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: ... that itís high time to start a new page. But donít think for a minute that Iím giving up on this Index idea, or that Iíll be counting on you every step of the way.
John Berbrich: Trust me ó I donít expect either of those unlikelihoods to transpire. So this is what the new page looks like, eh? I always enjoy these new pages; they remind me of New Yearís Day, somehow. A fresh start, you know. An opportunity to focus on improving certain aspects of oneís existence. We can wipe out the transgressions of the past w/ a single mighty swipe. Come on, take a deep breath now. Thatís it. Donít you feel all shiny & new?
William Michaelian: I feel great. Itís like discovering mental illness for the first time. My own, I mean. And the funny thing is, I meant to say, donít think that I wonít be counting on you every step of the way.
John Berbrich: There, that was what I expected. Well, I volunteered to make the coffee & brew the beer. What more could you possibly want?
William Michaelian: Not much. Only your advice on each and every entry. Lengthy discussion. Footnotes.
John Berbrich: The annotated edition, huh? Perhaps we should compose music for every entry. Country, Rock, & Techno-pop, something for everyone.
William Michaelian: Excellent. For instance, letís say the entry is ďBlack Mountain School.Ē What does that make you think of? Bluegrass, obviously. So weíd put together a little snippet of banjo, fiddle, and mandolin.
John Berbrich: And a tumbler of moonshine to wash it down with. Iím starting to get the idea.
William Michaelian: So all we need, then, is some sort of system. Every word of our conversation has to be examined and considered. In most cases, I think we can leave out words like ďandĒ and ďifĒ and ďthe,Ē although Iím sure there will be times those should be highlighted as well. The best approach is to think of each word as a trap door leading to another world.
John Berbrich: Do you mean one world for all the words or a different world for each? While youíre pondering that, check out these lines from Charles Bukowski:
I got up, dressed, and went to the bar
wondering who the artists were and why they should be
proud of me. there were some live ones in the bar
and I got some free drinks, set my pants on fire with the
ashes from my corncob pipe, broke a glass deliberately,
was not rousted, met a man who claimed he was William
Saroyan, and we drank until a woman came in and
pulled him out by the ear and I thought, no, that canít be
William, and another guy came in...
(an excerpt from ďWe, the ArtistsóĒ)
(taking place in an undisclosed bar in San Francisco)
William Michaelian: Yep, another night on the town with good old Chuck. This must have taken place just before he wound up in the gutter. You have to wonder what kind of nut would want people to think he was Willie, leave alone expect them to believe him. A different world for each word. Are you reading Bukowski now? Or did you just happen on this in passing?
John Berbrich: Iím reading a Bukowski anthology, poems & bits of prose from all over. Hardcover, close to 500 pages. Some really lovely stuff in there, Iím surprised. I bought it at Borders as an impulse item.
William Michaelian: Good to hear. It pays to splurge once in awhile. And to celebrate, I added a drawing of olí Buk to my blog today. Here ó take a look. Isnít that an astonishing likeness?
John Berbrich: It does resemble the old Bukster. One of Bukowskiís greatest assets was his astonishing ugliness. His face really fits his poetry.
William Michaelian: Isnít that the truth. Definitely a face to admire. So what does the book include, prose-wise?
John Berbrich: Scenes from various novels. They run in length for two pages up to maybe a dozen. The excerpts seem to be scattered randomly through the text, not in chronological order or any kind of order that I can detect. Yet together they build Bukowskiís world, a place of cruelty & surprising tenderness.
William Michaelian: Sounds intriguing. I havenít read any of his prose. Whatís the name of this book? The next time Iím by Borders, Iíd like to take a look.
John Berbrich: The title is Run With the Hunted. Some of my favorite parts are the childhood recollections of life in Depression-Era Los Angeles. I have read one other book by him, Post Office. I really enjoyed that; it was funny & serious. Actually worth reading a second time.
William Michaelian: Yeah? Well, it sounds like Iíd better get in gear. I wonder if thereís been a documentary on Depression-Era L.A. Southern California was a completely different world back then.
John Berbrich: Iím sure it was. I visited in the mid-70ís. Iím sure itís changed a lot since then. What a mystique the place had, & such a lovely name.
William Michaelian: Indeed. Speaking of Los Angeles, you should take a look at Kevin McCollisterís The Jimson Weed Gazette. Nothing but photos of L.A. And hereís his main website, East of West LA.
John Berbrich: Nice. The fellow has a good eye. I love the shot of that concrete river, which I think is called the Los Angeles River. I can imagine having a blast there when I was a kid.
William Michaelian: Meanwhile, I was throwing clods into a mossy irrigation ditch. But yes, he does have a good eye. Some great faces, and some haunting places. And details ó some colors and scenes you would never see here in Salem. I love the black-and-whites, too.
John Berbrich: Doesnít black & white really have this quality that you canít get w/ color? The other night we watched Felliniís La Dolce Vita. Itís black & white, of course, & certainly wouldnít be improved by some tacky colorization process. Color is perfectly suited to certain films, maybe most films. But not all. And this extends to photographs.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. Portraiture especially. But there have been many black-and-white masterpieces in the landscape realm. It was one thing, I suppose, when it wasnít possible to take pictures in color. But when color became the norm, the art of black-and-white deepened somehow. Maybe because there are fewer practitioners. Or are there? It would help if I knew what I was talking about. Then again, maybe it wouldnít.
