The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 22 of my ďforum.Ē 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 ďintelligentĒ conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. Thatís all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page ó 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 otherís 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: Now. Tell me ó do you think itís possible to have an interesting, meaningful conversation using only one-word sentences?
John Berbrich: Huh? Maybe. Yeah.
William Michaelian: A strange question, perhaps. But for some reason, Iíve been curious lately just how far a conversation might go if the participants limited themselves to one-word responses. Most likely, many questions would be asked: Oh? Really? When? and so on. I donít know. Maybe people would get into less trouble. Or maybe theyíd get into more. Or maybe theyíd just go nuts. Itís so contrary to what weíre used to. But Iíve long been interested in word economy ó in making words count. At the same time, experience suggests that using a lot of words can have a healing effect. Of course, there are also wordless conversations, which are some of the most beautiful, poignant, memorable conversations of all. We speak with our eyes, with our whole body.
John Berbrich: True. Compare Basho & James Joyce. Great literature comes in all sizes. This reminds me of Richard Kostelanetzís monopoems, poems of only one word. We discussed them briefly a long long time ago. And in connection w/ that, Iím reminded of Emerson who said that every word was once a poem. This idea compels us to meditate upon a word and to squeeze all the juice from it & yet to realize that thereís still more, always more.
William Michaelian: Indeed. You know, ďEvery word was once a poemĒ would be a great name for a college course. Imagine studying a single word for a week, discussing that word, and writing a paper inspired by it.
John Berbrich: Thatís a great idea. Iíve often thought that every word is worthy of at least an essay. You would follow the etymology, thereby learning something about history, about language, & about the history of language. Youíd discuss connotation & denotation, & youíd write long rambling free-form prose poems using the designated word as inspiration. You can make an awful lot out of a little.
William Michaelian: Ha! ó weíve certainly proved that time and again. And Iím sure the opposite is true. But with all the practical-minded people in charge, I guess a class like that would be hard to sell. Too bad, really. Another excellent college literature course, and a quite similar one, really, could involve having students learn how to use a shovel. They could examine each shovelful of earth ó feel it with their hands, inhale, notice the myriad lifeforms therein.
John Berbrich: Willie, you are simply an idea generator. The kids should do service projects, fixing things around town, mowing lawns & shoveling snow & picking up trash from the roadside. Visiting w/ the elderly at nursing homes. Allow them to become members of a community, the community in which they actually live, not a virtual one. And then they can return to school after a morning of helping out around town, eat a little lunch, & write about their experiences.
William Michaelian: They can also write about their lunch ó its taste, the origin of the ingredients, the miraculous journey traveled by each molecule, the dance of the meal itself after it enters the body. Yes indeed. These are inspiring possibilities. And the doors at the school should always be open. In fact, there should be no doors to close, whether they lead into classrooms or offices. Students and visitors should be encouraged to roam freely about the campus, and to engage in spontaneous conversation with each other and those who work at the school. No meetings, no business cards, no hiding behind rules or formality. And just to keep everyone alert, at least several times a year, the role of students and teachers should be reversed.
John Berbrich: This is quite a change from the schools that I remember. Those venerable institutions were nothing but doors & rules & formality. And I turned out okay. Well, in a way I did. I certainly approve of the role-reversal idea. Tell me ó where do children learn discipline?
William Michaelian: From myriad sources, according to their personaliies, cirucmstances, and backgrounds. But I think it would be better, really, if we asked them. I bet theyíd give some revealing, maybe even disturbing, answers.
John Berbrich: No doubt. For a field trip the kids could go to the Antique & Junk Poem Shop. They could meet the dead poets, swim in our parlor stream, & wander the shelves looking in wonder at the amazing collection of curiosities weíve gathered. That would be an education.
William Michaelian: Especially when they climb into the old rotting school bus parked up against a tree and it suddenly comes to life and one of the poets drives them across America.
John Berbrich: Say, didnít this very same thing happen about maybe 10 pages back, when a bus driver ó wasnít it the mad Doctor Farrago? ó drove a group of folks across the country & they ended up at a nude writers colony? Am I dreaming this or what?
William Michaelian: Of course youíre dreaming it. This whole conversation is a dream. But youíre right, this bus business is a recurring theme. I wonder ó does it signify a deep underlying problem, or is it just a shallow, obvious one?
John Berbrich: Well, putting it like that, itís a problem either way. Speaking of writers & problems, what did you think of that article on Stephen Joyce?
William Michaelian: As a writer with problems, I thought it was quite interesting, although I never was able to decide who was right or if it really matters. Everyone seemed to have a valid point. Certainly Stephen James Joyce has the right to do as he sees fit regarding the James Joyce estate. To me, though, itís all pretty much beside the point. We have the works themselves, and they tower above scholarly squabbles. The author should and does have the last word. Meanwhile, the time will come when his grandson will no longer be able to defend the estate. What then?
John Berbrich: We shall see. I suppose people will find something else to squabble about. Squabble is one of those great words ó you can practically hear the ruckus of raised, agitated voices. Agitation at least suggests a degree of life, a certain amount, a dollop of energy. Joyceís prose never stands still ó the wind is always blowing.
William Michaelian: And it bears the music of many voices. Hey ó thanks for sending the Woody Allen and Dada articles from the New Yorker. That was a pleasant surprise. Allenís ďThus Ate ZarathustraĒ was amusing. Not exactly new ó seems he hasnít changed his approach in thirty years. Did you like the piece on Dada?
John Berbrich: Yeah, I did. Because the author agreed w/ me in that Dada didnít really seem to do an awful lot. Dada was more of an attitude thing, although it has influenced many many creative young people ever since. If I had been in New York though, I would have stopped in to see the show at the Museum of Modern Art. Probably still there, I donít remember the dates.
William Michaelian: Had you gone, you could have collected the tickets and brochures and then made a collage out of them. Or even made a collage of the people in attendance. Wouldnít it be something to wake up one mornng and realize you were part of a collage? The back of your head, stuck to some wine-stained poster board, your arms pinned back at the elbows, your jaw unhinged and pasted on the face of an alarm clock. People looking at you and smiling: ďI remember him when.Ē The fools, thinking theyíve escaped, until they too are snipped into pieces and turned into statements completely at odds with their views.
