The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Another nice book I picked up the other day is a reprint of the 1855 edition of Walt Whitmanís Leaves of Grass. Maybe youíve seen it. Itís a beautiful hardcover published by Borders, with no year given on what would normally be the copyright page. It contains his Preface and twelve untitled poems, followed by ďA Backward Glance Oíer Travelíd Roads.Ē Itís really quite beautiful, and in perfect condition ó all for the ridiculous low price of six dollars.
John Berbrich: No, I havenít seen it. Iíve read that Whitman revised his early poems quite a bit until he was finally satisfied w/ them. Would be interesting to compare that volume w/ his later editions. Is there a photo of the author in the first few pages of the book? Iíve heard that he included one but I havenít seen it. Bet Whitman rode horses.
William Michaelian: So it would seem. But right off hand, I donít remember him referring to it anywhere. No photo in this particular edition. Just the one on the front of the jacket, in which heís much older.
John Berbrich: Iím pretty sure I read that the original cover was solid green, w/ little or no print. Originals of that book must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to put it in crass economic terms.
William Michaelian: I wonder how many of them there are. Certainly there must be a museum somewhere that has at least one copy on display, not to mention manuscripts, pots and pans, etc.
John Berbrich: Yeah, Iím sure that there are copies somewhere. How could they all get lost? You & I canít be the only folks that are unable to get rid of a book. You never know what youíll find. I think I told you about the old Byron I bought at a used book shop in New Hampshire. Itís over 1000 pages of very small print, fancy paper, printed in 1856 or 1857. All of Lord Byronís poetry, plus letters he wrote, travel journals, his will, & even an address he made to Parliament. I paid $10 for it. Iím guessing itís worth a lot more than that.
William Michaelian: It would have to be. What a find. Just make sure you show it to him when he visits us at the Antique and Junk Poem Shop. It must be printed on that ultra-thin paper, the kind they use in bibles. Is it set up in a two-column format?
John Berbrich: Yeah. Lovely old tome. The cover is rough & sort of peeling. But generally in very good condition. I donít see how on-line publishing can replace something like that.
William Michaelian: Well, obviously, it canít. But who knows what the future holds. I also picked up a beautiful old volume at the library book sale that was printed in 1898 in Philadelphia, by the Gebbie Publishing Co., Ltd. The Lily of the Valley by Balzac, along with three stories. The pages are untrimmed, laid stock. Generous margins. A heavy, sturdy book. With normal care, thereís no reason it wonít last another hundred or two hundred years. Price: one dollar.
John Berbrich: Wow. That bookís over 100 years old. Iíve read one or two Balzacs years ago, one of which was Pere Goriot. I canít remember the other. Good book. This old guy had three daughters who were killing him, if I remember correctly. He gave them everything, all to keep up appearances. I should go on a Balzac binge. His books seem to be piling up around here. Years ago I got on this French kick, reading Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, & the Surrealists. The French always seem so fanatical in their writing.
William Michaelian: Especially back then. Balzac really burnt the candle at both ends, spending words like a drunken sailor. Flaubert was just the opposite, sometimes taking all day to write two or three words. When Baudelaire published his Flowers of Evil, he was hauled into court for indecency and forced to remove certain, shall we say, vivid poems. Recently I read that Edna St. Vincent Millay collaborated on a translation of his work. In her introduction, Millay hopes that ďthese French poems, shipwrecked into English and fitted out with borrowed clothes, have nevertheless not lost entirely their identity.Ē
John Berbrich: Very picturesque. Spoken like a true poet. Whatís your Baudelaire experience? I read Flowers of Evil a few years ago. Canít recall the translator. Wait ó Iíll look. *** Back. Thereíre quite a few translators, about 20 in all, Edna St. Vincent Millay among them. I rather liked roughly 1/3 of the poems, several of them very much so. Others didnít work for me at all. In the book I have just found a piece of scrap paper adorned by an aborted attempt at translation by myself. Something about bones & horses
William Michaelian: Oh? How much French do you know? I havenít really read Baudelaire, just snippets in stores. One shop downtown has, or had, a couple of nice hardcover editions, but I donít remember who the translators were. Not Millay, though.
John Berbrich: French? Mon Dieu! Very little. Nothing outside of a few words & phrases. But I do have French dictionaries. What I was trying to do was to write out as many of the English equivalents as I could find for the French words, then hope that mystically the spirit of the poem would come to me & I could merely write it down. This glorious plan didnít work.
William Michaelian: Iím surprised, because the idea is brilliant. Maybe you didnít stay with it long enough. Or maybe you listened when the practical side of your brain expressed doubts. Then again, maybe it was Baudelaireís fault. Did you try the approach with any other poets?
John Berbrich: I tried the same method w/ Japanese haiku. The problem there was that often the poet had used a word or two that is now archaic & not in the normal dictionaries. So the line would have this glaring hole. I could use my imagination, but thatís not really translating. Oh, to some extent I suppose itís allowable. But Japanese is so subtle, plus each word usually has several meanings. So itís a puzzle.
William Michaelian: Well, successful or not, itís certainly good mental exercise. But in the end, I think itís far easier to start from scratch and write your own poem. Back to Baudelaire ó I was able to stop by the bookstore briefly this afternoon, and, sure enough, they had a couple of very nice Heritage Press harcover editions of The Flowers of Evil, translated by ďvarious hands,Ē Millayís among them. The books even had cases. One was priced at nine dollars, the other at fifteen. Beautiful. But I didnít get either one. I got Brautigan instead: in one volume, Revenge of the Lawn and his other stories, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, and So the Wind Wonít Blow It All Away, a later work that was published in 1982.
John Berbrich: I always smile when Brautigan is mentioned. Iíve read the first two but donít know So the Wind Wonít Blow It All Away. Youíll have to fill me in. Donít you just love to look at beautiful books, even if you donít buy them. I do ó love to touch them, smell the paper & ink, examine the bindings. Read the publishing history & glance through the introductions & the epilogues & the indexes. Then comes the main event. Or it goes back on the shelf. Funny how one can remember not purchasing something.
William Michaelian: Like faces, some books do linger in the mind. I also saw another of those Borders books ó the same format, the same price, only this one contained the work of Robert Frost. They must have done a whole series of them. The next time Iím at Borders, maybe Iíll look into it. But I donít go there nearly as often.