John Berbrich: Ah, Willie ó there you go again. You need more self-confidence, man. You always walk around stooped, w/ that hesitant, stuttering half-strut. Stride, Willie, stride. Swagger a bit. Impress the bloody wankers w/ your youthful power & verve. Scupper the old tentative outer-chap; let your inner lion emerge.
William Michaelian: Well, now that youíve painted me as an emotional cripple, I suppose youíre right ó it would do me good if I came out of my shell, at least a bit. Especially since no one has ever told me to ďscupper the old tentative outer-chap.Ē That is easily the most inspiring thing Iíve heard this week. That sort of directive belongs on a T-shirt. Maybe even on the water tower of a small midwestern town down on its luck. Beautiful.
John Berbrich: There you go ó now youíre thinking big. How about that as a presidential campaign slogan for 2012? I bet youíd do some scuppering if you resided in the White House.
William Michaelian: You mean if I were living there as a janitor or a cook or something? Possibly. Iíd scupper that day-old fish. Iíd scupper the dignitariesí gum wrappers. Iíd scupper in the morning and Iíd scupper in the evening. And when my scuppering was done, Iíd leave BoneWorld chapbooks in all the bathrooms.
John Berbrich: Now that might turn this country around. Of course youíd have your elves to help you distribute the Yawps.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. And thatís just the kind of job they like to handle. Meanwhile, thereís something else about elves that you might not know: scuppered elves are quite the delicacy. The trick, of course, is not to burn them.
John Berbrich: Gaaaaaahhhhhh! I donít want to hear about it!
William Michaelian: I donít blame you. Anyway, I made it up. The elves are my friends. They were a bit testy for a time after our cubicle idea fell through, but theyíre resilient. Say, where did you come up with this scuppering business? Is it from Shakespeare?
John Berbrich: No, not from old Willy the Shakes. Iím not sure, but it may have been suggested by two similar-sounding words I used earlier in that statement: stuttering & strut. You know how words float & creep about in the brain, looking for a little crack through which to slip out. And then there are possible Brit-Rock references: the Who, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks. I dunno.
William Michaelian: Itís amazing, isnít it, how genius and delirium go hand in hand. Obviously you were, and still are, in a state of transport. Look at you sitting there, with vowels running down your chin. Glorious.
John Berbrich: Here, gather them up, will you? & try to arrange them into a poem while I keep babbling on. We could start a religion this way.
William Michaelian: We could. But Iíll have to let them dry off first. Some of them are stuck together: ∆ ú ... Man, you look like youíve been through a consonant rain.
John Berbrich: Those are the vowels of the Earth. Iím serious about that religion thing. You be the scribe, the faithful amanuensis; Iíll be the profit. Unfortunately, later on youíll be called upon to give up your life for me, but Iíll make it worth your while. History shall remember you, in a good way.
William Michaelian: Okay, thatís good enough for me. Glad to do it. You realize, of course, that Iíll go berserk in the margins. Your message will be dutifully recorded and glorified, but centuries hence when your words have been manipulated and distorted, people will still be marveling at my little drawings. Wait ó did you say profit?
John Berbrich: Indeed. Write it down in large letters, all caps.
William Michaelian: P...R...O...F...I...T... There. Lord, see how my quill trembles!
John Berbrich: Of a surety, there is proof of divine inspiration. Or divine intervention. Sometimes itís hard to tell.
William Michaelian: Right. What we need is a divine investigation. The sooner the better, before my teeth fall out. The condition is spreading.
John Berbrich: Say, Willie, lemme see that ó whoa, donít touch me! What is that stuff?
William Michaelian: That, my trepidatious friend, is elf grease. Works on everything. Well, except this, whatever it is.
John Berbrich: Actually, I like what itís doing to your complexion.
William Michaelian: Thanks. What I especially like about it is that it startles cats. I love their expressions when they pretend not to see me.
John Berbrich: Careful, you canít trust cats. What would be really strange is if they pretended to see you, even though you were in the next room, smearing on the grease. How do dogs react?
William Michaelian: Like I rolled in something glorious. They know a good thing when they smell one. Say, speaking of a good thing, you should take a look at Sitting Pretty Magazine. It features pictures of writersí desks. Hereís mine.
John Berbrich: What a cool idea. Some neat nooks there. Mine is such a mess, rubble, a jungle. I like yours, w/ those piles of books, a hat, cushions, random papers, headphones, & a photo of top Russian literary figures on your computer screen. I noticed Tolstoy on the extreme right.
William Michaelian: Ah, very observant. That was taken around 1902. Thereís another picture of my work area in this entry of Recently Banned Literature. Click on the image to see the larger view. Paul A. Toth, the novelist who edits Sitting Pretty, edits another great magazine called Hit and Run, which features writersí notes of works-in-progress. Hereís one of mine ó something called ďIn a Hotel Lobby Next to a Haberdashery.Ē Really, I think it would be great if you sent him something for both publications. You could even mention the magazines in one of your Skeleton Sketches.