John Berbrich: Thatís a beautiful prose poem, Willie. I can imagine a burgundy sunset over a Swiss lake, the water crinkling as the breath of evening passes above it, & the peasants on the shore cutting up the leaves, turning them to swallows, & releasing them into the claret air. The swallows turn into sea serpents only w/ wings & eat the peasants. I think this is what youíre getting at. No one is safe.
William Michaelian: No one ó not the showís organizers, not Stephen James Joyce, not the scholars. Everyone is who they are because they have been snipped and pasted, and they worship a collage of snipped and pasted pleasures and pains. Actually, I donít know if I think that or not. But I did finish In Watermelon Sugar. Finished all three of Brautiganís books, in fact. What a gentle, melancholy vision.
John Berbrich: Exactly. I love so many little parts. Like the one where this dog sniffs a series of footprints & then stops on one print in particular. ďThe dog really liked that one,Ē says the narrator. I find so much beauty in that simple scene. Or the part where theyíre walking through that herd of sheep. Why do these scenes stick in my mind?
William Michaelian: It all seems so effortless, as if heís decided that reality is fine as far as it goes, but so often there is little use for it. Just the idea of making things out of watermelon sugar is beautiful, and there being different colored suns, and tombs at the bottom of a trout stream with light emanating from them. I was only too pleased to go along with him. What about the way he described the tigers eating his parents when he was a kid, and how they were so apologetic about it, and even willing to help him with his arithmetic? Or the odd statues of vegetables scattered through the area? Or the Forgotten Works, where Margaret collected all of those forgotten things? All in all, it sounds a lot like our antique poem shop. Very inspiring.
John Berbrich: Yes, beautiful, beautiful. I can see the junk poem shop turning into a Watermelon Sugar landscape if weíre not careful. Brautigan can fish in the parlor stream. Weíll have a flat roof where the band can play on starlit evenings. This sounds like paradise, Iím not kidding.
William Michaelian: And each person who visits adds something to the landscape and atmosphere. Somehow, their thoughts and dreams are transformed into birds and stones and quiet pools. Some time ago, didnít you say youíd read A Confederate General from Big Sur?
John Berbrich: Yes.
William Michaelian: Fine. Thatís all I wanted to know. How about you? Is there anything youíd like to know?
John Berbrich: Actually, there is. Have you heard about the painting by Gustav Klimt that was purchased in June by the collector Ronald Lauder in New York? Lauder paid ó get ready ó one-hundred-&-thirty-five-MILLION dollars for it. I can barely wrap my mind around that figure. I mean, Iíve heard of paintings going for a couple of million, & even that seems exorbitantly high. But $135,000,000? This isnít even Picasso or Dali. How much would insurance on something like that cost?
William Michaelian: Probably enough to finance a small war. Or build a chain of burger stands. Itís ridiculous. Iíve heard of Klimt, but remember nothing about him or his work. And I know nothing about the work of Ronald Lauder, either, if in fact he does work. I suppose he has an office and one or two gold telephones. I donít know. Maybe heís a nice guy. Even more mind-boggling is that the price he paid for that painting is probably only a fraction of his wealth. Think of the number of people who might be fed with that kind of money. Never mind that ó think of the literary magazines that could be started, and the huge number of writers who could be supplied with paper. Because youíd never want to actually give a writer money. That would spoil everything. It would spoil the entire system.
John Berbrich: It would certainly change things, doing away w/ the entire genre of Iím-poor-&-drinkiní-whiskey-on-the-bad-side-of-town poetry. At least for published poets, theyíd be automatically respectable & middle-class, if middle-class is indeed respectable. Unpublished poets would remain poor. Theyíd hang out at the junk poem shop, grubbing for sandwiches. Imagine the improvements we could make to the shop w/ that kind of money. But having money, too much of it, really distorts things, doesnít it? People seem to lose all their values when big bucks enter the scene.
William Michaelian: Yes. For instance, if Ronald Lauder were a poor man, he probably wouldnít think Klimtís painting was worth $135 million. And if he were poor enough and had the chance, he would probably eat the painting, or burn it to keep warm, or use it for shade, or trade it for coffee and doughnuts. Instead, since he is fabulously wealthy, he would probably scoff at the used trout stream running through our parlor, rezone our waterfall, and start construction of a hotel.
John Berbrich: Lauder had better keep his hands out of our stream, but I kinda like that hotel idea. We could add on to the back of the shop, nothing like really expensive, but small spaces affordable to even the most down & out poet. Almost like little coffins, we could slide them into their horizontal booths for a buck or two a night. In the morning, thereís the stream to wash in & to catch breakfast in. And in the evening, the house band plays on the roof. Throw in the great poetry readings, the coffee & homebrew by the fire in the oil drum in the yard, one or two old Chevy beaters ó and Willie, we will have ourselves a paradise that no amount of money could buy.
William Michaelian: Complete with poet bins. I pity the maids. How about this ó a continental breakfast could actually be served from an old Continental ó maybe a í62 with suicide doors, and salt-stained clay flowerpots where the headlights used to be. And then thereís this scene: imagine a guy whoís filthy rich, sitting by our lovely stream with a simple fishing pole in his hand, feeling like an utter stranger. His Rolls has a flat tire, his cell phone wonít work, heís late for cocktails, heís lost all of his big accounts. He sees his reflection looking up at him in the water. A trout swims through it. A poet floats to the surface, a friendly gleam in his eye. ďWhat a bath!Ē the poet exclaims. ďI feel like a million!Ē And the word million cuts the rich man like a knife.
John Berbrich: Beautiful! Weíd need animals too, maybe dogs & goats. Dogs to fetch things & goats to keep the grass relatively short. Lots of mosquito-eating frogs, also. I donít know, Willie ó I think Iíll retire to the junk poem shop. I love this place. And the best thing is, you can still live there when youíre dead. You donít have to leave, ever.
William Michaelian: I do miss chickens pecking in the yard. Every morning, a big red rooster can crow from atop the old Lincoln. Heck ó Lincoln himself might be there. After all, weíll need someone to chop wood. Iím sure it would be good therapy for him. And Sandburg can add another chapter to his biography, and Frost can farm a couple of rocky acres alongside the road less traveled.
