The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 31 of my “forum.” The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from “intelligent” conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. That’s all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page — unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
To add a message, click here, or on any of the “Join Conversation” links scattered along the right side of the page. I’d rather you use your real name, but you can use a screen name if you prefer.
To return to Page 1 of the forum, click here. For Page 2, click here. For Page 3, click here.
For Page 4, click here. For Page 5, click here. For Page 6, click here. For Page 7, click here.
For Page 8, click here. For Page 9, click here. For Page 10, click here. For Page 11, click here.
For Page 12, click here. For Page 13, click here. For Page 14, click here. For Page 15, click here.
Page 16 Page 17 Page 18 Page 19 Page 20 Page 21 Page 22 Page 23 Page 24 Page 25
Page 26 Page 27 Page 28 Page 29 Page 30 Page 32 Page 33 Page 34 Page 35 Page 36
Page 37 Page 38 Page 39 Page 40 Page 41 Page 42 Page 43
To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Wow. That was some haiku fest. Do you have any idea how many weeks we spoke to each other in three-line, seventeen-syllable verse? I lost track.
John Berbrich: I don’t. I must say that the poems were of variable quality. It was sort of like being in a trance. Ah, to speak freely once again....
William Michaelian: The challenge now, I think, will be not to use seventeen syllables. Say, I did receive the New Yorker article you sent about Jack Kerouac. Interesting. I didn’t realize he spent such a long time working on On the Road. Emphasis has always been on the famous scroll.
John Berbrich: Yeah, this article makes Kerouac look more like a serious writer than a thrill-seeker chronicling his adventures. I like the way Menand identifies at the end, pumping gas w/ the night wind blowing his hair, feeling the lure of the road.
William Michaelian: Not a bad way to end. Although I did chuckle when he referred to the radio crackling and the sound going in and out “with oldies from the seventies.” Anyway, I’ve always thought Kerouac was indeed quite serious about his literary aspirations. And it was nice that Woody Guthrie was mentioned, if only in passing. His Bound for Glory is one heck of a book.
John Berbrich: I recall you mentioning it. Does sound like a classic. I just finished off another book of essays by Mencken, & right now I’m working on a collection of essays by Susan Sontag, mostly about art & film. Some deep reading.
William Michaelian: Ah. And that reminds me — I’m long overdue for a trip to the bookstore. I’m starting to get that jittery, almost desperate feeling. Not that I don’t have stuff at home that I haven’t read, or haven’t finished reading. What about Ted Berrigan? A few weeks back, someone recommended his work to me.
John Berbrich: I’ve heard the name; haven’t read a word. I keep getting him mixed up in my mind w/ the radical priest Father Daniel Berrigan. I went to an aircraft technologies show in East Hartford, Connecticut, back in the 70’s. Father Berrigan showed up w/ buckets of red paint which he splashed all over those lovely steel birds. Symbolic of blood, I guess.
William Michaelian: Yes, quite the famous peace activist is the good father. And poet — another I haven’t read. So, you got to see him in action. I believe he’s still alive, in his mid-eighties.
John Berbrich: Could be — I haven’t followed his career. Are those two related, do you know?
William Michaelian: I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure. Daniel, his brother Philip, and Thomas Merton banded together to argue against the Vietnam War. I think Thomas Merton was electrocuted in his bathtub, or met some such grizzly end.
John Berbrich: Really? Wow, I missed that one. I read a book of his once, forget the title, something about Christian mystics — people like St. John of the Cross & Teresa of Avila. Pretty good stuff but it was years ago. Electrocuted in the bathtub? Jeepers, what a bummer.
William Michaelian: Yep. It happened in a hotel room in Bangkok. I haven’t read anything by him, but he has many books and poems to his credit. Writer. Trappist monk. Someone else to look into.
John Berbrich: Yeah, one of a bazillion.
William Michaelian: Well, it’s a nice round number, anyway. And of course it’s growing all the time. Did you ever think about becoming a monk? Or just a plain old hermit, perhaps? What ever happened to that guy in Russell with the old printing press? Questions, questions.
John Berbrich: Monk, no. Hermit, yes. The fellow w/ the printing press is named Tim. The town gave him a heck of a lot of trouble w/ various building permits. This is actually in a town called Parishville, roughly 15 miles east of Russell. It may be on a map. I haven’t seen Tim in a long time. Actually next week would be a good time to drop in at his bookshop. Nancy Henry is coming from Maine to spend a few days at our place. We’re having a big poetry reading at the cafe, hosted by SLAP, next Saturday night. I’m the emcee. So I figure we’ll show her around the neighborhood, & what better place to explore than an old used bookstore.
William Michaelian: It’s a natural, especially since the Junk Poem Shop isn’t up and running yet. Or is it? Either way, it sounds like you have some great stuff going on there. Monks . . . Parishville
. . . interesting coincidence. Even better — a hermit acting as emcee.
John Berbrich: Well, there is that sacred aspect to poetry. It’s spiritual & somewhat ritualistic. That’s the form. The spiritual is what is deeper than the form, where we all speak in Tongues. That’s where the hermit comes in.
William Michaelian: Maybe as you enter, you should be striking a deep, primitve-sounding drum.
John Berbrich: Good idea, but I don’t want to scare away the college kids. They’ll think I’m from the Unitarian church.
William Michaelian: Not if you dress appropriately. You could come in wearing nothing but a poem. Although I’m not sure what I mean by that. What do hermits wear these days? Have you seen the fall line?
John Berbrich: I’m not on the mailing list anymore. Last I knew they were wearing cardboard.
William Michaelian: Ugh. I’m not surprised. The designers are so out of touch.
John Berbrich: Definitely. I always thought I’d prefer leaves. Something w/ dazzling autumn colors. Has that sort of Garden-of-Eden look, don’t you think?
William Michaelian: Ah, yes. I can see you on the runway now. Or in the popular new TV show, “Dancing with Hermits.”
John Berbrich: Another of those darn reality shows. We’d need a new celebrity each week. I’ll volunteer to dance w/ Gwen Stefani, if she can keep up w/ me.
William Michaelian: With you as her partner, her career will skyrocket. So, then — I take it you’re quite the dancer.
John Berbrich: Well, it’s all supposition at this point. Although the possibility exists that I could be amazing. We seldom know our capabilities.
William Michaelian: True. How about “Dancing with Poets”? Or philosophers? Or butchers? Or Nobel Prize winners? Dancing with veterinarians? Octogenarians? Labrador retrievers?
John Berbrich: All strong possibilities. “Dancing with Butchers” conjures up the zaniest image. Those cleavers keep getting in the way.