John Berbrich: Thereís a Borders in Watertown, about a 55-mile drive from here. Iíve been there only twice, both times as part of a shopping excursion that goes like this: I drive; I drop the women off at the mall; I walk over to Borders, & they come get me when theyíre done. Iím due for another trip soon.
William Michaelian: Well, in that case, if you make it before I do, maybe you can look. Hey ó donít you love Brautiganís dedication for The Abortion?
come on inó
itís on the table
in front room.
Iíll be back
John Berbrich: Yeah ó itís beautiful & it makes me laugh. Sir Richard always serves up the unexpected, although I rarely get the impression that heís simply trying to shock the reader. Weird, funny, quirky things happen every day in everyoneís life ó each is a Brautigan novel, if you are awake. People see them & forget them. Brautigan builds them up into curious structures, like the Junk Poem Shop, & pretty soon youíre standing in the middle of this strange & strangely appealing neighborhood. Itís like you have new eyes.
William Michaelian: Thatís Brautigan. And itís all stated in a simple childlike fashion ó as weíve noted before, gentle, humorous, sweetened with melancholy. Another book I saw in the Brautigan section was a novel called An Unfortunate Woman. The manuscript, I believe, was discovered by his daughter, and finally published in 2000. Itís a nice little hardcover.
John Berbrich: I havenít read that one, although Iíve heard of the name. Right now Iím plowing through a new translation of Beowulf, published in 2000, by Seamus Heaney. At this point, Grendelís dead & the hero is tracking down the hideous mother. Pretty good story. This is the fourth translation Iíve read of this ancient work. Itís easily the most accessible.
William Michaelian: Wow. You donít fool around, do you? I canít tell you the number of times Iíve almost read that book. One of these days, Alice ó pow! right in the kisser! Oops. Wrong line. So. Heaney, eh? Are you up on his work? I know him only by a few quoted bits and pieces. Didnít he win a Nobel Prize?
John Berbrich: Yeah, back in 1995. Iím not familiar w/ his work at all, but Iíve seen the name around a lot. The bookís a solid hardcover, a bilingual edition too. Youíve got the old Anglo-Saxon on the left page & the modern English on the right. An excellent book based on Beowulf is the novel Grendel by John Gardner. Itís the story told from the monsterís point of view. Very intriguing work.
William Michaelian: Ah, thatís right ó I remember you mentioned that before. I like that they published a bilingual edition. Do you spend much time comparing the ancient and modern, or are you just focusing on the latter?
John Berbrich: Most of the time Iím right into the action, reading out loud to myself on the park bench. When thereís a break in the narrative I might take a few moments to compare. Hereís the point where beowulf meets Grendelís mother. You compare:
The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell,
the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength,
then heaved his war-sword and swung his arm:
the decorated blade came down ringing
and singing on her head.
Ongeat pa se goda grund-wyrgenne,
mere-wif mihtig; maegen-raes forgeaf
hilde-bille, hond sweng ne ofteah,
paet hire on hafelan hring-mael agol
Lots of the original letters are quite different from what Iím putting down, but this as close as I can get it.
William Michaelian: Thatís odd ó I donít see why you need a translation. But imagine being the typesetter on this thing. I like the first line, One great soda with ground vinegar.
John Berbrich: Yeah, it sounds great. I think Heaneyís taking some liberties w/ the translation. Whatís the rest of it really say, Willie?
William Michaelian: Well, Iím pretty sure the second line says But my wife is mighty, in no hurry to forgive. At least that would explain the vinegar in the soda.
John Berbrich: But who ever heard of grinding vinegar?
William Michaelian: No one. This is ground vinegar ó a naturally occurring substance that bubbles up from the ground. Also very potent. Very rare nowadays, but common in Grendelís time.
John Berbrich: Oh. Your scholarship is deep. If I might try a bit, the next line seems to start off w/ Hillbilly, but after that Iím lost. Perhaps Grendel was really a Viking hillbilly? Oh, oh ó the rest of that line could have something to do w/ taking a swig of hooch....maybe often. What do you think?
William Michaelian: Well, it follows naturally enough. Letís take a look at the first three lines together:
One great soda with ground vinegar,
But my wife is mighty, in no hurry to forgive,
a hillbilly who often swigs her hooch
Hmm. Not exactly musical, is it. But probably truer to the original. Maybe Heaney was going for the Braveheart audience, whereas I am content with the Ulysses tavern crowd.
John Berbrich: Anything can happen when youíre dealing w/ those guys. Which reminds me of our movie. I canít seem to recall the title. Think we could somehow work in a Beowulf theme, a subplot or something? At least slip in a monster or two, to go w/ the tankards of mead. I have a feeling that Joyceís characters could handle the Anglo-Saxon pretty well after a few rounds of ale.
William Michaelian: Letís see. What is mead, exactly? I always picture it as a kind of soupy-saucy mixture, with fine gritty bits the size of goose bumps. Paddy Dignamís Hearse ó thatís it. Yes, Iím sure the movie can absorb such a theme.
John Berbrich: Far as I know, mead is honey-wine. I donít know how you make it. You buy it at the liquor store when youíre a teenager, thatís all I remember.
William Michaelian: Iíll be darned. I donít remember that at all. Honey-wine, eh? Must have a high alcohol content. Then again, maybe thatís why I donít remember it. Either way, I suppose weíll need a meadery at the Junk Poem shop ó where, I might add, we might as well film our movie.
John Berbrich: Thatís a good idea. We can leave the set up permanently ó especially the barroom. We can go there for small vacations when we tire of poetry & eating trout for breakfast every morning. Heck, you could set up a cot & sleep in the barroom. Far off youíd hear the jazz band weaving dreams on the roof. Poets declaiming in the next building. How restful. And then a monster comes knocking on the door.
William Michaelian: Which brings up another question: what do those monsters like to eat? People? Each other? Nice crisp salads?
John Berbrich: Thatís a good question. I guess that most monsters eat people; otherwise they wouldnít be considered monsters. I mean, if some gigantic creature started eating sidewalks ó no, I suppose that would be considered a monster too. Seems like a beast has to really upset our world a great deal to earn the sobriquet of monster. Thatís a great word ó monster.