John Berbrich: Thatís some pretty cool visuals. Trouble is I donít have works-in-progress. Poems & things go through various revisions in my head & then come tumbling out, pretty much fully formed. I clicked on some of the poets Iím familiar with. Maybe I need to start a notebook like that, w/ swiftly dashed notes, scribbles, & cross-outs, complete w/ doodles & weird faces. Itís a great idea. A local drug store was selling cool looking notebooks for a great price a few months back. I bought a whole pile of them. Nowís the time to start using them. Thanks, Willie.
William Michaelian: You betcha. I love notebooks. But right now I donít have any. I do most of my scribbling on printer paper, and on a batch of index cards I found that was left over from the kidsí school days. But I think if you plug a USB cord into your left ear, it will extract some of those pre-poem images of yours. Then you can print them out from your computer. Iím sure theyíd pass for notes ó probably something even better.
John Berbrich: Great idea, but Iím not compatible w/ USB. Although if I start those notebooks Iíll have some of those glorious scribbles pretty soon. I like to use gel pens, all different colors. I havenít written w/ a quill in years.
William Michaelian: Why not? Porcupine shortage?
John Berbrich: Not really; there are plenty of them lining the roadsides. Someone once made me a nice quill pen created by jamming the point & the ink tube of a regular bic into the end of a Great Blue Heron feather. That was pretty cool, but time has a way of wearing away so many beautiful things. Anyway, I once by accident drove into a porcupine w/ my car & had to pull the quills from the tire. Didnít puncture it, fortunately. And the porcupine got away to tell all his friends.
William Michaelian: Thinking back, Iíve never written with a quill, porcupine or otherwise. And I never saw a porcupine in the San Joaquin Valley when I was growing up. But an old-timer told me that years before the Kings River was dammed, the animals would follow it down out of the high country and onto the valley floor in the spring, among them porcupines and deer. You know, this talk about notes reminds me of the pencil stubs my father used to keep track of irrigating. He used to write on the backs of envelopes.
John Berbrich: Cool. I use the backs of envelopes myself for jotting down figures when Iím engaged in a carpentry project (i.e. building a bookcase). And when was the last time you wrote w/ a pencil? I use them for those carpentry projects & thatís it.
William Michaelian: Once in awhile Iíll grab a pencil to jot down something, but these days the only extensive use I make of them is for drawing. I do like pencils, though, their feel and smell. We had a great pencil sharpener mounted on the little desk in our kitchen when I was growing up. During the school year, we cranked that thing several times a day.
John Berbrich: I must admit that a pencil does appeal to my olfactory sense, especially when being sharpened. Ah, youíre such a poet, noticing all these little things. Have you ever noticed anything poetical about ice cubes?
William Michaelian: Yes. They melt.
John Berbrich: You know, youíre right, in a sort of pseudo-existentialist way, of course. They melt. How simple, yet profound. I doubt that even Hemingway himself could improve upon the direct yet forceful simplicity of that monosyllabic utterance. Whoa.
William Michaelian: Yeah, well, you know me. Pseudo-profundity it what I do. Thatís probably why the following answers to one of lifeís great questions, ďWhy did the chicken cross the road?Ē appeal to me. Hemingwayís is among them.
Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didnít cross the road; it transcended it.
Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.
Mark Twain: The news of its crossing has been greatly exaggerated.
Salvador Dali: The Fish.
Timothy Leary: Because thatís the only kind of trip the Establishment would let it take.
John Berbrich: Excellent! Didnít Dickens say something like, ďIt was the best of roads, it was the worst of roadsĒ? But that statement evades the chicken question entirely.
William Michaelian: Does it? Isnít it taken from A Tale of Two Chickens? Oh, no ó now Iím picturing well-dressed chickens with hats and briefcases, waiting in the drizzle for the tram. Thereís one across the street, frantically squawking because heís late.
John Berbrich: Well, you can hardly blame him. His henís in the maternity ward, about to lay an egg.
William Michaelian: Finally, he makes it to the hospital, but then he gets stuck in an elevator. A voice comes out of the little speaker: ďPress the override button.Ē Handless, fingerless, he squawks louder than ever.
John Berbrich: But heís got to get to his hen, his egg. He starts clawing frantically at the door, the glass. Until he remembers that he went through the same thing the day before. In fact, his hen lays an egg every day, or nearly so. He doesnít understand this massive imperative to see the birth, & yet, it is there, huge & irresistible. Again he squawks, shrilly.
William Michaelian: And then the light dims. He emits a plaintive bawk. Dusk so soon? Time to roost?
John Berbrich: Such biological imperatives. This is where the action becomes confused ó as the pig strolls in.
William Michaelian: Wait a minute. The pig? In a stuck elevator? Isnít that rather ó oh, I see. Heís holding a wrench. I do like that striped engineerís cap heís wearing.
John Berbrich: That particular pig reminds me of Porky, the stuttering Warner Brothers cartoon hero. You have to admit heís cute ó cuter than the chicken at any rate. Iím not sure how much help that wrench is gonna be. Looks like the problemís electrical. If Porkyís not careful theyíll both get fried in there.