John Berbrich: Sure, Frost can supply the vegetables. Finally thereíll be enough squash & cucumbers for everybody. And not virtual squash & cukes either. Now Iím getting hungry again. Whatís for lunch?
William Michaelian: Alphabet soup? No, thatís too convenient. Trout? Coffee and cigarettes? I guess it depends on whoís doing the cooking. Meanwhile, have you seen that quote by Mark Twain about Jane Austen? ďEvery time I read Pride & Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.Ē
John Berbrich: Ha-ha. No, I hadnít seen that one. Sounds like heís read the book more than once, though. I read Pride & Prejudice once, long years ago. Enjoyed it too. May Ms. Austen sleep w/ her shin-bones intact, amen.
William Michaelian: I thought the same thing ó if Twain didnít like the book, why did he keep reading it? But thereís a whole story that goes along with that quote, Iím sure. I havenít read the book. Havenít read anything by the BrontŽ sisters either, or George Sand, who used to hang out with Chopin, I believe. Or have I made this confession before? Probably. Iíve been known to repeat myself. And also to contradict myself. For instance, I have read Austen and the BrontŽ sisters ó but only a paragraph here and there. I tried to read Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, too, but I couldnít stay awake. How do you pronounce Trollope? Wasnít he the guy who worked for the postal service in England, and who designed their streetside letterbox? Or was it someone else? No wonder I repeat myself, with bits and pieces like these floating around in my head.
John Berbrich: Iíve never heard anyone actually say ďTrollopeĒ in conversation, so Iíve always just pronounced it ďtrollopĒ in my mind, you know, like a tart or streetwalker. I donít know anything about him working for the postal system. How could you even pick up a book w/ the title Barfchester Towers? Hideous title. Sounds like the dullest place imaginable. Regarding memory, my biggest problem is deciding whether Iíve actually done something or if Iíve only imagined myself doing it. Like I plan to ask so-&-so how Julieís doing, so I imagine myself at some unspecified future date asking so-&-so how Julie is doing. Then a week later, I still have that memory, only I canít tell if itís a memory of me actually asking about Julie or if itís a memory of me imagining myself asking about Julie. You know?
William Michaelian: And how. And youíre right, Barchester Towers is a hopeless title. But this could make a good story. Thereís this guy who wakes up in the morning to find a copy of Barchester Towers resting on his stomach, just as if heíd been reading it and had fallen asleep. He hides the book or throws it away. But every time he falls asleep, whether in bed or in a chair or on a bus, the book reappears in his lap. When heís in public, he wakes up to find people laughing at him: ďLook at him, heís reading Barchester Towers.Ē And so he vows never to sleep again, thinking itís the only way out of his dilemma. Finally, his wife convinces him to see a psychiatrist, whose office, it turns out, is located in a complex called Barchester Towers. Seeing this, he collapses. The elevator door opens. A janitor who looks just like Anthony Trollope comes out and says, ďThat was easy,Ē then drags him inside.
John Berbrich: Thatís when the Rod Serling voiceover begins. I gotta hand it to you, Willie ó your powers of invention never fail to amaze me. But think what an improvement Barfmeister Towers would be for a title. Maybe a Victorian frat house? Seems like that would go w/ the authorís last name, especially if he dropped the ďe.Ē
William Michaelian: Heís dead. Weíll drop it for him. But weíll dig him up first. ďExcuse us, Mr. Trollop, youíre needed for the grand opening of Barfmeister Towers. All the beer you can drink.Ē And the poor old sot rouses himself, what? ďIs it really you, old man, who invented the little red letterbox, or have we mixed you up with someone else?Ē Mff.
John Berbrich: ďIt doesnít matter about the little red boxes,Ē says Trollop; ďIíve seen the light on the other side. I know the truth now. Direct me, please, to the antique and junk poem shop, if you would, kind sirs. Beer really does matter. And streams, and stars. Careful, Iím a little stiff.Ē
William Michaelian: ďAh! If you knew the truth, you would already be at the antique and junk poem shop ó Trollop. But, come along. And donít worry about pants. Weíll find you a pair on the way.Ē
John Berbrich: ďYou gentlemen are very kind, despite your raffish good looks. Is it far, this junk poem shop? Iím a bit out of shape, as you can no doubt see. Thirsty, too. Is there some local establishment where we could procure a good Stout? ó That is, if you gentlemen could perhaps lend me a few pounds. Iím a bit short of funds at the moment.Ē
William Michaelian: ďThatís not all youíre short of, Tony. Youíre missing two eyeballs and a digit. But fear not, our famous homebrew will make you feel like a new man. No bones about it.Ē
John Berbrich: ďI believe that I detect a glimmer of levity in your words, my good and gracious lord. This is refreshing, as I feel as though I havenít heard a jolly joke in over a century. Speaking of century, what land is this, and what is the year, O my generous benefactor?Ē
William Michaelian: ďGood question. We are not at all sure ourselves. Judging by your beard, Iíd say itís a long time since, and that weíre somewhere very far away. But not far enough.Ē
John Berbrich: ďWell, I suppose it doesnít matter where or when we are. But you mentioned something about homebrew. Lead on, my bibulous saviors. The evening is young, and as I said earlier I have a powerful thirst.Ē
William Michaelian: ďIndeed, you are spitting dust. But quite honestly ó and I really mean no offense ó I donít see where you will put it. In fact, Iím beginning to wonder if digging you up was a good idea after all. Weíve had excellent results so far with those who have appeared at our shop of their own accord. Perhaps you should get a bit more rest; then, when you feel the time is right, you can join us on your own terms. Here. Why donít you lie back down, and weíll have you covered up in no time.Ē
John Berbrich: ďNow just a moment ó Whoa ó Hey! ó What are you guys doing! Gentlemen, please ó just one tankard is all I ask. If I were 150 years younger Iíd thrash you two rapscallions. Iím not going gentle into this good night....Ē
William Michaelian: Whew. Dramatic old blowhard, isnít he? He acts like heís never been dead before. Still, itís all my fault. I feel terrible about this, just terrible.
John Berbrich: Aw, snap out of it, Willie. Tell you what. Letís go up and pour ourselves a couple of homebrews, eh? Iím buying. I have to read that Trollope guy sometime, something other than Barfmeister Towers. For a dead white male, he was pretty feisty.