William Michaelian: Definitely. But sobriquet isnít bad either. It could be an ice cream flavor, for instance. And then there are people who are monsters.
John Berbrich: Right. Thatís why I modified my hasty definition from an eater-of-people to a major upsetter-of-our-world. Monster. Denizen of nightmares. That thing that comes blasting in to make a mess of all our dreams & plans, destroying all that weíve built w/ our own hands. Mocking our values. Laughing at or ignoring every thing we hold precious. Monster. Or a type of ice cream: ďIíll take a large monster w/ chocolate chips & hundreds of colored jimmies in a cone. Thanks.Ē
William Michaelian: And the cone is the size of a five-gallon bucket. ďYou should also try our new Monster Swirl.Ē The question is, why are humans so fascinated by monsters? Is it because there is some monster in each of us? Or do monsters represent our fear of the unknown?
John Berbrich: Fear of ó or fascination w/ the unknown? There are definitely monsters lurking within each of us. They seem to be stimulated by things like greed & hatred & selfishness. Monsters appear daily in the world, read any newspaper. Freud investigated these matters. His outlook was bleak. But life would be awfully dull without monsters of some sort somewhere.
William Michaelian: It would be something else, thatís for sure. Itís hard to imagine, really. I guess fear and fascination would be most accurate ó like playing with fire. And we never know when, or under what circumstances, the monsters within us will be aroused.
John Berbrich: Yes, & thereís something thrilling about the possibility of danger. We experience it vicariously through film & literature. And then thereís the challenge of vanquishing the monster, both the internal & the external one. Saving oneself or oneís society. How could we have heroes without monsters?
William Michaelian: Good question. Again, youíre in that realm of a world so different . . . well, thereís just no telling. But what if you lived in that monsterless world, and were exposed to the literature and culture of a world like ours? Talk about some real Sci-Fi.
John Berbrich: Hmmmm. Youíre right. Our world wouldnít make any sense to them. How could it? I canít imagine a totally monsterless world that wasnít a hell. But the inhabitants would learn to love it much as we learn to love ours, warts & all. Whatís funny is that some people love only the warts.
William Michaelian: For that matter, some people are warts. Or at least blemishes. But it sounds almost as if youíre equating monsters with challenges. Couldnít there be a monsterless world that still has plenty to strive for and accomplish?
John Berbrich: Lemme think about that one. Maybe itís just that the possibility of a monster is enough to keep it all interesting. I certainly donít want to live next door to a monster, but I sort of appreciate that theyíre out there somewhere, doing their necessary work. Does this make sense?
William Michaelian: Sure. And maybe the monsters inside are also doing their necessary work. As are the heroes inside us.
John Berbrich: Right. Without some kind of struggle, what would it all mean?
William Michaelian: Eternal, inescapable boredom ó the biggest, most dangerous monster of all.
John Berbrich: Explains why people are always so busy. I think weíre getting close to something important, Willie. Is overcoming boredom the answer to all these questions? Is that what Zen does, what Buddhism does ó vanquishes boredom through meditation? Or maybe inviting boredom, until it is no longer boredom, but rather some sort of relaxed though alert perspective on the world? Overcoming our fear of emptiness, the void, the Black Hole of life.
William Michaelian: First, itís ironic that being bored can keep people so busy ó an endless chasing of loose ends. And so, boredom is exhausting as well. As far as I can tell, the only ďcureĒ for boredom is observation. And, as you say, that observation must include boredom when it arises. It seems that if you resist boredom, or wage battle against it by trying to replace it with something else that you think is superior, you actually end up strengthening it. So judgment is a key factor. Itís like saying pain is bad, therefore I will do everything to stay out of pain ó when in reality, pain can be a great teacher.
John Berbrich: And some people even like it. So thatís it. Do not fear boredom. Invite it into your home. Hang out together. Learn to enjoy each otherís company. If you can do this, my son, your days will be free from fear & anxiety.
William Michaelian: Yep ó and to celebrate the possibility, hereís a poem I wrote a couple of weeks ago:
What exists that is unworthy of notice?
Which gift of the senses would you ignore?
Which common bodily miracle?
Which insect? Which star?
Can you give it a name?
Is it really less than you are?
Look again. Look, before you are gone.
John Berbrich: A good reminder. But what do you say to someone who says ó weíre all going to die anyway so whatís the point? Who cares if I see another star or not? Eventually, it all turns to rot.
William Michaelian: I either say, ďIn that case, then what are you hanging around for?Ē Or, ďHumor me. Iíve got mental problems.Ē
John Berbrich: Either oneís a good answer. I suspect that our gloom-&-doom interlocutor is merely bored. He should take up meditation. Or poetry.
William Michaelian: Or reading. Or gardening. Or volunteer work. But, at the same time, let us not judge. Sometimes life creeps up on us. It sneaks up from behind and hits us over the head. Or the seeds of confusion and doubt are sown early on, in childhood. Anger. Difficulty. Despair. All are miracles ó but with thorns.
John Berbrich: Tiny monsters, perhaps? Ah, youíre right. To each his own, Iíve always said. Let each man box his own corner. March to the beat of his own drummer. All that sort of thing. We do bump into wonders, even w/ our eyes closed.
William Michaelian: We do. And they bump into us. Besides, nature dictates exactly what youíve said: as much as we are alike in so many ways, life is still an intensely private affair ó enough so that it drives some of us mad.
John Berbrich: And then thereís the old idea that we are all mad, each of us to a different degree. But some do venture a bit far in this direction, Iíll grant you that. And some people want to fix them. Others want to be like them, emulate the mad ones, the possessed, the obsessed, the fanatics. Hmmmm. Humanity is like a rainbow made up of billions of colors, no two quite exactly alike.
William Michaelian: So it seems. Itís also possible that madness is the most logical response to what the majority believes and insists is normal.
John Berbrich: Reminds me of that Emily Dickinson poem Iíve quoted several times already on this Forum. I prefer to consider everyone else mad.
William Michaelian: Hey ó speaking of mad, congratulations on ten years of publication. I received the new Yawp today. Canít wait to get into it. Ten whole years: inspiring. And unless Iím mistaken, I discovered your magazine back in 1997. Or was it in early 1998? Oh, well. I guess Iíll have to check my records.