William Michaelian: On the other hand, the problem could be philosophical. The building itself might have identity issues. The stairs might be jealous of the elevator. Even the laundry chute could be involved. And that wrench ó Iím sure it symbolizes something.
John Berbrich: You know, Willie, I hadnít thought of it before, but there is something Freudian about the entire set-up. The feathers, that curly tail, the elevator shaft. The striped cap. Iím just extrapolating, but the elevator could symbolize progress in some way, or at least a new generation. How long have elevators been around, maybe 150 years? Stairs have been around a lot longer & could indeed have jealousy issues, youíre quite right. So the pig & the chicken trapped in the elevator suggest a dysfunction w/ the new, a possible yearning for the old, the womb. Safety, a motherís arms (or paws). But about the wrench, I dunno.
William Michaelian: I donít either. Could this possibly be a grand Upton Sinclair-like argument against the modern meat industry? Well-dressed chickens waiting for the tram could be equated with excessive hormone usage. The hospital ó generations born in bondage, cages high off the ground.
John Berbrich: Blood dripping into buckets & flowing down iron drains. Jeepers! But what about the eggs ó donít they symbolize new life? It doesnít add up.
William Michaelian: No, it doesnít. It might be just what it is on the surface. A desperate rooster in an elevator with a pig. I mean, these things happen. At least they happen to us. For instance, I seem to remember a sunflower who turned out to be a gunslinger awhile back. Or maybe it was a tumbleweed.
John Berbrich: Actually I think it was both. And getting back to the pig, I wonder if the wrench in its mouth was really a wench. Changes the whole story, you know. Wrench, wench, theyíre pretty close. Similar functions though ó they both either loosen things or tighten them.
William Michaelian: Well, that may be, but it does change the visual quite a bit. On the other hand, wench is the way Porky Pig would say wrench. That also might mean something. And then thereís his hat. Youíre a hat expert ó so I discovered yesterday when I watched your Weird Hat poetry reading on the SLAP site. What a great routine that is.
John Berbrich: Oh, that was so much fun! And itís a true story too. Really a blast!
William Michaelian: Iíll say. Itís obvious how much fun you were having. And I remember that story about the bullies at school taking your hats. Classic. Really, youíre a natural at those readings. I canít imagine being that good myself. Iíd get up there, this dour Scottish detective, and probably start scowling at everybody, trying to figure out what they were hiding. A room full of suspects waiting to be interrogated, afraid of what might be hiding in my beard.
John Berbrich: Well, youíd need props, man. A magnifying glass & a Sherlock Holmes hat, plus youíd smoke one of those long-stemmed pipes ó what do you call íem, a churchwarden. And actually the magnifying glass could certainly be useful when scrutinizing certain aspects of life. That was the first time Iíd done that hat routine, & probably the last. But who knows I might revive it. The crowd laughed. I was throwing them at Neal Zirn, who caught every one.
William Michaelian: Ah, so he was on the receiving end. I was wondering about that. Was that part of his publishing contract? Author will serve as Publisherís hat catcher at readings and other events.
John Berbrich: Nah, it was a total surprise to him. He gathered in every one & passed them to Nancy. So I got every hat back, ready to use in a possible future return performance.
William Michaelian: Now, you see, thatís where he and I differ. Had I been the hat-catcher, I would have tried on one after the other until I found the one I liked the best. And I might or might not have given back the others. After all, if itís not in the contract, I figure theyíre up for grabs.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but then Iíd have to beat you up. Those are my hats.
William Michaelian: How about that. Here we are, after getting along famously for all these years, on the verge of having our very first fight. And itís over hats. Iím telling you, this will go down as one of the great turning points in literary history. But I abhor violence. Maybe if I asked nicely, youíd let me wear one for a day or two?
John Berbrich: Certainly. Absolutely. Without question. You can borrow, dude. But stealing, well....they used to cut off your hand for that. Anyway, which of my hats was your favorite?
William Michaelian: I think the one with the snakes coming out of it.
John Berbrich: Aw, you can have it. Here...catch!
William Michaelian: Wait ó did you throw that to the east? Now it will take forever to get here.
John Berbrich: Not really. When it gets caught in the Jet Stream itíll take only a few centuries to reach Oregon. Donít be so impatient.
William Michaelian: A few centuries? I might have moved by then. I could be back in California. Strange youíd leave something like this to chance.
John Berbrich: You gotta have faith, Willie. Trust in serendipity. The hatís got to come down sometime, somewhere. Itís your responsibility to be there when it does. I have faith in you.
William Michaelian: Oddly enough, this reminds me of a visit to the race track I made about thirty years ago in Fresno. Maybe Iíve told you. On the way, I stopped off to say hello to my grandparents. When I told them where I was going, my grandmother, who was about eighty at the time and not exactly mobile, lit up and said to my grandfather, ďGet my purse.Ē Then she fished out two dollars, and with a spark in her eye she said, ďPut this on the fourth horse in the fourth raceĒ ó which, of course, I did, along with two dollars of my own. The horse came in. I wish I could remember its name. Not that it paid much. But I do remember knowing it would win.
