of a story here. Imagine someone setting out on a drive across the country, with his trusty road map beside him on the seat. He notes with pleasure each landmark he passes, each railroad, river, and town. All is well until he encounters the same places a second time, and then a third. He drives and drives, but never reaches the state line. And then it happens — he comes to places that aren’t on the map at all, and yet which seem to have been there for years and years — streets and trees, parks, statues, ivy-covered buildings. The people are friendly and seem to know him and where he’s from, but none are able to explain their own existence. Who knows — maybe they don’t exist. He pushes on. The road home becomes the road away, and the road away his only salvation.
John Berbrich: Sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The guy drives into this town and we see the sign: “Welcome to Farragoville.” The music fades. The next thing we see is a carnival. Calliope music plays, and the camera focuses on freaks and carneys, smoking and laughing. The Rhinoceros Man is trying to explain the difference between a midget and a dwarf, but no one is really listening. The Snake Lady is shedding, rubbing against the Amazing Fatty, wriggling out of the dry fibers of the dead skin. A carney with a mustache and a dark complexion passes a bottle of wine. Madame Ruby complains of a tooth ache, then Rod Serling makes his appearance.You know that following the advertisement, the guy in the car will drive up, looking at his map with one eye and Madame Ruby with the other.
William Michaelian: Rod Serling, yes. Madame Ruby, yes. But you know, this also reminds me of the album cover of Strange Days by the Doors. A little more exaggerated, but the theme is there. Another possibility, now that you bring up Serling, is that the unmapped places could be in black and white.
John Berbrich: Sort of like in the Wizard of Oz where Kansas is black & white. And you mention that Doors cover. You’re right, they do share a similar mood. I love that album. Strange Days was the first LP I bought. I actually cut school that day cuz I had to buy it & listen to it, over & over. I listened to it six times in a row when I got it home. Afraid I would wear out the music’s charms, I quickly limited myself to only one listening per day, a tittle of self-discipline to which I adhered pretty strictly. I would stare at that marvelous cover while experiencing the otherworldly sounds. The height of tension was the point where the carney people meet that strange person in the doorway, a conjuncture of two impossibly alien worlds.
William Michaelian: Sounds like one of my usual trips downtown. Cut school, eh? And thus began your slide into delinquency, aided by the Doors. Tell me — did you follow Jim Morrison’s instructions in “When the Music’s Over” and eat your pork and beans?
John Berbrich: Actually, Morrison says that in “Back Door Man,” a song written by Willie Dixon. I eat my pork & beans when they’re served. For some reason the girls are not much into pork these days, preferring a sort of rabbit food — greens & sprouts & the like. Plenty of beans though. What a great word — garbanzo beans.
William Michaelian: A masterpiece, as a matter of fact. And you’re right about the pork and beans. Crimony — what was I thinking? The line goes, “You men eat your dinner, eat your pork and beans,” etc. I haven’t had pork and beans for years. I used to like them when I was a tot. Of course that’s when Willie Dixon used to visit. He always demanded pork and beans. I finished Finnegans Wake today, by the way.
John Berbrich: You must be planning a HUGE party. Or maybe it’s bitter-sweet & you’d prefer to spend a rainy day alone, thinking about what you’ve accomplished & experienced, absorbing the conclusion. This happens to me after hearing a great song — e.g., “When the Music’s Over” — I don’t want to hear another sound, just let the effect of the music sink into my bones, deep down into my being. You want to wring every tittle of passion out of those dying, fading notes.
William Michaelian: Wait a minute. Isn’t tittle the name for the dot over the letter i? Actually, reading the book has been a party. And now I can’t seem to find my way home. Maybe I’m that guy out roaming around with his map, because it sure seems the landmarks have changed.
John Berbrich: Try reading the book backwards — maybe you’ll find your way back.
William Michaelian: Do you mean I should unread the book? Does it work that way?
John Berbrich: I don’t know. Try it.
William Michaelian: So, you’ve never tried it yourself, and you want me to be the guinea pig. Is that it?
John Berbrich: You make it sound so negative. Think of yourself as a volunteer, an adventurer into the unknown.
William Michaelian: I do like the pioneering aspect. Well, then. How about it — do you want to come with me? It would be a shorter trip for you, since you haven’t finished the book yet.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but then I might never finish the book. Although — perhaps it’s a book that should never be finished. If so, when you get back to page one you’ll have to start all over again. Or maybe reading it in reverse destroys the curse. Oh, they didn’t tell you about the curse?
William Michaelian: No, they didn’t. In fact, I don’t even know who “they” are. Don’t tell me I’m in for a life of recurring turbulence, or whatever it was that Nietzsche called it.
John Berbrich: That’s close enough. About the curse — did I ever tell you about that Samuel Delaney book? These humanoids live way out in space & have this belief that a book or something should never be completed (this is hazy, I read the book over 30 years ago) cuz something bad will happen, I don’t remember exactly, but anyway Delaney doesn’t quite finish the book, not writing the very last word, although you know from the context what it should be. So he deftly avoids his own curse. Clever.
William Michaelian: I’ll say. It’s almost as if he