John Berbrich: Iím thinking 1998. According to my records, you first appeared within the Yawpís humble pages in December 1998. And youíve been a fairly frequent visitor, returning in June 1999 & at least once every year since. Hope you enjoy the current installment.
William Michaelian: Well, Iíd be surprised if I didnít. And on the subject of records, I think I must have every letter Iíve ever sent to or received from editors. Have you kept your correspondence with editors and writers?
John Berbrich: Absolutely. Thatís why my office is such a mess. Someday all of this paper will be put to very good use in some kind of small press compendium. A bit of history complete w/ quotes from minor literary notables. You donít know whoís going to be halfway famous in 10 years.
William Michaelian: Thatís right. For instance, it might be someone like Kate McCauley, whose two poems grace Page 4 of your new issue. Fantastic. I love ďIn Tongues,Ē and also her Oaxaca rooftop poem.
John Berbrich: I know. I love the clarity, the purity, of her language. That rooftop scene is fantastic. Iíd never heard from Kate before & donít know anything about her. Those poems just about knocked me over.
William Michaelian: E.M.O. Supranowiczís poem on Page 3, ďStrange Silence,Ē is also quite good. Really, if these three poems were the only things in the issue, Iíd be satisfied. But of course they also make me want to keep reading.
John Berbrich: There seem to be a number of strange, quiet poems in this issue ó dreams & sleep & mystical poignant moments. Weíve discussed this before, how each issue develops its own personality. Your own poem is certainly strange & quiet, although not absolutely silent.
William Michaelian: At any rate, itís not your everyday bit of conversation. And I like the title of the piece that follows it: ďThe Gathering: A Step Into Madness.Ē Meanwhile, Iíve been browsing the poems a bit, looking at the forms, the lines, the juxtapositions of words. I notice in the one by Megan Jones on Page 29, ďAsylum,Ē that the lines are centered. In general I donít care for that approach, but it seems very appropriate in this case.
John Berbrich: Yeah, the lines are symmetrical & balanced, just the way a person wrapped in a straitjacket is symmetrical & unbalanced. And that Meganís an Oregon girl, I believe.
William Michaelian: Well, that explains part of it, anyway. Hey, I enjoyed Michael Krieselís abecedarium, ďAllisĒ ó although I think he cheated a little bit by hyphenating ďgrandkidsĒ and using the word ďEx-farmerĒ for his X line. Not that xylophone would have worked.
John Berbrich: Or x-ray. Iíve written one abecedarium so far, which turned out okay. Itís really a pretty challenging form. Itís certainly a valid form & so rigid that even experienced poets are compelled to cheat occasionally. You should try one, if you havenít already.
William Michaelian: I havenít. As I mentioned before, I did write a twenty-six-paragraph story once that followed that pattern. Not only that, each paragraph had exactly eight lines. Hereís the first sentence from the X paragraph:
Xylophone music was coming from the garage of an old duplex on Perkins Street.
The funny thing is, it even fit into the story. Or should that be fitted? Fat? It fat into the story? Fut. It fut right in.
John Berbrich: What the fot are you talking about? And Iím impressed that you worked two Xís into the same sentence. One rarely experiences such carefree rhetorical dexterity in these anxious times.
William Michaelian: How true. While Xs are a luxury, a little extravagance never hurt anyone. On another subject, what is your general feeling on splitting words at the end of lines? I see poets do it on purpose every now and then, and it always bugs me.
John Berbrich: I find it annoying if I am unable to find a reason for the split. Sometimes, though, splitting a word can almost force you to examine the wordís components & possibly see a little more deeply into the poem. Also, a well-executed split can impart additional meanings to a line, turning say a bird into a birdbrain or a foot into a football. These hypothetical additional meanings, along w/ the surprise of the word-metamorphosis, can heighten the effect and thereby enhance a poem. Of course, when used clumsily it certainly detracts from the desired effect.
William Michaelian: Itís also interesting how such devices come and go. A published poet leading a workshop does it, and the next thing you know, it spreads like wildfire. But instead of being organic and inevitable, itís monkey see, monkey do. Large gaps between words in lines is another mechanism that comes to mind. It does work on occasion, but there has to be a genuine reason for it. Somehow, the added space has to strengthen the poem.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah, everything in a poem should strengthen it. Thatís the ideal. I occasionally receive work that seems to be composed of nothing but tricks: weird spacing, indentation, the enjambment dash as weíve just discussed, random CAPS, words apparently floating free on the page. These are difficult to read & most of the time seem to be merely exercises by the author in self-indulgence. The most talented practitioner of this type of poetry is of course E.E. Cummings, who at his best is quite remarkable. I prefer poetry thatís fairly accessible upon a first reading & that deepens upon further readings. Thatís the kind youíll find in the Yawp.
William Michaelian: During your ten years of reading submissions, have you noticed many changes in the type of work you receive, such as trends or fads, or the influence of widely published poets, or the prevalence of longer or shorter poems? What about quality in general?
John Berbrich: Thatís really a tough one. Weíve always received poems written in specific
forms ó haiku, sonnets, villanelles, et cetera ó & still do. Weíve always received poems in dull free verse ó you know, boring prose broken up into lines ó & still do. Weíve always gotten stuff thatís jumping w/ enthusiasm, lines that reek of vulgarity, verse thatís carefully crafted ó & still do. As to the quality, I always have had trouble saying ďnoĒ when making the final cuts, & I still do. I really donít see a trend over the past 10 years, except perhaps we receive more poetry from very young writers, high school & even elementary school. Not a lot, but maybe more than we did in the past.
William Michaelian: Interesting. Do their submissions come from all over the country? Or are there little hot spots of activity related to, say, the involvement of poet laureates or other writer-related programs in the schools?
John Berbrich: There are definitely hot spots. Oneís in Illinois, anotherís in North Carolina. But the most persistent thermal matrix is located in a region of Washington State, right across the Puget Sound from Seattle. I donít know what the deal is, but I always suspect some English or Creative Writing teacher. Although itís hard to tell; it could be some region where the kids are just born cool & poetic, some unexpected evolutionary modification that will eventually spread around the globe if it turns out to have any real survival value.