William Michaelian: Indeed. You have to give him credit. So many dead white guys are dull, especially nowadays ó totally devoid of personality and imagination. . . . hold on. I assume you left Trollopeís hand sticking up out of the ground on purpose. Nice touch.
John Berbrich: No, actually that was an oversight ó but I like the looks of it. Almost looks like some weird shriveled voodoo plant. Like you boil it and your enemy develops painful blistering sores all over his body. That kind of plant. Anyway, Iím developing quite a thirst myself.
William Michaelian: I agree. We do need a drink. And speaking of plants, Trollope reminds me of heliotrope. Heliotrollope? Will you just look at that hand. How about a plant called Writerís Cramp?
John Berbrich: You always use that excuse for not working on your fiction ó writerís cramp. Itís good to know that those 18th century guys suffered from it too. You can joke all you like, Willie, but a rich foamy dark homebrew will cure that withered hand. Cheer you up, too. Like I said, itís on me.
William Michaelian: I appreciate that. But whose withered hand are you referring to ó mine or Trollopeís? Iíd hate to have to dig him up again.
John Berbrich: I was referring obliquely to them both, hoping you wouldnít ask me to specify. On the other hand, perhaps youíre not thirsty. Thatís okay. I think that we need a hand like that one, planted in front of the junk poem shop. Iím not suggesting that we unearth poor old Anthony & reinter him in front of our place. But think how cool it would be to give directions ó ďTurn left at the withered hand.Ē In fact, that would be a great name for our cheap starving poet motel ó the Withered Hand Flop House. Place a pen in Trollopeís fingers & take a picture ó it would make a perfect logo.
William Michaelian: Okay, just as soon as it stops wiggling. Another name for the motel could be the Withered Hand Arms. And I can think of many other fine uses for withered hands: handles on slot machines, for instance, or on kegs of beer ó they would even make great napkin holders. There. Itís stopped moving now. Well? Are you going to buy me that beer or not?
John Berbrich: Come along then, lad. Iím as thirsty as a hungover tick.
William Michaelian: Iím right beside you. Letís flea this place.
John Berbrich: Fly into a night of fun & adventure! We could stop at the Chinese place & get some flied lice, as they say.
William Michaelian: Yes, but we must leave room for the beer. Thatís the mein thing.
John Berbrich: Ah, the noble suds are always welcome. Even on a full belly, thereís room. Tell you what ó you read my fortune cookie & Iíll read yours. Deal?
William Michaelian: Certainly. Iíll even exchange fortunes if you want. But you know what I thought you were going to ask? I thought you were going to ask me to read your fortune in the foam stuck to your glass. Iíve heard old Armenian aunts read fortunes in coffee grounds a number of times, so maybe this would work too.
John Berbrich: How about this ó we enjoy the Chinese buffet, read the fortunes from our cookies, then go chug down a few brews. You can read our fortunes in the foam & weíll compare the Chinese & the Armenian prognostications. Then you can tell me stories of these old coffee-grounds readers. Just a little peek into the future, how exciting.
William Michaelian: I just thought of something. It will never work. Each time we empty our glasses, our fortunes will have to be read. Then when we refill the glasses, our fortunes will be erased and replaced by others. Several brews, several fortunes. Fate might become confused. There could be trouble.
John Berbrich: I have the answer. If we keep filling our glasses, the foam can never quite settle & the future will remain undetermined. We retain our free will. No predestination for us, Willie my boy! Do you think this will work?
William Michaelian: No predestination? With all that beer, our future will obviously be in the bathroom. Our near future, anyway. Still, I think thatís the best approach. Drink, and let our fortunes worry about themselves. In fact, weíll outsmart our fortunes. Stay ahead of them. Keep them guessing. Make them wonder if they have the right person.
John Berbrich: We seem to be nearing some sort of profound eternal truth here. I think itís about time we tested our theories, passing from some contemplative Platonic level into a more...hard-nosed, Aristotelian world of practicality, a region of sensuous materiality, where a swallow of good beer really feels wet & sudsy. Iíve always thought that the actual drinking of beer beats any kind of beer-thoughts all to heck. I mean, it certainly is important to think about beer, but the cosmos are more balanced if we actually drink it.
William Michaelian: Right again. To be succinct, to think is not to drink, even while standing at the sink. And anyway, we can discuss these matters while we drink. Oooh ó I just had another idea. A great title for a poem, or maybe a painting, would be ďPhilosophers Drinking Beer.Ē Talk about possibilities.
John Berbrich: I have a great visual on that one, w/ all these bearded crusty dudes leaning on a bar counter, facing out into the room, smoking cigars, & hefting heavy goblets of dark homebrew. They all look a little bored or maybe distracted, like each one is lost in his own thoughts. The painting has a lot of detail: filled ashtrays, wooden stools, and the curious garb of the philosophers themselves ó robes, buckles, boots, intricate shirt sleeves, & weird hats. Their brows are crinkled & cracked w/ age, the beards tentacled into rococo forms. Behind the bar, a smoky mirror reflects their broad backs. Everything about the philosophers seems solid & enduring.
William Michaelian: Beautiful. I love it. A picture like that would be great on a cigar box ó Dutch Masters revisited. For the label on a beer bottle, though, we might zoom in on two philosophers whose beards have actually become intertwined during a long discussion. There could even be a small bird building a nest in the middle. This poses a dilemma: do the philosophers choose to remain bound for the birdís sake? Or do they even notice the bird is there?
John Berbrich: Brilliant, Willie! Obviously your bird is a metaphor for a poet. Regarding the philosophers, their treatment of the bird reflects each oneís individual philosophy. Some will not see it, others will classify it. The more practical ones will wait & eat the eggs (if not the bird). Some may try to convert it. Which brings up the old question: If a bird sings a song & no one listens, does it really make a sound? Remember, our bird represents a poet.
William Michaelian: Or, if a poet sings and no one listens, is the poet really stoned? Thereís another good story lurking here. Imagine it told from the point of view of the bird, who, after a long and arduous migration, finds it canít afford to rent a tree, and so is forced to move into the philosophersí beards. The philosophers stink. Worst of all, theyíre boring, and argue merely to argue. A foul wind blows from behind their teeth. At night when they sleep, their beards rustle and grow. The bird files a complaint with the local housing authorities, only to discover that the philosophers are outside their jurisdiction.