John Berbrich: Wow. Amazing abilities run in your family. Really, that's one sweet story. Did this grandmother exhibit other unusual talents? Had she gambled before?
William Michaelian: Not really. But she shared the gambling instinct found in quite a few family members. One thing I never saw her do is read fortunes. Her sister was an expert at it, as was my grandfatherís sister. She was good at languages, though, and did a lot of reading. And yet she couldnít carry a tune in a wooden bucket. One night way back then I was driving them home and she started singing ďSome enchanted evening, you will meet a strangerĒ in a way that was pure comedy ó which she was aware of.
John Berbrich: But she didnít care. Beautiful. I had a grandmother who told fortunes too. She was Polish & lived in Jersey City. She exhibited strange, uncanny preknowledge of certain things & claimed that no one could read her cards because she told fortunes. When I was a kid, I asked for these stories again & again.
William Michaelian: Which is exactly what I would have done. There were no card readers in our family. Card players, yes. But our fortunes were read in coffee grounds.
John Berbrich: Curious. Did you ever try to learn this mystic art?
William Michaelian: Iíve dabbled a bit. But I think Iíll wait until Iím at least seventy before I make it a real habit. Or eighty. Then again, I did end a short story with a coffee cup reading once. Itís set in a Greek restaurant, and the guy who reads the cup is a successful Irish writer. Heís eating alone, and in the process of writing a long, revealing letter to his half-Greek literary soul-mate, who has just published a wonderful review about his latest book, which he doesnít feel he really deserves, and which in turn causes him to reflect on the poverty of his early years, as well as the poverty in spirit of those who have everything and find itís still not enough. A fairly basic plot, all in all.
John Berbrich: Yeah, typical Irish-half-Greek stuff. Anyway, in this particular tale, what do the coffee grounds say?
William Michaelian: Iíll quote directly from the story. See what you can make of it:
Here in my cup, I see what looks like a burning world. I see a man, and the man is walking through great tongues of fire. He is holding his face upright. This is a good sign, because it means he is not afraid. Along the perimeter of the cup, in the distance, lie the ruins of a city. These ruins represent, I feel quite certain, the manís former life. But the important thing is that he has turned his back on the ruins, and is now focusing on what is in front of him. The way he holds his head, his hands, his shoulders, shows how very determined he is. In fact, if I didnít know better, Iíd say he was going to walk right up out of the cup. . . . Wait a minute ó there he goes. Margo, this is fantastic! Heís on the table! Now heís walking across my yellow pad. Ouch! Heís taking . . . ugh . . . my pen . . .
John Berbrich: The writerís Irish, you say? Hmmmmmm. Not likely heís been tipping the bottle. The ruins are indeed his past life, that much is clear. But the flames, the cup....Perhaps the name Margo is a clue somehow. Like Key Largo. Margo. Thatís it! The riddle speaks plain: Margo is the key.
William Michaelian: Youíre absolutely right, although youíve arrived at the truth in your typically convoluted way. Then again, what else could you do, having not read the story. Anyway, right after that, the man from the cup finishes the letter, tells Margo heíll fax it to her that very night and then join her in New York in the morning. And he says, ďOh, and donít worry ó Iíll dump Flaherty.Ē Flaherty ó thatís the writerís name. M. Connor Flaherty. And he adores Margo. Itís all quite touching, really.
John Berbrich: And you actually wrote all of this yourself? I am impressed. So what happens next in the story, Iím dying of suspense.
William Michaelian: Nothing. Thatís the last sentence. I wonder ó has anyone really ever died of suspense? I know people die of fright, sorrow, even happiness. But suspense? I suppose itís possible.
John Berbrich: I guess I was exaggerating ó I donít feel like Iím going to die right now. Rupture a spleen, perhaps, or split my pants. But die? No.
William Michaelian: Good. Iím relieved to hear that. It occurs to me, though, that I should probably add a warning label to the story. Otherwise, someone might sue me for liver failure, or some gastrointestinal disorder.
John Berbrich: People have probably sued for less. Actually though thatís a great idea ó include some kind of outlandish disclaimer in the front of the book. Yes, a warning label. You wouldnít want to try it in a serious book, no, but something comical or simply adventurous. The sort of book where anything can happen.
William Michaelian: So, a warning label would be a sticker placed on the cover, and a disclaimer would be inside right at the start, a page of extremely fine print. I like it. I also like the idea of writing a story in the form of a disclaimer, and publishing it in four-point type. Kind of a reverse way of finding out what happens, through whatever the story is not responsible for.
John Berbrich: I like it too. Perhaps youíd better get started on it, right after youíve finished that Sunflower poetry chapbook. I have high hopes for that project as well.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes ó my Sunflower Cycle. Letís see, if I remember correctly, I was going to write twenty-some-odd poems and the titles were going to be the names of sunflower varieties. Wait ó let me examine the transcript ... Okay, here it is, on Page 34. There are twenty-eight of them:
American Giant Hybrid
Indian Blanket Hybrid
Large Grey Stripe
Ring of Fire
Wow. I see we really went ape over this subject. Sunflower calendar, Western movie scenario, the works. And that led us to tumbleweeds.
John Berbrich: I remember. I wonder how many kinds of tumbleweeds there are? Could be another project.