William Michaelian: It’s the white blood-stained coats that I like. How about “Dancing with Thoreau”? I just read Thoreau’s note of complaint to Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell, after discovering the editor, without asking his permission, had cut a sentence from the Maine Woods excerpt that ran in the July 1858 issue:
“I do not ask anybody to adopt my opinions, but I do expect that when they ask for them to print, they will print them, or obtain my consent to their alteration. . . . I am not willing to be associated in any way, unnecessarily, with parties who will confess themselves so bigoted and timid as this implies. I could excuse a man who was afraid of an uplifted fist, but if one habitually manifests fear at the utterance of a sincere thought, I must think that his life is a kind of nightmare continued in broad daylight. It is hard to conceive of one so completely derivative. Is this the avowed character of the Atlantic Monthly? I should like an early reply.”
John Berbrich: Wow. That reminds me of something. Hold on. * * * Back again. I have this book on style, writers writing about writers. It includes an essay by James Russell Lowell about Thoreau. Here are some choice excerpts: “He seems to me to have been a man with so high a conceit of himself that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself.” “It is a morbid self-consciousness that pronounces the world of men empty and worthless before trying it, the instinctive evasion of one who is sensible of some innate weakness, and retorts the accusation of it before any has made it but himself. To a healthy mind, the world is a constant challenge of opportunity. Mr. Thoreau had not a healthy mind, or he would not have been so fond of prescribing.” “Mr. Thoreau seems to me to insist in public on going back to flint and steel, when there is a match-box in his pocket which he knows very well how to use at a pinch.” The publication date is given as 1865, three years following Thoreau’s death.
William Michaelian: Amazing. It sounds to me like Thoreau had Lowell pegged. I can imagine the editor reading Walden, bitter, jealous, scoffing. I wonder which sentence he so wisely cut from Maine Woods, thus sparing his readers. Or why he published Thoreau in the first place, a self-indulgent recluse of such obviously defective character.
John Berbrich: I don’t know. Good questions, all. It seems somewhat cowardly for Lowell to write thus of a man after he is safely in the grave; he must have been sorely stung by Henry’s words. Myself, I wouldn’t want to engage in a war of words w/ either of these gents. I find more power in Thoreau’s words than in Lowell’s, as though his position was solid & unassailable. Again — wow, & amazing.
William Michaelian: Yes. And speaking of amazing, I’m dying to find out about your latest SLAP adventure. How did it go? Did Nancy Henry make it to town?
John Berbrich: Yes she did! Oh, we had a great time. We took Nancy & her husband to the world’s greatest used bookstore, saw Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur in concert, & had a wonderful poetry reading. This was truly a weekend of superlatives!
William Michaelian: Sounds wonderful. And I’ll bet you shined as emcee — the haiku hermit dressed in his coat of fall leaves. Does Nancy have any new books out?
John Berbrich: Yes. Sheltering Pines Press in Maine is releasing a paperback edition soon entitled Who You Are. It comprises poems both old & new. Which reminds me I’m supposed to write a blurb for the back cover — I had completely forgotten. Thanks.
William Michaelian: I’m sure that will be a pleasant task. And the reading — you say that went over well? Being on a Saturday, I’ll bet there was a nice little crowd.
John Berbrich: Kind of on the small side but very enthusiastic. Really good vibes all over. We’re spreading that good mojo.
William Michaelian: Speaking of which, there must also be a new Yawp waiting in the wings.
John Berbrich: In the mail. Your package went out yesterday, I believe. A particularly strong
William Michaelian: Ah, that’s what I like to hear. How about chapbooks? Do you have any new releases?
John Berbrich: Yes — three! All of which you’ll find queued up at the terminus of our chapbook list. One is flash fiction, another is flash fiction & prose poetry, while the third is nothing but poems. I expect you’ll order at least 10 of each.
William Michaelian: Actually, I think I’ll buy up the entire first printings — that is, if you don’t mind. Just put it on my tab. By the way, who are the authors?
John Berbrich: Thaddeus Rutkowski, Robyn Art, & Francine Witte. They’ve all been in the Yawp a couple of times.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. I remember each. But I just checked my bank balance. If you haven’t already shipped me your entire stock, I’d like to scale back my order to one copy of each new chap. Okay? I’ll send you a check as soon as the Yawp and your catalogue arrive.
John Berbrich: A done deal, my friend. Thank you. And your Cosmopsis books are selling well?
William Michaelian: Yes. The most amazing and inspiring thing to me is that every order so far has been for both titles. And now the books are for sale at Powell’s in Portland, and they’re available through the Booksense database, which means readers can order them from any independent bookstore in the country. I just wish there were a way to physically show the books to more people, because everyone who sees them seems truly impressed.
John Berbrich: Oh, yes — the covers are absolutely beautiful. A perfect fit for the poems inside. Of course, any book would be enhanced by your photo on the back cover.
William Michaelian: Well, I’ll say one thing — as serious as it might seem at a glance, if that picture doesn’t prove I have a sense of humor, nothing will. My accountant got a big kick out of it the other day. As soon as he saw it, he pulled his glasses down low on his nose, looked over them at me, and smiled. Then, after examining the books, he insisted I read him a poem. So right there in his cubicle I read “It’s Still a Long Walk to Christmas.” He bought both books, and then he introduced me to his new assistant in the next cubicle, and she bought both books. We had our own little book-signing party. Another interesting thing: the accountant told me that he and his wife had been wanting to read more poetry, but they hadn’t liked anything they’d found. “Yours,” he said, “actually mean something.”
John Berbrich: Sad but true. It’s funny how some people love totally meaningless poetry. At least I can’t get anything out of it. The words have to at least suggest some kind of coherence. I think that most of the poetry we publish in the Yawp gives the reader a little help. I like at least one strong image. And some sort of movement. Poetry that presents an array of emotions, however noble, lacks that immediacy if it lacks a solid image. Emotions congeal into a confused mash without a figure to focus on. Oh, & congratulations on the sales!
William Michaelian: Thanks. Each time, I feel like a kid all over again. And you’re right about those basic requirements. Image, movement, sound. Also need. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I read far too many poems that have no real need to exist. It’s as if they were forced into existence against their will. This is common in the finest, most venerable literary journals. Dead language, intricately woven.
John Berbrich: A veritable Frankenstein’s Monster in verse! Quick Igor — go dig up some more cool archaic words while I hook up the stannisframmis. Dead white poetry shall haunt the journals!
William Michaelian: Yes, Master. I know just where to find dead poets, coy utterances still pinned to their lips. Will you also need more tubing for the glinniskeld?