John Berbrich: Which is a good thing, since the philosophers have neglected to buy philosophy permits from the town clerk. Willie, we have to find room for these old sages in the junk poem shop. Maybe down the cellar? A humbling experience, to be sure.
William Michaelian: Yes, letís put them in the cellar. They can do the laundry. Weíll need a dumbwaiter. We should also have a snoring room. No explanation ó just that every time you walk by this certain door, you hear snoring.
John Berbrich: It must be a college classroom simulator. Yeah, weíll definitely need one of those. You know, now that weíve got these philosophers staying w/ us, we could have weekly debates on the roof. The sages could be the warm-up act for the band. We shouldnít have any trouble finding dead musicians willing to play. Every Friday night, poetry, philosophy, music. Homebrew. Iíll never leave.
William Michaelian: Stand-up philosophers ó thatís something you donít see much these days. I suppose because it takes them years to come to the punch line. Hey ó is it time to mention the cross-country bus ride again? I guess not. Although I do like the idea of a busload of philosophers. I also like the idea of philosophers directing traffic, and holding up signs composed of many paragraphs.
John Berbrich: Iíve rarely enjoyed a stand-up philosopher. Explaining why a joke is funny kills all the humor. We could try the bus ride, just for a change of scenery, but I suppose itíll be hijacked again by the mad Dr. Farrago. Heíll drive the philosophers to that crazy nudist colony & expose all their logical fallacies. I doubt theyíll care much for that.
William Michaelian: On the other hand, after doing laundry time in the basement, they might welcome the change. First of all, theyíll be in the great outdoors, and second, there wonít be any clothes to wash. I wonder ó do you think anyone will want to run around naked at our junk poem shop? I guess there are bound to be a few people skinny-dipping in the trout stream. That much is to be expected. It reminds me ó thereís a book about the history of the San Joaquin Valley called Garden in the Sun. I read in there once about a meeting between a settler and a member of one of the native tribes, possibly a Yokut. The settler was clothed, the native was naked. When the settler asked the native if he wasnít cold, the native replied, ďIs your face cold?Ē The settler said no, his face wasnít cold, and the native said, ďWell, I am all face.Ē
John Berbrich: Nice. Well, I gotta face it, Iím not crazy about the nudist idea. Maybe we could have a special area for nudes, over in the non-smoking section. For me, the naked body is a lot like truth ó both look better when theyíre dressed up a little.
William Michaelian: I know what you mean. Well. Dare I ask what youíre reading these days?
John Berbrich: Well, Iím about halfway through a 400-page collection of poetry by Wallace Stevens. Iím finishing up a book of fairly gruesome stories of suspense by Harlan Ellison called No Doors, No Windows. I recently completed Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by philosopher Richard Rorty. And I read two small press novels which Iíll review in the August Yawp, due out soon. Finally, Iím preparing a grand assault on the second half of Finnegans Wake.
William Michaelian: Glad to hear it. Itís funny, all this time weíve been talking about philosphers, youíve been reading one. Whatís on Mr. Rortyís mind?
John Berbrich: It sounds like Rorty is trying to kill epistemology by doing away w/ metaphysics. Or vice versa. The problem, as he sees it, is that epistemology tries to construct a grand neutral framework of the theory of knowledge, something monstrous enough to explain everything. He says that after thousands of years theyíve been unsuccessful because different philosophical inquiries are simply incommensurable ó they canít really be compared. So it sounds like heís urging philosophers to lower their aim a bit, stop trying to explain the entire universe, & work on independent little projects. And to stop all the fighting amongst themselves. And he thinks itís ridiculous to base a science on metaphysics cuz metaphysics is justa buncha smoke & mirrors.
William Michaelian: Gee, he sounds like a lot of fun. Just because something isnít solved for thousands of years is hardly any reason to give up, or to discourage others from trying. And just because you donít understand something yourself, that doesnít mean itís nothing but smoke and mirrors. Or maybe heís afraid heíll see himself through the smoke in one of the mirrors. Or maybe he did, and was disturbed by what he saw.
John Berbrich: I kinda feel the way you do, but then again he makes some valid points. Rorty is a fairly entertaining writer, as philosophers go. Heís not simply a logic guy, but tries to work in a little poetry & then explains that poetry is important to human life. This was one of his early works, written in the late 1970ís. He seems to feel that those gigantic metaphysical structures of the past simply have no relation to human life. But I agree w/ you ó just because you havenít been able to accomplish a particular project is no reason to give up, especially if it is a worthwhile pursuit. Of course, you canít know if itís worthwhile until you make a little progress. In any case, I see no reason why Philosophy canít work w/ philosophy ó big P w/ little p ó to cast a little light on our dark existence.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. And of course I donít really mean to sound as if I am dismissing the manís work, because Iím not, and I appreciate the thought and effort thatís behind it. Itís just that quite often I think things are not nearly as complicated as we make them. We are not satisfied with simplicity, because it makes us feel less important in the overall scheme of things. At the same time, beautiful things come out of our efforts to understand, even if ultimately we are proven to be way off base.
John Berbrich: Yeah, thatís true. People need to try. The way I see it, the chief drawback to the big metaphysical picture is this: you develop your gigantic schematic & if something doesnít fit you force it. Rather than go w/ what works well, we twist & crush things to make them fit where we think they belong. But of course we need a large picture to provide a context for all the little things we know, some kind of organizing framework. We should live more like dogs. Life is simple for them, & it seems to work pretty well.
William Michaelian: Yep ó no deodorant, no organized religion, no litigation. They donít need philosophy. They know. I wonder ó do you know of any philosophers who were or are dog lovers? I can imagine the dogs of philosophers taking on the appearance and mannerism of their owners. Hmm. . . . ďAristotleís DogĒ might be a good name for a story. For that matter, I think I recall someone naming their dog Aristotle.