William Michaelian: An inspiring thought. Another reason behind it might be homeschooling. There are some mighty independent homeschoolers out there, and quite a few are in the Northwest.
John Berbrich: You know, Willie, thatís a thought I hadnít considered. Very possible. There are a number of home schoolers around here & Iíve noticed that often the kids are very talented. Not only talented, but interested in things unusual for members of their generation. For sure, these kids are not bored or boring. I canít remember ever reading in a cover letter that the author is being home schooled, but why would they mention it? Again, good thought.
William Michaelian: It does seem valid. As I see it, the most important goals of homeschooling are to encourage independent thinking and the discovery and pursuit of a childís natural talents. That said, I know many kids are homeschooled primarily for religious reasons and follow a set curriculum. I could be wrong, but somehow I donít see those particular students submitting their poems to Barbaric Yawp.
John Berbrich: Thatís too bad, since we in BoneWorld also encourage independent thinking along w/ the discovery & pursuit of natural poetical talents. I guess you could say that Barbaric Yawp is home schooled, since we figured out everything on our own. Self-taught. Auto-didact. Ah, ainít life grand!
William Michaelian: It certainly is ó especially when you arenít afraid to dive in and make things happen. Imagine if you hadnít forged ahead with the Yawp, if you had been sensible and practical and said, well, what do we know about publishing? What a horrible thought.
John Berbrich: Well, there are limits of some sort, I guess. But you wonít know where yours are until you try, really try. And itís more than inspiration ó itís work. But dive in, flap around, have fun. Try it.
William Michaelian: Simple, powerful advice. Well, youíll be glad to know I got a start on Brautiganís The Abortion last night. Iíve read about seventy pages so far. What a pleasure, thanks to paragraphs like this:
By now the old woman had finished the last drops of coffee in her cup, but she drank them again, even though they were gone. She wanted to make sure that she did not leave a drop in the cup, even to the point of drinking the last drop of coffee twice.
John Berbrich: Iím the same way. Waste nothing. Not a word.
William Michaelian: I call that integrity.
John Berbrich: In this case, integrity sounds like frugality w/ honor.
William Michaelian: Frugality born of awareness and observation. Without honor, a frugal person becomes a miser.
John Berbrich: Without honor, everyone turns sour.
William Michaelian: True. And thereís no shortage of examples. I love Brautigan. He was a melancholy genius. Iím sure youíve noticed similarities between his strange library in The Abortion and our Antique and Junk Poem Shop.
John Berbrich: Refresh my memory.
William Michaelian: Okay. You were born on Long Island.
John Berbrich: Very good. Next?
William Michaelian: You were a small child, loved by all.
John Berbrich: So I hoped, yes.
William Michaelian: And then, one day, when you were home alone eating ice cream and thinking about girls, you heard a voice, smiling and moaning across the continent. You put down your bowl and went to the window. On the lonesome salt breeze there arose the sound of cable cars, clacking and clanging through the fog. You went outside, and suddenly found yourself in San Francisco. And there was a book in your hand ó a book you had written. There. Iím sure you remember the rest.
John Berbrich: Wait a minute ó itís all starting to come back to me.....Yes, the fog, the cable cars, the traffic at night ó all those red lights growing smaller & smaller. All those steep streets w/ no one around. It was a lonely time.
William Michaelian: Very good. Now ó do you remember what you did with the book? Think. This is very important.
John Berbrich: I...I think I gave it to someone. Iím sure I did.
William Michaelian: Was it a librarian, by any chance? A peculiar, but very kind librarian?
John Berbrich: Maybe a guy that looked something like you ó w/ long hair & a beard filled w/ bird nests.
William Michaelian: Wow. Iíll take that as a compliment. Imagine ó someone like me, a character in a Brautigan novel.
John Berbrich: Indeed. And what do you do w/ all these books?
William Michaelian: Well, what I ó I mean the narrator in Brautiganís story ó do is register the book in the library, along with your ó I mean the authorís ó name, and a brief description of the subject matter. Something like this:
BACON DEATH by Marsha Paterson. The author was a totally nondescript young woman except for a look of anguish on her face. She handed me this fantastically greasy book and fled the library in terror. The book actually looked like a pound of bacon. I was going to open it and see what it was about, but I changed my mind. I didnít know whether to fry the book or put it on the shelf. . . . Being a librarian here is sometimes a challenge.
Of course, not all of the books people bring in are strange. Hereís another entry:
YOUR CLOTHES ARE DEAD by Les Steinman. The author looked like an ancient Jewish tailor. He was very old and looked as if he had made some shirts for Don Quixote. . . . ďThey are, you know,Ē he said, showing the book to me as if it were a piece of cloth, a leg from a pair of trousers.
Anyway. And then the librarian gives the book back to its author, and invites the author to place the book anywhere in the library he or she sees fit. In this manner, little by little, the ďhaunted writing of AmericaĒ finds a home. Of course, the library isnít open to the public. Nobody actually goes to the library or checks out any books. There, now. See what I mean? Doesnít that at least remind you in some small way of our Antique and Junk Poem Shop?
John Berbrich: Yeah. All it needs is a trout stream running through the aisles. And I can definitely see a place like that in the Junk Poem Shop. It would probably be in a region of the building that would be hard to find. Like behind a false wall or accessible through a tiny hole beneath a stairway.
William Michaelian: Which reminds me ó Brautiganís library is nowhere near big enough to house all the books people bring in, so there is another storage facility somewhere simply called ďThe Caves,Ē watched over by a magnanimous drunk named Foster. But in the story, the books are subject to ďcave seepage.Ē Thatís something weíll have to watch out for.
John Berbrich: Yeah. Weíll hire a maintenance guy or something. Keep him supplied w/ homebrew. W/ his mop & squeegee, heíll keep an eye on that seepage. And maybe write some poems too; weíd better include a pen & notebook among his supplies.
William Michaelian: Good thinking. And if he runs out, he can always use paper scraps and pencil stubs like the rest of us. So. Iíve finished reading The Abortion. Wonderful little novel. Last night I started on So the Wind Wonít Blow It All Away. Read eighty pages or so. This one is quite sad, with only slight glimmers of humor so far.
John Berbrich: I havenít read that one. Was that his last book?