John Berbrich: Bah! I’d forgotten the glinniskeld! What would I do without you, Igor? And paste the rats, will you? — It’s almost lunchtime. Remember — it’s lifeless poesy we’re looking for — dead lines. Form without content — that’s the real elan vital!
William Michaelian: At times like these, I do wish we hadn’t lost that helpful manual, How to Embalm a Poem. I say “lost,” but of course I ate it. And don’t say my heart was in the right place. You’ve rearranged my innards too many times for that.
John Berbrich: “How to embalm a poem,” eh? Igor, you’re a genius! If we only had some kind of inspiration — say, lightning or a powerful electrical shock — we could create our own poems. We’d no longer need to glue together dead words & lines. So, you’ve eaten the manual, have you? I hesitate to say this but we need it right now. Igor, either regurgitate it immediately, whole, or I’ll have to resort to vivisection.
William Michaelian: You’re always looking for an excuse. But I’ll need help. Where is the tincture of rhyme?
John Berbrich: Eh, what? The sphincter of thyme? I say, this homebrew is really quite....
William Michaelian: Ah. Your eyeballs look so strange lying there on the floor.
John Berbrich: Indeed. For the first time, Igor, I’m looking up to you.
William Michaelian: Did . . . did you just wink?
John Berbrich: Ah, you’ve been into the homebrew yourself, I see. Well, 15 men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho & a bottle of....a bottle of.... — what was it comes next, my little hunch-backed friend?
William Michaelian: One of two things: rum, or a no-holds-barred, knock-down-drag-out discussion of the new issue of the Yawp that just arrived. Or both. Listen — I am truly impressed by the cover. Where have you been keeping this Jakob Berbrich? Who is he, how old is he, and where can I find more of his work?
John Berbrich: Jakob’s my son, he’s 18 years old, & we have plenty of his artwork lying about. He has a lot of talent — witty too. This is the first piece that’s ever been published, although he helped me w/ Synergyst layouts years ago.
William Michaelian: I see. Well, his tree trunk shows wit and philosophical depth. It’s something Don Quixote might imagine. And I see you ran multiple sets of covers, emphasizing the blue in some. Readers who have only one copy are missing out.
John Berbrich: That’s because we were running out of colored ink. It all started as green, but then gradually turned to blue. I liked it so we let it go. A happy accident. The blue intensifies the eerie quality.
William Michaelian: I agree. Now, if I’ve counted correctly, there are thirty-one contributors to this issue. Plus your introduction. I was really disappointed to read about recent developments at the post office. I was hoping the clerk would say, “But damn the regulations, we’re going to go right on handing you your mail.” But I suppose the walls have ears.
John Berbrich: If they don’t, they will someday. I’m sick of corporate bullies shoving people around. It’s ridiculous. The whole motivator is — “Something might go wrong.” And no one wants to be liable. It goes back to absurd lawsuits. Their success rate is astonishing. So I guess we better just shut up & do as we’re told. But we’re not so good at that, are we?
William Michaelian: Well, I’ve never been too good at it. In a way, it’s like they're running a giant corporate bluff. As long as enough people fall for it, the bluff works. But if everyone suddenly called and demanded to see their cards, the game would be over. The trouble is, who can afford to lose?
John Berbrich: Yes. I won’t call people cowards, but they’re certainly comfortable. I include myself in that number. You’re quite right — who wants to lose? Anyway, the rest of the Yawp has some memorable moments. Have you found many yet?
William Michaelian: I’m just getting into it. So far, I do like Donald Tucker’s story “Fishing in February,” and Micaela Bombard’s poem, “Dowsing.” Fathers. Both pieces set the thoughts in motion.
John Berbrich: As I’ve mentioned before, the poems & stories of each issue are meant to be read in order. We spend quite a bit of time designing a coherent & artistic sequential flow. Interesting note — in her cover letter, Micaela Bombard, author of “Dowsing,” said she learned of the Yawp from your web site. You called us “astute observers,” & that was good enough for her.
William Michaelian: I’m delighted to hear that. And I stand behind it. A lot of visitors come my way looking for information on the Yawp, and others find out about it as they rummage around the site. Oddly enough, her poem reminded me of that crazy story of mine you published a few years ago, “Voices.” I realize mine was more demented, but when I read about the father digging up the flowers and yard in search of water, I couldn’t help remembering. Well. I guess we’re all digging for something. Sometimes we even know when we find it.
John Berbrich: I remember that story well. Certainly a similarity there. We surely have different perspectives on things — not just you & me, I mean everybody. Your blue is my red. I can imagine you w/ a dousing stick. Sweating. Won’t give up. I’ll buy you a beer afterwards, a splendid reward for your efforts.
William Michaelian: I’ll take it, and with great pleasure. See? The stick worked! As for our differences — everyone’s — I find that the people who are least accepting are the most miserable. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the company and friendship of a number of people whose philosophy and general approach to living are much different than mine. One main reason we have gotten along is that neither has tried or seen the need to change the other. There is, however, one thing I insist on, and that’s honesty. I don’t like being lied to. But a person who lies to himself, I can feel for. Occasionally even the guy in the mirror.
John Berbrich: And I don’t like being manipulated. You’ve got to be wary: as an old friend of mine used to say — “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I also agree w/ you regarding tolerance. That’s the best way to be. Although everyone has his limit. One simply can’t tolerate everything. Some behavior is unacceptable.
William Michaelian: I’ll keep that in mind the next time I come for a visit. Meanwhile, there’s a pair of fine poems on Page 7: “Laughing,” by Llyn Clague, and “Altered Plans” by Beth Konkoski. Both are short, and both contain the images and movement you referred to earlier. They make sadness something tangible — painful and sweet at the same time.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I felt they belonged together. By the way, Beth Konkoski read at the big poetry reading we had a couple of weeks ago w/ Nancy Henry at the Cafe. Drove all the way from Virginia she did.
William Michaelian: Wow. I wonder how many miles per poem she gets. Do you guys sell any books at these get-togethers?
John Berbrich: Not at that one. We have in the past. I have mixed feelings about selling books at a reading. I don’t want the poetry to sound like an advertisement for the book, which in a way it is. As long as the sales aspect is secondary, it’s okay. The art should come first, always.
William Michaelian: Interesting, isn’t it, how everyone is trained to think in terms of buying and selling. But I know what you mean — there is something a little profane about peddling one’s artistic wares. I guess it depends on how you look at it. When we were still on the farm, I didn’t feel the least bit ashamed when we sold our fruit at the end of the season. And yet I felt the same way about the fruit that I feel now about what I write. So in that sense, why not share it in the marketplace? Food for the body, art for the spirit. Both are necessary. The whole system of dollars and sense is evil only because we make it so. But if our minds were right, money would be considered sacred script — a symbol of our common labor, and that which we need to sustain us.