William Michaelian: Well, Iíd be happy to look into it, and then submit a detailed proposal. But I donít work cheap. Do you still offer a six-pack advance against royalties?
John Berbrich: Iím afraid thereís a shipping problem involved w/ that. However, Iíll make sure you have something to sip on while youíre writing those tumbleweed poems. So youíre ready to get to work, eh?
William Michaelian: You bet. And since youíre supplying the drinks, the poems are sure to be long and many. This project could break BoneWorld.
John Berbrich: Or raise it to world domination. It all depends on you, Willie. Are ye man enough for the job?
William Michaelian: Well, as Iíve said before, Iíll take on anything that will help keep sanity at bay. As added insurance, I should probably keep a detailed journal during each project. Oh ó and I still have that index to work on. Youíre going to need lots of paper. What do you do ó make your own out of recycled manuscripts, worn out clothes, and old shoes?
John Berbrich: Oh, thatís right ó Iíd forgotten about the index. As for the paper, itís nothing that elaborate. I use the clean side of one-sided junk mail. I have a virtually limitless supply of it, & the generous chaps keep sending it to me.
William Michaelian: Canít beat an arrangement like that. But shouldnít you grind it and soak it and that sort of thing? Then you could print Yawps and chapbooks on it.
John Berbrich: Actually we have discussed that very thing recently. I believe the process requires a great deal of time & patience, but donít be surprised if we really try it someday. Iíll let you know. Thereís a few people around here who make their own paper & Iím sure they wouldnít mind sharing their secrets w/ us. Hmmmmmm. Now youíve got me thinking about it again.
William Michaelian: Good. You know, on your homemade paper you could print a poem on a single sheet, of whatever size, it could even be the size of a postcard, in a limited edition.
Paper. 1. Made from recycled manuscripts, worn out clothes, and old shoes. 2. Grinding and soaking.
Oops. Sorry. Just thinking out loud about the Index.
John Berbrich: Dude, weíre on page 37! Jaysus, as James Joyce would say. Are you planning to divide each page up into sections for easy & quick reference?
William Michaelian: Once upon a time, that might have worked. But now I think I will have to highlight each and every word, so pregnant they are with meaning, context, subtext, and shades of meaning.
John Berbrich: Whew! Iím glad you said that you were going to do the highlighting & the pregnanting & so forth. I half-expected you to drag me into it. Sweet Jaysus, Iím relieved.
William Michaelian: Ha! You should know darned well that that I instead of we was just a slip of the tongue. That that ó Iíve always gotten a kick out of seeing or saying two thats together. Back-to-back that-thats. I wonder. There must be a way to justify using three.
John Berbrich: Speaking of the third that, I figure there must be some way that that that would work in a sentence. Myself, I always try to avoid the double that when writing. I know that thatís how it sounds in my head, but it looks all wrong on paper or on a computer screen. But the triple that, well I kinda like it.
William Michaelian: Thatís how I feel. I really like that that that that that you used.
John Berbrich: Now hold on there, Willie. I mean, donít you think that youíre carrying this whole thing a bit too far. Gosh durn ó now two thats, well that can be justified. And three thats, well, thereís a mighty good reason for that there third that. I mean, that there that has a specific meaning. But five thats, well I dunno. That ainít the way that I was raised. You git me?
William Michaelian: Thatís all you have to say? That that that that that that you used, and that I repeated merely to express my agreement, ainít the way you was raised? Jaysus ó thatís ludicrous, is what that is.
John Berbrich: What do you mean by that? Oh, wait. You were referring to my that that that w/ an introductory that that, thereby making a string of five. Of course. What could be simpler? It all makes sense now. I guess thatís that.
William Michaelian: We can only hope. Except that it was a string of six thats. But whatís a that between friends? So ó tell me about yourself. How have you been? What have you been reading lately? What are your dreams and goals? Howís your film career coming along?
John Berbrich: The film career is not exactly flourishing at the moment. Actors can be so temperamental. Reading? Finished that Bukowski, marvelous book. Also read ďThe VanĒ by Roddy Doyle. Jaysus, what a fine Irish novelist. Last year I read his book ďThe Commitments.Ē Another great piece of writing. You ever read Doyle?
William Michaelian: Well, yes and no: I read an agreeable excerpt somewhere along the line, but now I donít remember what it was. What sort of novels does he write?
John Berbrich: Well, they take place in Dublin. ďThe CommitmentsĒ is about some lads who assemble in rather slapdash style a soul band. ďThe VanĒ is about the adventures of two middle-aged guys, family men, when both get laid off at work. Portions of these books are hilarious. But thereís more to them than comedy. I highly recommend both. The language dances like street poetry.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. I see in Wikipedia that these two books are part of The Barrytown Trilogy. In The Commitments, ďa group of Dublin teenagers, led by Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., decide to form a soul band in the tradition of James Brown.Ē And in The Van, ďJimmy Sr. is laid off, as is his friend Bimbo. Bimbo buys a used fish and chips van and the two go into business for themselves.Ē Ah ... hereís a title of his I remember: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I think thatís the one I saw an excerpt of. Written in the voice of a ten-year-old boy. I like Doyleís Irish name: RuaidhrŪ ” Dķill.