John Berbrich: I havenít heard that one. But Willie, you might be on to something. The ancient Greek school of philosophy known as the Cynics was named after dogs. The word Cynic comes from the Greek word for canine. So it sounds like the dog school, although I donít know why it was called thus. And just so you know, I could do without deodorant, organized religion, & litigation. I Kant think of any philosophers who were dog lovers, but if I had to guess Iíd say William James.
William Michaelian: Oh? Why him?
John Berbrich: Well, for one thing, James always seemed like a good old earthy sort of fellow, the type of guy who would let a dog lick his face. On top of that, I seem to recall a passage from one of his books, in which a man is reading while his dog watches. The man is absorbed in the book. Meanwhile the dog is thinking, if that fellow would just put down that book, the stick could be in the air. It struck me at the time as the sort of remark that would be uttered by a man who knew & understood dogs.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. From what you say, it seems thereís no doubt about it. What a refreshing thought. I admit, though, that Iíve never really enjoyed being licked in the face by a dog, even as a kid. But I love dogs, grew up with them, have spent countless hours with them at my side, and rejoice in their company. Those eyes. Those smiles. The joy they express when first we greet on a cool summer morning.
John Berbrich: Oh yeah. Dogs are always ready to go, always ready for fun & adventure. And theyíll forgive any cruelty done to them. How they love those cool mornings you mentioned, & how they are satisfied by the simple pleasures of water & shade & a nap. Oh, we could learn a lot from the canine.
William Michaelian: True. And letís not forget their wagging tails. It always bugs me when I see a dog that has had its tail shortened. Anyway. You mentioned the upcoming Yawp. Will there be an interview in the new issue? And speaking of interviews, do you still plan to publish a second volume of interviews, or did you decide against it?
John Berbrich: Oy, all these questions. No, the interview hasnít worked out for the August issue. I now plan to complete it for, & include it in, the November issue. And, yes, the second interview chap is still officially on, itís merely been shoved aside for the time being. We should finish it off soon, though ó itís a good book.
William Michaelian: The first volume certainly is. You really canít go wrong with a collection like that. In the meantime, since questions suddenly seem to bother you, Iíll try not to ask you any more. Instead, I suggest you ask me a question. Go ahead. Any question at all.
John Berbrich: Okay. Whatís your favorite color?
William Michaelian: I donít have one. But I like blue. And red. Green and yellow a lot less, except for the greens and yellows found in nature, which I do like. A good dark purple is nice. Black and gray, if those are considered colors. If they arenít, I like them anyway. Okay. Ask me another. Donít be shy. Anything. Anything at all.
John Berbrich: Good job w/ the colors. Okay, the other night I had this dream. I was driving but I couldnít remember which side of the road I was supposed to be on. I was on the left. I figured that Iíd just keep going until I saw another car & then make any necessary adjustments. Pretty soon a car came along on my side of the road & I moved over to the right lane & everything was fine. The question is ó What is the significance of this dream?
William Michaelian: Your willingness to change lanes clearly shows that you are not an arrogant person. The fact that you were driving shows that your life is in motion ó not all is settled in your mind. Changing lanes successfully and without incident indicates an underlying sense of security, self-assurance, and optimism. You expect things to work out, in their own time and in their own
John Berbrich: Excellent! Hereís a dream I had last week. I was being chased by zombies ó wait, have I told you this?
William Michaelian: No, the last thing you told me about was being chased by philosophers.
John Berbrich: Thatís an old one. In the recent dream, the zombies looked like everyone else, maybe just a little slow, but they used guns. I was at some huge complex of buildings ó something like a shopping mall or more likely an industrial park ó when this woman who had been standing around whipped out a gun & starting blasting. The police were called in. I managed to extricate myself from the area, only to be accosted by another zombie, this time a man, w/ a rifle. I had climbed a tall tree in an alley trying to hide. He saw me & motioned the gun in such a way that I knew he wanted me to jump to my death (I was up about 40 feet) or heíd shoot me down. It was an evil choice. Suddenly a cop came around the corner & shot the zombie. I climbed down the tree, relieved, when a car came lurching around a corner, rifles poking out of all the open windows. The car was packed w/ riders, & from their sick smiles you knew they were zombies. There was no way to escape, so I woke up. The question is ó What is the significance of this dream?
William Michaelian: Well, assuming it wasnít the result of large spicy meal too close to bedtime, I would say itís time to change jobs, or at least time for a nice long vacation. Think about it ó if you substitute co-workers for the zombies, and gossip and backbiting for their rifles, you just described a typical American office building.
John Berbrich: Wow. I never realized that the job was getting to me like that. Thanks, Willie. Thanks a lot. I...I guess I need a vacation or something, get away from it all. The question is ó where should I go?
William Michaelian: I suggest you begin with something modest, say a three-month leave of absence, during which time you retrace the steps of a literary figure you admire, such as Whitman, Emerson, or Thoreau. I wonder myself whatís happened to some of the beautiful places Whitman describes in Specimen Days. I guess most are buried under freeways.
John Berbrich: Yeah, freeways & shopping malls. Progress. Thatís a great idea, by the way. It would be fun to try to track down some of those places. Reminds me of an idea I had for a book, to compare the journals & travels of 19th century literary figures & see what different writers were doing on the exact same day. Something like this: ďAt the very same moment that Emerson was eating beans at a Boston diner, Whitman swung from a tree in New Jersey, emitting his barbaric yawp; meanwhile, Robert Louis Stevensonís boat was capsized in the South Pacific &, over in England, Lord Tennyson repaired a length of fence along the northern border of his property. The question is ó Do you think this idea has book possibilities?
William Michaelian: I would love to read a book like that. The more writers you draw on, the better it gets. Putting it together would certainly be a challenge. But it would form quite a picture of the times.
John Berbrich: Thatís what I think. I have several pages of notes & a list of books I already own ó journals, diaries, travel accounts, & so forth ó enough to get me started. And like you said, a real picture of the times would emerge. Iím fascinated by the idea. Maybe I need to go to prison, where Iíll have lots of time to write. And maybe continue my education, free of charge.
William Michaelian: Thatís one way of doing it. But as far as I know, they donít let you simply check in and use the place as a hotel. Then again, maybe you have a suitable infraction in mind. I seem to recall that Thoreau spent a short time in jail for refusing to pay his taxes.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but I think it was for only one night, then someone came & paid his tax for him. Anyway, going to jail is a bad idea. I like going outside & wandering around by myself. But the bookís a good idea. I almost said that I wish I had more time to write it, but then I remembered the danger of wishing, the whole Monkeyís Paw thing. You might get what you wish for & you might not like it at all.