John Berbrich: So, selective extravagant consumerism really is good for the economy, & the soul. It all makes sense.
William Michaelian: Yep. Especially if it’s our books people are buying. But I see you winking — my signal to set aside my half-baked philosophy and move on. So. I must say that I’m really enjoying the Yawp. I’ve read about thirty pages now — in fact, yes, Michael Kriesel’s poem “Family Reunion” on Page 30 is where I left off. Strong work, all the way through. Disturbing, funny, poignant — they run the gamut. “Little Chute, Wisconsin” by Barbara Brackney is a fine story-poem. Neal Zirn’s tiny story jumped off the page like a demented cricket; it’s still clinging to my shirt. Jeff Grimshaw, I see, hasn’t lost his touch. Good poem. I love this line from Anna Sykora’s story, “Lucky Lee”: As we rattled and squeaked out of Katonah, my wife of thirty-five years went so still you could hear the steam hiss from her little beak. And, jumping ahead, Bob Strother’s “Caverns of the Mind” is a delightfully twisted story. Right from the beginning, it’s obvious you had fun putting together this issue.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah. As I’ve mentioned several times, I think this is one of our best issues. It’s murder trying to pare away really good stuff so we can hit the preferred page count. I practically weep, sending back poems I really want to keep. But size does matter — it’s one of life’s realities.
William Michaelian: You know, you should really have a website. It could be a kind of Barbaric Yawp supplement, a place to publish a few more of those excellent pieces, as well as those fascinating short reviews of yours.
John Berbrich: Actually Nancy & I (mostly Nancy) started fiddling around w/ a website last week. Absolutely rudimentary at this point. I hadn’t thought about posting pieces that didn’t quite make it, but it’s a worthy idea. You like the little reviews, eh?
William Michaelian: Absolutely. I could read them by the dozen. And your little skeleton sketches about small press publications. I like those too. Yes, I think a website would be a good productive thing. If I can help in some way, just give the word.
John Berbrich: Okay, thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. At this point I have a feeling we’re going to be late w/ the December issue. Haven’t even started yet.
William Michaelian: Well, you probably need to allow a little mental space between issues. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off. Then tomorrow you can fire up your forklift and transfer the next pallet of submissions from the warehouse to your office.
John Berbrich: Why don’t you send over some of your elves, Willie. There’s plenty for them to do around here. Mind you, don’t send those troublesome ones.
William Michaelian: Hey, go easy. The poor guys have been through a lot. Especially the burnt ones.
John Berbrich: Hey, that reminds me — when’s your magazine coming out?
William Michaelian: Are you kidding? Do you really think the world needs another literary magazine? Although with a name like Burnt Elves, how can a guy go wrong.
John Berbrich: You’d have fun w/ it, I’m sure. You already have enough online readers to generate substantial sales. And considering your not insignificant artistic abilities, think of all those great covers. It doesn’t need to be a major production. Around the holidays you can put out, Burnt Elves — The Christmas Issue. How can you ignore an opportunity like that?
William Michaelian: I can’t. But the idea keeps settling to the bottom of a whole pile of ideas. Like that magazine we were going to publish on paper bags. I can’t even remember the name of it at the moment.
John Berbrich: Oh yeah, I forgot about that one. And I can’t recall the name either. Man, that was a good idea.
William Michaelian: Okay, I just did a little research. That’s pretty bad — actually, make that
good — when a guy has to use Google to find something on his own website. The name of the magazine was Fist Through a Wall, and we weren’t going to publish it on paper bags, we were going to distribute it in paper bags. Grocery bags, to be exact. The idea was inspired by a Michael Kriesel poem you had published, and then quoted way back on Page 7 of our Conversation. Here it is again:
That was enough to get us rolling. One question we asked was if Kriesel’s poem was perhaps a bit too long. Then we came up with the nifty idea of publishing a thirty-page zine that contained only titles, such as “Dog Man” and “Orange Tuesday,” and mailing the zine to subscribers and asking them to fill in the poems. Then, Phil E. Buster said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. Bertrand Russell said that, whoever he is.” And I said, “Where did you find that — inside a bottle cap?” To which he replied, “Nope. I read it in a book of unprinted quotes.” Eh?
John Berbrich: Man, we had pretty lively imaginations back in those days. Fist Through a Wall is a great name for a small press zine. It contains a vivid image which itself is symbolic of plenty more. Imagine the covers you could come up with. So why didn’t we start this project. Does it say on your website?
William Michaelian: Indirectly. We didn’t start the project for the same reason we didn’t start several others. We were distracted by more ideas. Ironically, in that instance, we were distracted by Burnt Elves. You even sent me a story for the first issue, called “A Clerk’s Poem.”
John Berbrich: Oh, yeah — that was a good one. Willie — we have got to start actually doing something, not merely talking about it. How about a cookbook — A Million Ways to Cook Hummus. You can do the illustrations.
William Michaelian: See? There you go again with another idea. As if I were an authority on garbanzos. Which reminds me — when I was looking for Fist Through a Wall, I also stumbled on some talk about garbanzos, otherwise known as chickpeas. Hummus — Middle-Eastern Chickpea Dip. How is your lemon supply? Do you keep some on hand at all times?
John Berbrich: I’m afraid we’re rather low on lemons. We have plenty of beans, though — sacks & sacks of them. Lots of every kind of food — except lemons. Hold on, I gotta go shovel some snow.
William Michaelian: Maybe you should shovel some beans instead. Just what kind of beans are these, that you have sacks of? Did you have your own bean field this summer, like Thoreau?
John Berbrich: We did have quite a harvest of green beans, although it couldn’t compare to Henry’s bean plot. Nancy’s big on food storage — let’s see, we have Pinto Beans, Lentils, Great Northern Beans, Black Beans, Navy Beans, Navy Pea Beans, Kidney Beans, Split Peas, Garbanzo Beans, Black-Eyed Peas, Baby Lima Beans, Small Red Beans, Soy Beans, & Chanadall. Nancy assures me that the various kinds of peas are actually beans.
William Michaelian: This is fantastic. What a great assortment. Surely you don’t grow all of these. You must buy them by the bushel at local farmers’ markets. I’ve had every bean you mentioned, with the exception of Navy Pea Beans, unless I know them by another name, and Chanadall. Never had Chanadall — or, for that matter, Toordall, Masoordall, Moongdall, or Uriddall.