William Michaelian: I think it was the ninth of ten novels. It was published in 1982, a couple of years before his suicide. The writing is simple, yet subtle, with a fateful, cumulative effect.
John Berbrich: And Iím sure it has that weird playful tenderness that seems to imbue all his work. I canít think of any other author w/ a similar voice.
William Michaelian: His was something special, funny and heartbroken at the same time. Here are a couple of short passages. In the first, the narrator is living next door to a mortuary and watching the funeral of a child. Keep in mind heís only about twelve years old himself. In the second, heís living somewhere else and talking about chores and old people.
The funeral unfolded like the petals of a flower whose ultimate blossom was a small coffin coming out the door of the funeral parlor and on its way to the hearse and that final place where the hearse would take it and come back empty and the child wouldnít need its toys anymore. . . .
I always liked old people, so I spent as much time with them as I could. They fascinated me like spiders, which I had a great deal of affection toward also. I could spend an hour with a spider web and be quite contented, but show me some weeds that needed pulling from the garden and I would exit a long large sigh like a billboard of desperation. . . .
John Berbrich: Interesting juxtaposition of life & death, particularly in the first instance. And I could certainly relate to the billboard of desperation when I was a kid. Anything to avoid helping out. Would much prefer to dream in my own world.
William Michaelian: Itís only natural, I guess. Still feels that way, although I do like pulling weeds. Speaking of plant life, I just found a neat poem in the current issue of Rain Taxi. Itís by Bert Meyers, who was born in 1928 and died of lung cancer in 1979. The poem is called ďSunflowers.Ē Here it is, in its entirety:
No one spoke to the sunflowers,
those antique microphones
in the vacant lot.
So, they hung their heads
and, slowly, fell apart.
The poem is from a collection of his work called In a Dybbukís Raincoat, published by the University of New Mexico Press.
John Berbrich: Ohhh. That one elicited a sad chuckle. Thanks. Never heard of Bert Meyers. Amazing poetry everywhere, & now & then we uncover a scrap to share.
William Michaelian: And the accidental aspect is the best part about it. I looked up the word dybbuk. Hereís one online definition: ďIn Jewish folklore, the wandering soul of a dead person that enters the body of a living person and controls his or her behavior.Ē
John Berbrich: Yeah. I remember Woody Allen used it in one of his movies. ďWhoís the Dybbuk?Ē he asks, indicating some tough guy. It was the perfect-sounding word ó hilarious.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. But imagine the trouble it would create if one of these wandering souls popped up in your own family.
John Berbrich: Maybe itís you ó or me! If you were a dybbuk, would you know it? Perhaps you donít realize for years that you are, indeed, a dybbuk. Then one day the fog clears & you know. You remember. What next?
William Michaelian: Well, of course I know nothing about dybbukology. But if youíre a decent sort at all, youíd probably seek professional help.
John Berbrich: Indeed. Well, Mr. Michaelian ó when did you first realize that you were a
William Michaelian: It was in my therapistís office. I told her I wasnít coming back and she said, ďOh? Are you sure thatís a good idea? What about him?"
John Berbrich: First of all ó was she charging you the hourly rate for a single or a double?
William Michaelian: Ah ó that should have been a clue. But I was grateful for the attention. We both were.
John Berbrich: Ach! Sounds like a compound multiple split personality. A very difficult case. Tell me ó whose idea was it to seek professional help? Yours or...his?
William Michaelian: Yes.
John Berbrich: Just as I feared. You are suffering, both of you, from a rare disorder called, in laymanís terms, simultaneous congruent hemispheres of the neo-matrix. As yet, no one knows quite what that means. Although no cure is known, there is treatment available. First, read these two poems & call me in the morning.
ďThank you, whatever comes.Ē And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.
ó Ezra Pound
Drinking wine this afternoon
I realize the days are getting
ó Richard Brautigan
William Michaelian: Wow. We like both of them. Rather, I should say, I like the Pound poem, and he likes the one by Brautigan. Maybe we should call a truce. Okay, so he needs a haircut. But Iíve made my share of mistakes. I mean, letís face it ó heís not even Jewish. Oh-ho! After all these years, he admits heís not perfect. Never mind the fact that my lifeís ruined. Dybbuk! Dybbuk! Anyway. Now I have this picture in my head of Pound and Brautigan sitting on the steps of the San Francisco Library, reading each otherís poems. Theyíre both smiling.
John Berbrich: I cannot picture those two together. Except that one is maybe the dybbuk to the other. Each can relate to the otherís poem, Iím sure of that. And the sunlightís sort of slanting, warming that old stone step.
William Michaelian: Actually, theyíre sitting several steps apart. And they donít know each other. Them being there at the same time is a strange coincidence ó if it is the same time. Itís possible that passersby see them, but they donít see each other.
John Berbrich: This sounds like a town filled w/ dybbuks. Or maybe itís a Brautigan poem. He was after all drinking wine, noticing the slow lengthening of the days. But he didnít mention any steps. Or Pound. So youíre right ó they were there at two different times. Does that explain the psychoanalysis?
William Michaelian: No, that psychoanalyzes the explanation. But now that I think about it, there must be similar ghost-statues sitting on library steps all around the world. It seems inevitable.
John Berbrich: Wow. And get this ó when all of these dybbuks are on vacation, away from dybbuking their familiars or whatever you call them, they stay at the Junk Poem Shop. This explains everything.
William Michaelian: Yes, for where else would literary-minded dybbuks go to get away from it all? But what happens to their familiars while theyíre away? Familiars ó that does sound better than hosts. Or vehicles.
John Berbrich: They turn into like zombies ó which explains the blank expression worn by so many people. It appears dybbuks do good, necessary work.
William Michaelian: By inhabiting the aimless, they give humanity form and direction. And who knows ó maybe dybbuks were aimless when they were alive, and are also making up for lost time.
John Berbrich: They sound like the animating souls of mankind. Hope this never becomes commercialized. Feeling aimless, directionless, out of sorts? Try our new improved dybbuks. Entirely biodegradable. And remember, no animals were injured during the creation of these dybbuks. Made entirely by youthful Asiatic hands paid a reasonable wage. Dybbuks are not available in Cleveland or anywhere in Sector 12.
William Michaelian: Youíre absolutely right. What could be worse than pasteurized, processed dybbuks, readily available at neighborhood drive-throughs?