William Michaelian: Monkeyís paw ó it sounds like youíre talking about the monkeyís father instead of its hand. But I feel the same way about wishing. Life is subtle, delicately interwoven. Alter even one thing and it can have far-reaching effects. Far worse than getting what you wish for and not liking it is getting what you wish for, but at a terrible unexpected cost.
John Berbrich: Yeah. You ever feel as though youíre jinxing yourself by maybe uttering the wrong thing, like saying ďIíve never been sick a day in my life,Ē or something similar? Like youíre upsetting that delicate balance you mentioned, just inviting disaster. This may be nothing but gross superstition & ignorance, but still itís how I sometimes feel.
William Michaelian: Me too. And the feeling goes back to my childhood. Itís not tied to any particular event that I can remember, just to a sense of living in a sort of enchanted realm. Another thing is that I have always felt very lucky, as if something wonderful were just around the corner. I feel that way through good times and bad, as if all I have to do is keep rolling the dice.
John Berbrich: It sounds like you have Faith, brother. Iím not referring necessarily to a belief in a particular divine entity, but rather a general optimistic outlook, which could work out to the same thing. I usually have it, not always. Some people are just the opposite, & Iíve always tried to stay away from them. You know, doom & gloom. Finding the cloud behind every silver lining. Is the moon half empty or half full?
William Michaelian: Neither. Itís made of green cheese. But the luck I was referring to is different than faith. As I said, itís a feeling that goes way back. It was there when I was five, eight, ten, long before my mind was troubled by reason. Quite possibly it was a natural result of good health, or maybe it was good health itself. I was also surrounded by people who felt the same way ó by family members who expected a positive outcome, who not only expected it, but demanded it ó of each other, and of life itself. Meanwhile, part of the rolling of the dice is the understanding that you will sometimes lose, and that you will welcome the loss for whatever secrets it might contain, and be stronger because of it. In other words, even when you lose, you win, even when losing roils your guts and almost destroys you. Anyway. Thatís part of it. Itís hard to explain. But I know this: I am a gambler at heart.
John Berbrich: Reminds me of a Japanese expression I heard long ago ó ďSeven times down, eight times up!Ē I get the image of one of those weighted life-size balloon opponents an amateur boxer might use; every time you punch it, it swings toward the floor, only to spring back up. Do you buy lottery tickets?
William Michaelian: No. We bought a couple about fifteen years ago ó you know, to help the State of Oregon improve the life of its ordinary citizens. We didnít see any results, so we withdrew our support. But Iíve never been much of a gambler in the typical slot machine, horse-racing sense, although I have enjoyed those forms of recreation many times over the years. I really prefer gambling at much higher stakes: artistically, psychologically ó which can also be quite costly in financial terms.
John Berbrich: My own experience is pretty similar. I bought a couple of lottery tickets years ago, losers. The proceeds from the New York State Lottery are supposed to go towards education. My wife teaches various English, Literature, & language-based courses at the college, & we donít see any dramatic increase in the studentsí abilities or motivation. Throw money at a problem. Anyway, we donít participate. Iíve been to the horses &, when I lived in Connecticut, attended both dog racing & jai-alai. I really enjoyed the dog races. Never been to a casino, actually. Donít know what Iíd do if I won a lot of money. Sounds like a royal pain.
William Michaelian: Yeah, itís one thing to win thirty or forty or even a few hundred dollars, but to win several million in a lottery would have to be strange, especially since the money would have no connection to anything you have done, worked toward, built, or contributed. Itís all a bit sick. Jai-alai is a Basque sport. Somewhere along the line, I think Iíve mentioned that my loving bride is Basque.
John Berbrich: I didnít know that Dollface was Basque. Cool. Is she from Europe or The USA or what?
William Michaelian: She was born in Central California like me. But both her parents were from the French Pyrenees. Her father was a sheepherder in California for a number of years, then, when the time was right, he sent for Dollfaceís mother and the two were married. They raised a family of four boys and a girl, all born in Fresno.
John Berbrich: I repeat: that is cool. One must be impressed by the Basque unwillingness to assimilate. I mean, they are border people & must get it from both sides. But they stick to their own ways. And I do have a question. Iíve read that the Basque language is unrelated to any other known language in the world. Do you know if this is true?
William Michaelian: Iíve read that many times, although, oddly enough, scholars have noticed certain similarities to Armenian, more than can be explained by mere coincidence. And Iíve also heard that the Armenian and Basque people are related. No doubt the average Basque would find this disturbing, and would either deny it vehemently or prefer to keep it quiet. Not that there is any such thing as an average Basque.
John Berbrich: Or an average Armenian. Well, it certainly sounds as though something cosmic is going on, w/ the Armenian-Basque connection. What languages is Armenian related to?
William Michaelian: Armenian is an Indo-European language, possibly a descendant of Phrygian, with many root words similar to Persian. Incidentally, Lord Byron thought enough of the Armenian language to study it and help prepare an Armenian-English grammar that he tried to get published in England. I donít know whether he succeeded or not.
John Berbrich: Havenít heard of it. I had a real fascination w/ languages for a while. Bought a number of books about world languages. Studied Japanese, tried my hand at translating French poetry. Now, Iím just trying to learn English.
William Michaelian: And it keeps changing. Catch it if you can. Catch any language. Even a so-called dead language is alive, because when we study it we apply our own current mentality, belief, and range of experience. The words donít necessarily mean what we think they mean, but they still mean something, even if the people who spoke them have long since vanished.
John Berbrich: I know what you mean. Several years ago, I was trying to convince my youngest son to read Tom Sawyer. ďItís a really good book,Ē I said. He leafed through it, doubtful. He stopped at some kind of altercation between Tom & some other boys. Tom says something like, ďIíll lick any boy who sasses my Aunt Polly,Ē something like that. Well, I thought my son would like that section at least, due to the possibility of a fistfight. Instead he said he thought the book was stupid & gross, because he thought that Tom was actually going to lick the other boy. Then I explained the alternate meaning of lick, but Iím afraid by that time he was totally soured on that book, no matter what I said. That had something to do w/ language changing, & our perception of it.