John Berbrich: Yeah-yeah. We buy beans in bulk. Apples too. And potatoes. We don’t heat the room at the end of the house, so it maintains a temperature between 35 & 45 degrees all winter. Great for storage. Except in extended cold weather, when the temps don’t rise above say 10 degrees for a week, we do need to let in a little heat or everything would freeze. Including the freezer.
William Michaelian: Such is life in the burrow. The good news here is that the three chapbooks arrived yesterday afternoon. They look like intriguing productions. I kept shifting from one to the other, turning pages, trying to decide which to read first. Finally, I gave up, exhausted. Also, I read Tristan Linquist’s story, “The Plan,” in the Yawp. I like the way he used “you” instead of “I.” Or, rather, I liked the way he pulled it off. Because, quite often, that narrative approach falls flat, or the author stumbles somewhere along the line, making for an annoying distraction. Nice little twist at the end, too. And so I have to say it: “The Plan” was well executed.
John Berbrich: Indeed. And it’s the guy’s first publication.
William Michaelian: I noticed that. Well, he’s off to a nice start. Do you know offhand how many firsts you’ve published over the past ten years?
John Berbrich: I don’t keep track. But here’s an estimate: we publish roughly two or three firsts each year so that’s about two dozen over our decade of existence. This is cool — there’s only one first time for each author, ever. I notice that Oregon’s well represented in this issue.
William Michaelian: It is — there’s three of us loons, unless I’ve missed someone. “Giselle,” by Portlander Silas Matthies, is also a nice little story. Linquist, Matthies, Michaelian. We even line up alphabetically.
John Berbrich: I noticed that. Weird.
William Michaelian: Yes. We’re not usually that orderly out here. By the way, I made a decision: I went with Thaddeus Rutkowski’s chap first. White and Wong. Good solid collection.
John Berbrich: It reads well on paper, but you should see him read live. He’s got so much energy, which builds & builds as he goes along. It makes you want to hold your breath. Really exciting.
William Michaelian: Oh? A regular Vachel Lindsay, eh? Has he found his way up to your neck of the woods?
John Berbrich: Yeah. He read on an absurdly cold night last winter at Saint Lawrence University. Nancy & I had a great time. There was a good turnout. I bought one of his novels (I already had another) & went up to talk to him afterwards. Such a nice fellow — we enjoyed a good talk. And then one thing led to another....& you’re holding the book in your hands — or rather you were. There’s really more to the story.....
William Michaelian: Is there? Well, then — let’s hear it.
John Berbrich: Well, it all started back in the summer of 2005. Len Fulton of Small Press Review sent me a packet of books to review for his magazine. One of them caught my eye, a colorful paperback called Tetched by an author I’d never heard of, Thaddeus Rutkowski. I read the novel, enjoyed it a great deal, then wrote an inspired review which Fulton published later on that year in his magazine. Then a year later I read in a local newspaper that Rutkowski was coming to read his stuff at St. Lawrence University, just a 15 minute drive from here. Well, as I said, the reading was terrific, as was the brief question & answer period afterwards. Following the festivities I approached Rutkowski & introduced myself. He was startled when he heard my name, since he had liked my review of his book, but didn’t know who I was. He signed my copy of Tetched & the copy of Small Press Review containing my review. Before the reading I had bought a copy of his other novel, Roughhouse, which he also signed. We then engaged in a pleasant conversation, exchanging addresses. Over the next few months he submitted some things to the Yawp, bought a few of our chapbooks, & sent the White and Wong manuscript for chapbook consideration. We did it. You bought one. Here we are.
William Michaelian: Yes we are, aren’t we. Well. I find this truly fascinating. And your story is further proof of how really potent our simple acts can be. One thing leads to the next — a letter written, a compliment given, a book picked up at random, a phone call, a meeting. And what a pleasure it is to make such an acquaintance, and to watch it slowly flower, perhaps even into an abiding friendship. There’s a lot of heart in White and Wong. And intelligent humor. The author’s eyes are open. Some pieces remind me just a bit of two other writers: Brautigan and Gertrude Stein. Brautigan’s short stories in Revenge of the Lawn. Stein in her collection of brief abstract oddities in Tender Buttons. If I may say it, though, he sounds far more stable than Brautigan. I could be wrong, but Rutkowski’s lunacy seems to be more of an experiment in that field and something of a literary device, while Brautigan’s psychological pain has its own living and breathing eloquence. Most of all, in the end, Rutkowski reminds me of himself — someone worth knowing, someone still figuring things out.
John Berbrich: Yes, Rutkowski also strikes me as pretty stable. He gets a lot of crazy ideas, but he seems to be able to handle them without falling off the bicycle. I have a spoken word CD of his which I can send to you if you like. Only you have to promise to send it back. The CD contains plenty of work from White & Wong along w/ some other choice items. And some of it is set to music. Howie & the Wolfman have been playing it on WTSC 91.1 FM, Potsdam, New York, for the past couple of months. Interested?
William Michaelian: Absolutely, if you’re willing to part with it for a short time. I promise to take good care of it and not keep it too long. I know our youngest son will be interested too. He just read the Yawp from cover to cover, and I expect he’ll read Rutkowski’s chap when I’m done with it. I read him “Kent, Ohio,” and he liked it. Especially since he’s been playing a lot of Neil Young lately. On his guitar, that is.
John Berbrich: Okay, I’ll mail that out at the beginning of next week. Your son enjoyed the Yawp, I take?
William Michaelian: Quite a bit, actually. Poetry and prose alike. He’s always reading something. In fact, he just read our Among the Living chap and said the lead story should definitely be in the Yawp. Yep. The kid has taste.
John Berbrich: Just like his old man. Say, have you read much of the poetry of Jim Morrison? Today would have been his 64th birthday; on the radio show we focussed on The Doors & played some of Morrison’s poems recorded w/ the other three Doors on the record American Prayer. It’s pretty good stuff.
William Michaelian: Today is also the day John Lennon was shot. You know, I like Morrison’s music, but I never got much into his poetry. How much is there, and how much has been published? I’ve come across his poems in odd collections, but right off hand I don’t remember seeing a book that featured his work alone.
John Berbrich: I had totally forgotten about the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, & no one mentioned it to me all day. Completely slipped by me without even a whimper. As for Morrison, there are at least three collections that I know of, although by now there certainly could be more. I have the original hardcover of his The Lords & the New Creatures, published by Simon & Schuster in 1970. I consider it to be an excellent book. Two additional volumes appeared later on, Wilderness in 1989 & American Night in 1991, both published by Vintage Books. These productions are of variable quality. Too many of what are called poems sound like notes or quick jottings, things which might some day have been finished. You can see where Morrison extracted the best sections of these rambles & built songs around them. I can say without reservation that The Lords & the New Creatures is definitely worth reading.