John Berbrich: Iíll tell you right now they wonít work very well. Bland McDybbuks. Pretty soon youíll see the real thing sold in back alleys ó black market full strength dybbuks. OSHA & the FDA will be called in. I see big government scandals, payola. Dybbuk checks at the Canadian border. This is getting out of hand.
William Michaelian: Exactly what we were shooting for. You realize, of course, that Bland McDybbuk is the perfect name for a detective.
John Berbrich: Aye, lad. Half Scottish, half Jewish. Oy, thatís a combination.
William Michaelian: And being a dybbuk, he can easily keep an eye on the suspects in any crime case. What evil murderer would guess that his own butler or gardener is a dybbuk?
John Berbrich: Yeah. A real ordinary guy. The real McDybbuk stands out in a crowd, as he goes around wearing a kilt & a yarmulke. Heís one dangerous character.
William Michaelian: That reminds me. You once said I looked like a dour Scottish detective. But my appearance has changed somewhat since then. Right now Iím looking for a hat. But it canít be a yarmulke. Can you imagine how ridiculous Iíd look wearing one of those? I need something with a really wide brim ó though I do realize yarmulkes arenít for shade. Preferrably black. Maybe dark gray. Perhaps Iíll consult the Amish. I could use a new straw hat too. How about you? Do you go in for hats?
John Berbrich: A hat? Well, in the winter I wear a tuque when itís really cold. And for rainy days (like today) I wear a camouflage fishermanís hat, sporting the New York Yankee logo, the superimposed NY. I always feel stylish in that one.
William Michaelian: An unstoppable force. Back on the farm, where hats were necessary for survival, I used to wear these round Italian straw hats made of raffia. Went through one or two a year. Very comfortable, light in weight, with a round crown that was basically flat on top. Havenít seen that style in years. If I did, Iíd buy it in a heartbeat. Iíve seen a few pretenders, but the straw is stiff, and the brims are a little bit fanned up on the sides, and are meant to stay that way, apparently, through all eternity. The Italian hats were supple, and the brims could be shaped little by little to your own liking. For the most part, though, people around here donít wear hats. Baseball caps are another story. Those are everywhere. There are stores that sell nothing else. And what kills me is that people call them hats. To me, a hat has a brim that goes all the way around. A cap only has a bill. I think Iíve mentioned this before. I still havenít come to terms with it.
John Berbrich: You have. Itís another issue for your analyst. Willie, youíre simply a textbook of neuroses & complexes. And this hat thing ó thereís got to be something psychological behind it, some sort of in-the-closet childhood repression. I agree w/ you about the cap, but you shouldnít let it take over your life like this.
William Michaelian: Thatís easy for you to say. Look at you ó well adjusted, easy going, intelligent. How many hats do you own? I have seventy-three. And I donít like a single one of them. I refuse to wear them. They anger me. And why do they anger me? Because they talk amongst themselves and get their laughs at my expense, thatís why. And yet I love hats. Someday ó and I tell you this in the strictest confidence, because I know youíll understand ó I will find the perfect hat and great happiness will ensue. So. What was that you were saying about being a textbook of neuroses and complexes?
John Berbrich: Say, wait a minute. Are you sure youíre Willie ó or are you his dybbuk? Whatever. I do sort of understand your angst regarding hats. When I was a kid I loved hats, always wore one. True story: when I was in second or third grade, there were these bullies in the playground that were giving me trouble. Every day at recess theyíd steal my hat & toss it around, that kind of thing. Well, one winterís day I brought like seven hats to school, hiding them in pockets & within my coat. So at recess, when the first bully snatched the hat from my head, I simply whipped out another & put it on. Another bully grabbed that hat. And so on. By the time I got to the seventh hat, the bullies were all laughing good-naturedly & gave me back all the hats. They never bothered me again.
William Michaelian: Thatís beautiful. Although it does seem there was a disproportionate number of bullies at your school. But you see, you faced the situation head on. You settled the matter at an early age, and it has led to your success in a wide range of endeavors. Whereas I have been spiraling downward, ever downward, all these years. Not that Iíve given up hope. I havenít. Several months ago, I was searching in a hat store online, and discovered this great big black old-fashioned hat with an extra-wide brim. But it does cost seventy-five dollars. And I have to ask: is my happiness really worth seventy-five dollars, considering that one summer day back in 1964, my father bought me a straw hat at the corner Japanese market ó fresh fish daily, mind you ó for only eighty-nine cents? And I wore the thing all summer!
John Berbrich: Thatís a good memory. A Japanese fishmarket. I had all kinds of hats ó a cowboy hat, a hat like the captain on Gilliganís Island wore, one of those cool white sailor hats where the brim is all turned up. Plus of course tuques & baseball caps. Itís funny how women look pretty good in totally crazy hats. For guys, well, we generally don more sober headgear.
William Michaelian: That really bothers me. Fact is, Iíve even been threatening to buy womenís hats lately, because so many of them look better than menís hats. Sans ribbons and bows, of course. But I like the size of some of those hats that look like half an acre of woven straw, almost like a painting by Van Gogh. By the way, I was listening to an art show on KBOO once, and someone said that the proper pronunciation of Gogh is really Ghukh. Anyway. I have a book of Van Goghís paintings. He was pretty darned good at straw hats too. You wouldnít happen to have a book of his letters, would you?
John Berbrich: Actually I do. Iím not sure exactly of its location, but I could probably find it in less than five minutes. And regarding his name ó Iíve heard some pretty funky pronunciations of Van Gogh. They all sound pretentious to me.
William Michaelian: Pretentious ó as in I know something that you don't know. As it happens, thereís a massive Van Gogh website based in Toronto. Itís called The Vincent van Gogh Gallery, and is run by a very knowledgeable, pleasant guy named David Brooks. Heís been working on it for eleven years now. It contains all of Van Goghís work, and all 874 of his letters. Quite a project. Hereís a link to the letters page.
John Berbrich: Wow. Thatís a lot of work. Reading Van Goghís letters, one realizes that he was a sensitive, intelligent guy. Sometimes you hear that he was a demented & tortured artist ó which may be true. And yet, he could be a gentle man, considerate & passionate. Although certainly w/ a fair helping of quirks.