John Berbrich: Certainly not as challenging to pronounce as Roddy Doyle. I havenít read the third book in the trilogy yet, donít even know the title of it. The two Iíve read can stand completely alone. Seriously, the prose is a joy. And joyously, the prose is serious too. So what have you been reading, lad?
William Michaelian: Letís see. Recently I started an anthology called Deaf American Poetry, which Iíve made some notes on here. The book contains ninety-five poems by thirty-five deaf American poets from the signing community. I also finished a lovely new collection by William Archila, a poet in L.A. by way of El Salvador. That oneís called The Art of Exile. Excellent work. I posted a short review of it on my blog. I also picked up the The Diary of Samuel Pepys in a massive, 3,212-page two-volume set. Cost me four bucks. You know, just in case I get curious about what happened in London on a particular day back in 1663. And the new Yawp just arrived. Canít wait to get into that. In fact, Iíve already celebrated its arrival in Recently Banned Literature.
John Berbrich: Hey, thanks for the write-up. Send me some poems for the Joo-ly issue, will ya? I have a volume containing part of Pepysís journal, only like 500 pages. Iíve dipped into it from time to time, but havenít read the thing cover to cover. I suspect itís fascinating. Let me know when you finish it.
William Michaelian: Sure. Iíll make a note of it. I love that he pronounced his name ďPeeps.Ē I also found a nice volume of poems by Langston Hughes ó Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. You might remember me saying about a hundred years ago that I wanted to read Langston Hughes. Well, now I can. Hereís a short sample:
Face like a chocolate bar
full of nuts and sweet.
Face like a jack-oí-lantern,
Face like a slice of melon,
grin that wide.
Isnít that nice? Oh, yes, and send poems for the Joo-ly issue. Check.
John Berbrich: I like it. His best poems look good on paper, but they sound oh-so-fine when read aloud. One of my favorites is a poem called I think ďSugar Hill.Ē I read it in a kind of heavy whisper, & it sounds so good to my ears & tastes sweet on the tongue. ďFine Sugar Hill.Ē
William Michaelian: Itís called ďHarlem SweetiesĒ:
Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
Coffee and cream,
Out of a dream.
Or cocoa brown,
Pride of the town.
To plum-tinted black,
In Harlemís no lack.
Glow of the quince
To blush of the rose.
To cinnamon toes.
Virginia Dare wineó
All those sweet colors
Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.
Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove, cinnamon
To a honey-brown dream.
All through the spectrum
Harlem girls varyó
So if you want to know beautyís
Stroll down luscious,
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.
I donít know if itís in my book or not, but I found it on this page at the Poetry Foundation.
John Berbrich: Thanks, Willie. Thatís a lovely poem. I can just see those sweet dark-skinned girls & hear their voices. I have a book of Hughesís poems, but it focuses on race conflict & really doesnít appeal to me. But his lyrical stuff is like music.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. So much of it wants to be sung. Like ď125th Street,Ē many of his short poems are great too. Back in April, I included a few in a blog entry. Here are a couple of them:
As the wind
On the Lincoln
As a bottle of licker
On a table
All by itself.
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
John Berbrich: They both are so good that Iíd publish them in the Yawp. The first one is appropriately spare. That second reminds me of the story of Li Po, the Chinese wino-poet who kissed the moonís reflection in a lake, then fell in & drowned. Ezra Pound wrote a poem about it. So did I.
William Michaelian: Did you? Iíd love to see it. Both of them, for that matter, although Iím sure yours is better. Old Ezra did have his limitations, after all.
John Berbrich: Actually I do like mine better. Hold on, Iíve gotta go hunt them up. Back in a minute.
William Michaelian: Oh, no. Down the stairs, into the basement, then through the secret tunnel to the barn, inflate the raft, set sail on the Grasse River...
John Berbrich: ....donít forget the quick stop at the likker store......
William Michaelian: Right. And moaning the blues on a Harlem street corner...
John Berbrich: Yes. Iím still looking..........
William Michaelian: Hmm. Do you think it might be easier to write a new one?
John Berbrich: Probably. Wait....Iíve found Pound's. Itís an epitaph.
And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.
(Now to find mine......)
William Michaelian: Amazing. And that parenthetical comment at the end ó if that doesnít prove Poundís brilliance, by gum, then nothing does.
John Berbrich: Indeed. The man was a bold innovator, although he usually wrote those parenthetical phrases in Greek. Now, that poem was around here somewhere.....
William Michaelian: I think of Pound more as an inn boldovator. Have you tried looking in the refrigerator yet?
John Berbrich: Thatís a good possibility but the fridge is down in the kitchen & I am not going down all those stairs again. Hereís the poem, in all its brevity, from memory. Now I wrote this over 20 years ago.
Kisses the lake
And drowns in the moon
Remember that I had not seen Poundís poem when I wrote this. It looks to be a simple reversal of his work, but I suppose itís much more than that. Way more.
William Michaelian: Far more. So much more, in fact, that if Pound had seen it first, he would not have made his pitiful attempt. So, youíre going to stay upstairs forever?