William Michaelian: In that case, I’ll keep it in mind. Seems like it shouldn’t be too hard to find. And speaking of Lennon, a friend of my son’s lent him his copy of Lennon’s In His Own Write, a silly little volume Lennon published back in 1964. Short pieces. He read me a couple. Humorous, to be sure, but nothing earth-shaking. Kind of like an early take of Yellow Submarine, minus the drugs.
John Berbrich: You know, I may have seen a copy of that book. Years ago, when I was working for a construction sub-contractor in Connecticut, I found myself installing replacement windows in someone’s attic. I had to move a box of junk to get at one of the windows. While moving the box, I discovered that it was filled w/ books. I couldn’t help myself — I had to take a look. On top was a book of diminutive dimensions, a tiny hardcover about the size of my hand. I can’t recall the title, but it was a collection of short stories by John Lennon. I read one entitled “I am Partly Dave,” something about this guy getting on a city bus in the morning. It was kinda strange but likable, something like Brautigan would have written, in a way. I was strongly tempted to steal that book right there, but I didn’t. It would have easily slipped into my nail pouch. Damn, that was my big chance.
William Michaelian: And you passed it up. That’s not like you. As a matter of fact, “Partly Dave” is the first story in the collection. And here are the first two paragraphs of another one, called “No Flies on Frank”:
“There were no flies on Frank that morning — after all why not? He was a responsible citizen with a wife and child, wasn’t he? It was a typical Frank morning and with an agility that defies description he leapt into the barthroom onto the scales. To his great harold he discovered he was twelve inches more tall heavy! He couldn’t believe it and his blood raised to his head causing a mighty red colouring.
“‘I carn’t not believe this incredible fact of truth about my very body which has not gained fat since mother begat me at childburn. Yea, though I wart through the valet of thy shadowy hut I will feed no norman. What grate qualmsy hath taken me thus into such a fatty hardbuckle.’”
And so on. Sounds like he must have read Finnegans Wake.
John Berbrich: Indeed. I like this John Lennon fellow more & more. I’ll bet he was a real character.
William Michaelian: Oh my yes. If the writing and music aren’t enough to prove it, just listen to him in an interview. As it happens, our son has also been playing an all-acoustic CD of his that’s really excellent. I don’t know the details right off hand, but the guitar-playing and vocals draw you right in. Some of the songs I like better than the official releases.
John Berbrich: In all honesty, I never much cared for most of Lennon’s recorded material. I find a lot of it dull & uninspired. He had this evil mischievous way about him while he was w/ the Beatles that I found delightful. His own music doesn’t swing & rock — it sort of plods along while Lennon sings his political points. What do you think of his song “Imagine”?
William Michaelian: Oddly enough, there’s a nice acoustic version of that song on the CD. The song as we all know it I like pretty well, though it’s certainly not his best. But I do like the thought behind it. When I think of Lennon’s post-Beatles music, I really think of his first two albums. In my opinon, there are far too many weak songs in the later ones. A couple of thngs struck me about the acoustic CD. He really knew how to play that guitar, and his vocals were raw and genuine. But you’re right — both he and McCartney thrived on their friction and competition while the Beatles were together. That made for their best music, by far.
John Berbrich: Oh yeah, they were a great team. The thing that turned me off to “Imagine,” I think, was watching the video. This was years ago, remember. It takes place in a rather lavish & expensive house. The song is played on this shiny grand piano. And take a look at that ring on Yoko’s finger — it looks like a pop-rock! Viewing all this while John sings “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,” was simply too much. Maybe I’m overly critical, it’s happened before, but the video left a bad taste in my aesthetic mouth that hasn’t gone away. The Beatles were an outstanding example of synergy — they were so much better as a group than the four of them taken individually & then slung together. Did I say that right?
William Michaelian: You said it right, but I don’t know what the hell you mean. Actually, I do. But I never saw that video, thank goodness. Never saw it, never heard of it — the scene you describe is all new to me. But I’ll tell you what: if I’d seen it, I would have felt the same way. What was he thinking? Did he think it somehow illustrated his point? Oh, well. I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe he even regretted it later. Heroin? Maybe that was the reason.
John Berbrich: Could be, I suppose. As you say, it doesn’t matter at this point. We all are guilty of unforgivable lapses. Let us be kind. You know, lately I’ve experienced a strange itch to read Ulysses again. Some of those scenes linger in my mind.
William Michaelian: Are you sure they aren’t the scenes from our movie, Paddy Dignam’s Hearse? I still get the two mixed up.
John Berbrich: Man, that was a great film. Wait a minute — we haven’t made it yet, have we?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like we have. But I guess we haven’t. I’d like to, though. I really would. Or at least I’d like to write it. We could write it, direct it, do the casting, maybe even play a part here and there.
John Berbrich: And we’d write the music too. I’d love to work on a project like that. We’d all have a blast watching it on Friday nights at the Antique & Junk Poem Shop.
William Michaelian: The fact is, these are our two best, most inspiring ideas — the film and the shop. And the shop could be a film. Hmmm . . . and the film is not unlike the shop.
John Berbrich: Well, they’re both collections of junk — significant junk. The thing is, anything could happen in the shop — & anything could happen in the film. So I see superlative opportunity for an overlap. I’d like to play the bartender.
William Michaelian: I see no reason why you shouldn’t. And I’d like to play the barber, along with a few other small undetermined roles. The barbershop is just a couple of doors down from the pub. I just bought it from a popular old guy who retired. On the first warm day I’ll leave the door open and wait for some of your customers to stumble in. Won’t they be surprised.
John Berbrich: Would be a cool scene in the movie. I like the image of the sunlight shining through that open door. Hey, I just bought a used book called The Joyce Country. It contains 88 black & white photos of Dublin taken in the 50’s & 60’s. All places mentioned & visited in Ulysses. Nothing but brick & concrete so far.
William Michaelian: Ah, no wonder you want to read Ulysses again. All along, I’ve imagined there’d be lots of bricks in our film. Lucky find, a book like that. Who published it?
John Berbrich: Shocken Books in New York. Published in 1972. I can’t find any inscriptions or marginalia, so no clue who the previous owner was. Yeah, plenty of bricks, some railroad tracks, a few scenes of the shore, & of course the winding path of the dear old Liffey. The city looks old & clean & a bit cockeyed, sort of the way a city should look.