William Michaelian: What a vision. Whether people realize it or not, the world ó this present world, our world ó is different and better because of him. Hey, I just found this great passage in Kerouacís Book of Sketches. See what you think. It might even be related to what weíre talking about: ďThe first thing that strikes me about Dostoevsky in beginning any of his books is the nervous anguish that seems to have preceded the first page ó the hero is always the same, comes to the first page out of eternities of introspection, anguish, gloom ó just as I do every day. Hmm.Ē
John Berbrich: That is a great passage. Kerouacís own work seems to derive from a spirit of adventure & experimentation. He doesnít sound anguished to me, perhaps dissatisfied w/ the status quo. But heís right ó Dostoevsky is a whole nuther story.
William Michaelian: Worlds apart, I do believe. Culturally, historically, psychologically, religiously. In his sketches, Kerouac is plainly and openly dissatisfied with the status quo ó boils it in oil, in fact, even to the point of apologizing afterward. And he is certainly not satisfied with himself, although he does seem to get a kick out of being who he is. And thereís always the awareness of time quickly slipping away. Dostoevsky, I donít know. He was a maniac in another dimension.
John Berbrich: The quintessential tortured artist. The wild, ruthless, tormented Russian Soul. Beside Dostoevsky, Kerouac was a mere boy. But a boy who lived w/ his eyes & ears wide open.
William Michaelian: Until booze and drugs did him in. Dostoevskyís drug was roulette. But I guess you can also count writing as a drug. Thereís always the danger of being done in by your own words, and the work of getting them on paper.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah, but anybody who needs so badly to write would either become a slug or a different sort of madman ó or madwoman ó if he/she didnít write. I donít know if writing can drive you crazy. Some people think it can drive you sane & therefore use it as therapy.
William Michaelian: True. I guess itís just one more of those things that vary from person to person. Say, whatís happening cafť-wise and poetry-wise in your neck of the woods these days? Any big or small events coming up?
John Berbrich: Well, the cafe has had some magnificent shows recently. Last Friday night the Fifth Edition performed their final concert, as the boys will be breaking up, heading off to colleges far & wide. Some local musicians aided the fellows on this historic night. For the final piece, something called ďB-Flat Blues,Ē there were eleven musicians up there: a drummer, two basses, a piano, a trombone, three saxes, & three trumpets. It was wild, it was crazy, it was intense. The cafe only holds 75 patrons & they squeezed in 85. It was a great, memorable night.
William Michaelian: Sounds great. Iíll bet the stars heard the racket, and were smiling down on the scene. How about poetry? ó not that what you described isnít poetry, mind you.
John Berbrich: Well, thereís some of that too. SLAP (St. Lawrence Area Poets) gave its first public reading at a coffeehouse in Potsdam at the end of July. Another reading is scheduled for this Friday at a new cafe in Canton. We had a lot of fun at the first one. Good vibrations. And a guy from the local NPR station recorded the entire reading. Parts of it were played on the radio the next night along w/ excerpts from interviews conducted w/ myself & several other SLAP members. Itís all going very well. Great creative energy.
William Michaelian: These are all wonderful developments. How many people are in SLAP? How often do you get together? And the really big question: do you have a manifesto?
John Berbrich: No manifest yet. Right now we have about six core members w/ a few other guests & occasional friends, weíll call them. We meet once a month. We plan maybe one poetry reading a month, held at various sites. And weíre going to put together a chapbook once each year ó a sort of Best of Slap collection. Available all through St. Lawrence County. So far Iíve found our activities very stimulating. The energy generated at our meetings lasts for several days. And thereís even a fledgling website. Check it out @ slap.berjalan.com. The site is new & seriously incomplete, but w/ manifold possibilities.
William Michaelian: Hey, thatís a great picture of you. And thereís Neal Zirn ó that rascal. Uh-oh. I might have known ó heís wearing a cap. Ah ó and I see youíve included your poem, ďHeaven #1.Ē I remember that one ó a beautiful little piece. So, what happens at these meetings? What generates all this energy? Is it just a wild, wide-opened discussion of all things pertaining to poetry? Do you take turns reading each otherís work? Afer living with it awhile and hearing it only in your head or spoken out loud in the privacy of your work room, that would be a way to get a totally different spin on a poem.
John Berbrich: A SLAP meeting generally runs from about 90 minutes to two hours. We meet upstairs in an old Unitarian church. We take turns reading poems or short fiction, whatever we like. Thereís always an assignment given for the next meeting. The assignment is not mandatory, but it does get people writing. Itís all very informal, & the readings give way to rambling conversations. Most feedback is positive. There are no meanies in this group. Whatever it is, I always feel energized, walking w/ a little extra bounce & verve for a few days.
William Michaelian: Better watch it. The drug companies have spies everywhere. If they catch you feeling too good, they might trace it back to the group and shut it down.
John Berbrich: If they could bottle the force weíre creating ó well, the FDA wouldnít approve it. Poetryís only been around for several thousands of years, not really long enough to see if it contains any beneficial qualities. Wouldnít want to hurt anyone.
William Michaelian: Yes. Definitely. More research is needed. Injections, samplings, control groups. Placebos. Meanwhile, the government is stockpiling poetry serum, twisted into some sort of lethal form.
John Berbrich: Wow. Those bureaucratic monsters will stop at nothing. Say, thatís a strange phrase ó to stop at nothing.
William Michaelian: It is. We take it for granted, but on a deeper level, it reverberates like a Zen riddle.
John Berbrich: Indeed. A timely reminder not to take everything literally.
William Michaelian: Oh? What do you mean by that?
John Berbrich: I mean not to take things literally.
William Michaelian: Ah. How very odd. Suddenly I feel as if Iíve fallen into a bottomless well.
John Berbrich: Oh? What do you mean by that?
William Michaelian: I mean that I feel pleasantly overwhelmed by the profundity and depth of what you just said and I donít expect to fully understand it anytime soon.
John Berbrich: How zen-like indeed. When understanding does land on your head like a 10-ton poem, it will all be clear. But that could take some time ó to land, I mean.
William Michaelian: Yes. Forever. But there is no urgency.
John Berbrich: Good thing weíre not in a hurry.
William Michaelian: Right. And I have proof.