William Michaelian: Definitely. But I hope you gave the kid a licking anyway. Come to think of it, we can also say that we donít care a lick, or that someone doesnít have a lick of sense. I wonder how that one got started. Endlessly fascinating, words. So many shades of meaning. I still marvel at what Joyce did with them, how he breathed life into them and made them perform. Itís kind of like turning over rocks that have been sitting for centuries and exposing their undersides to the light.
John Berbrich: And revealing the worms beneath. Iím reminded once more of the monopoems of Richard Kostelanetz, those poems of only one word. They certainly donít rhyme, but in lingering over each one, you cannot help but meditate upon the word. And suddenly it seems deeper, more three-dimensional. You see it from a different angle, like that rock you have in your hand, dirty & teeming w/ microscopic life.
William Michaelian: In other words, you are less a spectator and more a participant. Another thing to notice upon turning over a rock ó letís say itís one of those fine slabs near the river that runs by your house ó is the place where it has rested all those centuries. That small portion of earth could well be a forgotten doorway.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah. There are some enormous trees down in the marsh between our house & the river. Theyíve been yanked out of the earth by some titanic natural force, heavy snow or thundering winds, or some combination. The exposed roots twist in the air like the withered, attenuated fingers of witches. And in the muck gape doors, doors leading down into unimaginable hells. At least, thatís how I always think of it.
William Michaelian: Good. Then itís not just me. Not only that, but youíve just described my current dental situation. See, I have this long-neglected broken tooth that is now causing a lot of pain, and ó assuming I can hang on that long ó an appointment with the dentist a couple of days from now. But letís not talk about that. Letís talk about rocks some more. There are beautiful massive chunks of granite high in the Sierra Nevada east of where we used to live. Some I think of as cathedrals, some as large sleeping animals, some as guardians or sentinels. A few of the smaller ones even remind me of rocks, but I know better. Turn your head and they creep up the trail behind you, whispering. Look again and they appear to have been asleep for ages.
John Berbrich: The only thing around here that creeps up is the price of gas. Rocks tend to stay put. You might be interested to know that we almost got sprayed by a skunk the other evening. We were out walking the dogs, heading home, when a skunk appeared by the edge of the road. Normally these noisome creatures sort of waddle off into the tall grass when they see you, but this one was in a bad mood, & lifted itself into a front handstand (or pawstand), preparatory to catapulting raw stink our way. We instantly broke into a run. The foul beast lowered its hindquarters slowly to the broken pavement, apparently convinced that we no longer posed a threat. Later on I had a great idea for a horror movie. Itís about these reverse-vampire zombie skunks. They stumble around town all day & night, & when they bite you instead of sucking your blood they inject their stink into your veins. I donít even want to imagine what that would feel like.
William Michaelian: Youíre sick, man. Really sick. However, a movie full of zombie skunks walking around on their front paws is bound to be a hit. Sort of a modern plague story. You have this town fighting to stay alive, people hiding in their boarded-up houses, afraid to sleep, afraid to go out and get the mail, because not only are they scared of the skunks, they never know which of their friends or neighbors might be infected. In one scene, several pretty girls bite their boyfriends at the high school prom, and the camera zooms in on the boysí faces as the vile stink enters their bodies. First they are pleased, then puzzled, then disbelieving, then totally horrified. Congratulations. By the way, if thereís a part for a rock, Iíd like to audition for it.
John Berbrich: Iíll keep that in mind. What sort of rock do you portray best? Shale, slate, or maybe something cool like quartz? We can dye your beard green & you can play a mossy stone on the edge of the garden path, hangout of crows & pigeons.
William Michaelian: Fine, but in that case I insist I be given a hat to wear. And sunglasses. I want to be a hip rock, maybe even a little stoned.
John Berbrich: Sure. You can do the soundtrack, too ó play some crazy rock music.
William Michaelian: Thanks. I guess this means youíre not taking me for granite.
John Berbrich: Of course not. Have you lost your marbles? I fully appreciate your abilities, my stony friend: that cold flinty gaze, your igneous features, & your wise selection of cherts, appropriate for every occasion.
William Michaelian: Wow. I sound like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood. But Iíll tell you what. As flattering as it is to be cast as the first stone, Iíd better not take the part after all. Thereíll be a lot of kids watching, and I donít want to promote a sedimentary lifestyle.
John Berbrich: Iíll take that w/ a grain of basalt, buddy. I know youíre just dying to share the spotlight w/ some alluvial starlet. Think youíre another Rock Hudson, eh?
William Michaelian: On the contrary. Aside from the obvious difference in our looks, my voice is too gravelly. Another thing that concerns me is my contract. Iíve heard youíre quite a chiseler.
John Berbrich: Címon, Willie ó be gneiss. How can I be both a humanitarian AND a chiseler at the same time? Itís either / ore.
William Michaelian: Iím sorry. I see youíre crushed. Maybe we should explore another vein.
John Berbrich: Are you trying to give me the shaft?
William Michaelian: No. But I do admit the fault is mine.
John Berbrich: So you claim.
William Michaelian: Isnít that precious. You act as if there isnít an ounce of truth in anything I assay.
John Berbrich: I always weigh your argument; yet I find that when I remove the impurities, thereís nothing left.
William Michaelian: Ouch. A remark like that tells me one thing: youíll do anything to see me cave in.
John Berbrich: Youíd better watch your language ó there could be miners reading this.
William Michaelian: There you go again. Pick, pick, pick.
John Berbrich: I hate to keep hammering this home, but youíd best be careful, Willie ó your rationality is crumbling.
William Michaelian: I thought something smelt around here.
John Berbrich: Thatís because your jokes stink. Are you trying to be ironic?
William Michaelian: No, Iím just trying to prove my mettle.
John Berbrich: Your magnetic personality isnít working.
William Michaelian: Which means my prospects canít be good.
John Berbrich: Unless youíre in need of squatterís rights. Iím growing weary of panning your wise cracks.
William Michaelian: I donít blame you, since all you find is foolís gold. Tell you what. Although it was pun while it lasted, letís call this little exercise a draw and move on.