William Michaelian: And the whole movie as well. Speaking of inscriptions, there’s one in a neat little semi-soft leather volume I picked up a few weeks ago. The title is Songs from Robert Burns, and it was published by Collins’ Clear-Type Press, of London and Glasgow. No date is given, but the book is plenty old. And the handwriting is in an old style. It says,
If you should choose
to read the thots from out
this book, think not of its
weight in terms of silver,
nor of gold, but rather,
in terms of Friendship,
with its words
emanations of the heart
more subtle than a
summer breeze at eventide.
John Berbrich: Wow. I’d love to know the story behind those words, although there’s no way you could trace it now. I suppose we could make something up.
William Michaelian: Well, I don’t know. For some reason, I’m inclined to let it go. How about this little song from Page 30? I love this little book, its aromatic, rough-cut pages . . .
John Anderson My Jo
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my jo!
John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither,
And monie a canty day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson my jo!
John Berbrich: That one’s a masterpiece. I’ve read it many times before. Years ago I read the Harvard Classics edition of Burns, over 400 pages of his sad, lovely, vigorous poetry. I always found myself speaking the poems in a loud whisper, trying to reproduce the music of the original. I wanted to hear it, not merely see it.
William Michaelian: That’s just the way I feel. Besides this little volume, I also have Selected Poems of Robert Burns, published by The Macmillan Company in 1926 and reprinted in 1937. I think I might have mentioned it a year or two ago. What music. What language. It even has a glossary in the back, which I’ve begun slowly to reproduce on my website, here.
John Berbrich: Excellent! I love to just say those words. Bairn. A’ thegither. Airn. Each one makes like a little poem. Emerson was right!
William Michaelian: Absolutely. Maybe we should publish a little pocket-sized collection of our favorites, one word to a page, in an old-style typeface, on some rugged paper with high rag content. One-word Poems in the Scottish Dialect. Eh?
John Berbrich: Good idea. I can imagine a scene in Paddy Dignam’s Hearse where someone comes across that book — maybe in the bar or in an outhouse. And each word can send the reader off into a little dream....
William Michaelian: Nice. I can also imagine an eccentric printer taking on the project. And perhaps printing one word a day on little cards or notices that he has kids distribute around the city. And I can imagine people feeling as if no day truly begins until he knows the word of the day. And the city being plunged into doubt and confusion if for some reason the word is not
John Berbrich: And then someone begins to distribute false words. With chilling consequences.
William Michaelian: Tragic, unexplained illnesses. Darkness at noon. Candles with rancid wicks that won’t burn. You mean that sort of thing?
John Berbrich: Could be — although those are truly terrifying examples. I was thinking more along the lines of general confusion — the guy on Maple Street gets one word while the woman on Second Avenue receives a different one. They’ve grown accustomed to the words matching — but here he’s got “meatloaf” & she’s holding a card saying “carburetor” in her hand. Something’s wrong. A slow angst spreads across the neighborhood.
William Michaelian: And then, a fear of words develops. . . . I wonder who’s behind it all.
John Berbrich: Everyone seems to have forgotten about the mad Doctor Farrago....
William Michaelian: Meringue. Oboe. Feldspar. Perfidy. Chives. Gnat. Scuttle. . . . You’re right! Who else could it be!
John Berbrich: Farrago worked with this demented lackey but I can’t recall the guy’s name....
William Michaelian: I can’t either. Wait. Let me consult Google. Ah-ha. There it is, on Page 13. His name’s Muddle. The hunchback.
John Berbrich: Muddle, that’s it! I’ve been worrying about this all day. Suppose Farrago were to write down a single word on a card — say “crinkle,” just as an example — & then burned the card in some hideous & arcane ceremony assisted by the crazed Muddle. Do you think that the word, in this case “crinkle,” could somehow wink out of existence? Not that you couldn’t have crinkles any more, but that the word itself would be gone, gone, gone? If Farrago continues his fiendish ways, pretty soon we would be left w/ nothing to say.
William Michaelian: Or, rather, we’d be left with everything to say — a condition, I guarantee you, that would drive everyone mad. A frightening idea. This makes ordinary witchcraft seem childish, almost.
John Berbrich: Indeed. A harmless pastime for churls & fools. But what can be done about Farrago? I suppose, if we knew the proper incantation, we could write his name on an index card, burn the card, & hope that perhaps the mad dentist would vanish. Worth a try, do you think?
William Michaelian: No, I’m afraid it would take something far more elaborate than that. Or simple. Hmm. What about a massive counter-attack of of index cards, all bearing the name Farrago. Make him seem as common as a stick of gum — that would really get under his skin.
John Berbrich: Do you really think it’s a good idea to annoy him? Ah, I see your plan — rile him up so he makes some foolish, fatal mistake. Excellent strategy, Sir Willie!
William Michaelian: Maybe. But it’s also extremely dangerous. Here’s a question for you: if we were to write Farrago into our movie, who would play his part? Would it be a cameo appearance? Ah — that might be another way to get at him.
John Berbrich: I’m not sure what part would be right for Farrago. Or who could play him. How about Jim Carrey? We could possibly try out Muddle for the part of Buck Mulligan, perhaps call him Buck Muddlegan.
William Michaelian: Bah, I don’t like it. Not one bit. Even here, I can see Farrago is meddling in our affairs. By the way, here are a couple of terms from the Burns glossary I really like — benmost bore means the innermost recess, or hole, and bizzard gled means a kite. As you can see, I’m still in the B’s.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a lengthy labor of love. By the way, have you had a chance to look at those other two chapbooks I sent you?
William Michaelian: I’ve read most of Robyn Art’s No Longer a Blonde. A nice collection of poems, very musical language, a sure hand. Even the few poems that don’t inspire me subject-wise are enjoyable word-wise and sound-wise. What about that Rutkowski CD? If you sent it, it still hasn’t arrived. Or did you get the jitters about letting it go? Wouldn’t blame you if you did.
John Berbrich: I mailed it two days ago, that would be Friday. It’s Christmas so who knows how long it’ll take to reach you. By the way, remember that piece I started off the September Yawp with, the one where the post office will no longer hand out the mail? Well, they haven’t been able to deliver most of the week due to the mountainous ridges of snow flanking the roads, so I went down to the post office yesterday, & guess what — they handed me a big bundle of mail without a squeak. Hope I didn’t just get someone in trouble by spilling the beans.
William Michaelian: Something tells me it will be overlooked this time. Sounds like you’ve really been having some weather. We’ve had some wild winds and heavy rains here ourselves. Fifty-mile-an-hour gusts here in the valley, and, a couple of weeks ago, it clocked at 125 on the coast. Trees down, landslides, floods, people flushed right out of their homes. Some places in the coastal mountains had eleven inches of rain in twenty-four hours.
John Berbrich: I heard about those storms. The rain & wind reached us today. Been raining all afternoon w/ fairly strong winds. Still have lots of snow on the ground though. Can’t wait till it all freezes tonight. Driving to work tomorrow should be an adventure.
William Michaelian: Driving sure does get dicey with the water on the roads thawing and re-freezing all the time. Now and then, we get this situation where the rain freezes on impact, and within a few minutes conditions turn treacherous. Shortly after one ice storm a number of years ago, I was helping Dollface’s brother move to a new place a little east of Portland, not far from the Columbia River gorge, and this big block of ice landed on the windshield and hood of our U-Haul when we were on the highway — nearly scared us to death. By some miracle, it didn’t break the glass. More recently, quite a few trees in the area were wiped out by the sheer weight of the ice. The sound when the ice is melting is something, too. Like glass breaking everywhere. Reminds of me of what Thoreau said about listening to the pond as the seasons changed.
John Berbrich: A big difference between our perception of an ice storm & his. He had no power lines to worry about & really no roads to slick over. No place he had to be, either, unless it was a rendezvous w/ an elm tree. And the elm would probably understand.
William Michaelian: And even be grateful, I suspect. Ah, winter. Someday I’ll have to tell you about all the time I spent pruning in the vineyard in the mud and ice and fog. Those were the days. And, so are these. May your Christmas be a merry one.
John Berbrich: The same to you, my friend. Our Christmas has been most sane, w/ esteemed visitors most of the day, a big turkey w/ plenty of juicy dark meat, hardly any Christmas music, & plenty of time to sample examples of Santa’s beneficence. Totally lovely thus far.
William Michaelian: That’s wonderful to hear. We started the day with a few snowflakes that didn’t stick, which led to a turkey in the oven, a dish of hummus to whet the appetite, a nice fire in the parlor, and a pleasant exchange of gifts. Then the kids all convened for a short time this evening at my mother’s house, with a few little items for her. Another Christmas.
John Berbrich: And now — on to New Year’s Eve! What do you guys usually do as we slip into the next year?
William Michaelian: Oh, the usual gala bashes and all-night masquerades, followed by dancing on the lawn and a toast to the rising sun. Then we get dressed, and, as a gesture of good will, we drag our neighbors in from the gutter and make them French toast dipped in champagne batter. And you?
John Berbrich: We maintain several traditions. One is listening to the song “Men” by Martin Mull. Another is watching the Three Stooges. Lately we’ve just been going to bed, which has turned out to be more productive.
William Michaelian: Well, numbers two and three I am certainly in favor of. But I’ve never heard of Martin Mull or the song “Men.”
John Berbrich: I don’t know a lot about Martin Mull. My impression is that he is a Grade B comedian & something of an all-round Hollywood personality. Way back in the 70’s he released an album filled w/ novelty songs. It’s really pretty funny. There is a backstory here. In the late 70’s I was living alone in a hotel in Kentucky, broke, & feeling pretty low. The room came w/ a radio, & I listened to it every night while drinking beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon, the only brand I could afford). Anyway, one night the DJ played the entire Martin Mull album, which had just come out. The songs & humor really lifted my spirits. After I moved back to Connecticut I bought the record for a friend & made a cassette tape of it for myself, being sure to pay all royalty fees to the original recording company. And somehow that one song became a New Year’s Eve tradition. It’s really rather a silly song, “Men.”
William Michaelian: Sometimes that’s just what it takes. A guy can’t be serious and brilliant all the time. Once in awhile, you have to be ridiculous and brilliant, like the Three Stooges. I’m glad their old films are available, and that we were able to make them an integral part of our kids’ education.
John Berbrich: I couldn’t get enough of the Stooges when I was a kid. I still find their antics hilarious. Can you believe that Moe, Curly, & Shemp were all really brothers. What a family!
William Michaelian: A classic bunch. And they took a beating in some of those scenes. Maybe you remember the episode where they invented that wonderful hooch, “the breath of heather.” When Curly sawed through the board that Moe was standing on and Moe crashed to the floor, he actually broke some ribs.
John Berbrich: Didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. I don’t think you could film that sort of slapstick nonsense today & get away w/ it. It belongs to that time period. Today they’d way overdo every joke & the finished product would turn out flat. One of the funniest parts is the primitive sound effects. Like when Moe’s tearing out Larry’s hair & you hear that ripping sound. Or that bonk when he hits Curly on the head. Absolutely inspired!
William Michaelian: The sounds effects are great. And that great Depression-era vigor and hustle! No job was beneath them; neither was any out of reach. And yes, Larry’s hair. Man, he looked great holding a violin.
John Berbrich: And he could play the piano too. What talent!
William Michaelian: Speaking of piano, I like Chico’s piano-playing in the Marx Brothers movies. And his Italian accent. Like when he says to Harpo, “What’sa matta you? Why you no say nothing?”
John Berbrich: For me, all of these weirdos were true geniuses. Such bizarre characters. I’ll bet their life stories would make outstanding novels, assuming of course they were well written. Coming up from poverty or from an alien shore, working your way through Vaudeville, learning to sing, to perform magic, learning the special timing of comedy. In his last book, Vonnegut says that it’s hard to mess up tragedy if all of the tragic elements are present — but for comedy the timing has to snap perfectly like a mousetrap or it doesn’t work.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. And the sharpest humor arises from adversity and suffering. But the instinct for humor also has to be there, and the abililty — the necessity, even — to laugh at yourself. To laugh at yourself and to make others laugh is great therapy. As is singing. Talk about primitive, effective medicine.
John Berbrich: Really. Laughing & singing & gnawing on tree bark. Now we take a pill, or three pills & then another to counteract the side effects. I’d rather laugh & gnaw on tree bark. And listen to someone else sing — my own crooning talents are extremely limited. Say — did you ever get that Rutkowski CD?
William Michaelian: I did. It arrived in the usual amount of time — two or three days, I forget which. I listened to it right away. Old Thad certainly has no shortage of enthusiasm. But I do think the pieces speak more loudly and clearly from the page.
John Berbrich: They certainly create a different effect. I’ve played some of these on the radio, but I’ve had to be rather selective when choosing which ones. Thaddeus tells me he’ll be up here in May sometime for a reading, which I assume is connected w/ St. Lawrence University. He says he hopes I’ll be “involved” in the reading somehow. Sounds like a lot of fun.
William Michaelian: I’m sure it will be. And barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll get that CD back in the mail to you before the week is out. In the meantime . . .