John Berbrich: Well, itís pretty nice up here. Lots of books. A box of Girl Scout cookies (Samoas). Lots of CDís too, the musical kind....Nothing to do w/ filthy lucre. And Iíve got...s-u-n-s-h-i-n-e....on a cloudy day.
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, I saw the Temptations in Fresno way back in 1972 or 1973. A fine concert it was, too. Of course the place was crowded ó people moviní out, people moviní in ... for awhile there it was a ball of confusion.
John Berbrich: I think it was just your imagination....running away w/ you. But Iím not kidding ó it is sunny here today. I might go downstairs, I dunno. Maybe go to work. Whatever. Itís all so arbitrary.
William Michaelian: True ó until you show up and find that a snide double has taken your place, and no one can see you, but everyone can see him, and youíre forced to watch as he ruins your reputation.
John Berbrich: Fortunately my reputation is such that my snide double could do pretty much anything & my co-workers would say that it was in character. I seem to have acquired a rep as an eccentric. Not quite sure how.
William Michaelian: Eccentric, you say? I find that surprising to say the least. It never occurred to me. Meanwhile, Dollface and I just got back from the store, where this friendly guy in a motorized cart greeted me with, ďHi, Jerry.Ē It seems I reminded him of Jerry Garcia, of all people. He also said I could be in ZZ Top. Then he apologized. ďI hope you donít mind me saying that,Ē he said. I told him heck no ó anybody who goes around looking like I do should expect such things. A couple of aisles later, he made me guess his age. I said forty; he said heíd be forty in three years. His dad was with him. He had a fascinating cranium ó made me wish I was a phrenologist.
John Berbrich: Did you tell him that you are indeed a guitar player, the famous blues artist, Blind Willie Michaelian? Your latest album is called Skull Bumps, which is a pretty good name for a band. I think phrenology went out in the 19th century. Pity.
William Michaelian: I remember reading somewhere that Whitman had his skull read. Maybe when I was awaiting my turn in a barbershop. And somehow I forgot to mention that Iím a famous blues artist. The guy would have been thrilled. Lately Iíve been making some interesting sounds on my sonís first acoustic guitar using a slightly curved, three-inch bone a friend gave me thirty years ago when he was working as a butcher in our old home town. And so I came up with the name Slide Bone Willie. I wear the bone on my little finger. It makes a good slide and it fits perfectly.
John Berbrich: Wow. So when BoneWorld needs a soundtrack, youíll be ready!
William Michaelian: Absolutely. Of course thereís one minor detail: I still have to learn how to play.
John Berbrich: Oh, thatís minor. I mean, being able to play does count for something, but much more important is your name & your look. Plus your attitude. Really, a dour Scottish detective who goes by the name of Slide Bone Willie canít miss. Another thing thatíll help would be to have a great band to back you.
William Michaelian: Well, Iíve seen a few guys down at the train station who certainly look the part. The trick is waking them up. How about you? How are you on the harmonica?
John Berbrich: Actually not too bad. Sounds like we're all set. Wait ó how about drums?
William Michaelian: Iím sure someone will come along. In the meantime, we can get by on our own stomping and thumping. Enough to put the Rock-Bottom Remainders to shame.
John Berbrich: I recently saw a guy at a cafe who played guitar & harmonica, & sang. And he placed a microphone beneath an upside-down metal bucket, upon which he thumped his foot. Great percussive effect! Youíve got to be creative.
William Michaelian: Right. And sometimes that means moving from the ready-made to the home-made, and finding ways to combine the two. You need to be open to accidents. It pays to approach an instrument as if you donít really know what it is or what itís capable of. Say, are you familiar with Rory Gallagher? I just started listening to him a couple of days ago, when my son sent me this link on YouTube.
John Berbrich: The You Tube video was slow & stuttering, but yeah I have one of his old albums. You like that guitar playing?
William Michaelian: I do. He seems to have his own little way of going about it. When I played the video it came through just fine, no hesitation. My son says Gallagher was pretty much liked and respected by his fellow musicians.
John Berbrich: His name was generally spoken w/ quiet reverence. So, have you developed your own little way of playing guitar? Do you need a little more practice before we go on tour?
William Michaelian: Yeah, at the rate Iím going, about ten yearsí worth. Iíd sell my soul at the crossroads, but Iíve done that several times already.
John Berbrich: So you are one of those multi-souled individuals, or at least you were. Well, given 10 years I could probably write a few songs & develop a wicked harmonica style. And weíll need voices like gravel, so both of us will need to start drinking whiskey & smoking fat cheap cigars. I have an extra hat, if you need one.
William Michaelian: And I probably will. I seem to go through hats almost as fast as I go through souls, which now occasionally even turn up on Ebay.
John Berbrich: Whatís a used soul going for these days?
William Michaelian: Mine usually sell for less than five dollars. Plus mailing. People buy them sort of as travel insurance. Why? Are you interested?
John Berbrich: Not really. Oneís enough. Say, I didnít tell you. We went out & bought 10,000 bees the other night.
William Michaelian: Ten thousand bees, you say? I can certainly understand wanting to have bees around, but how does one go about getting exactly 10,000? Or is it done by weight? So many grams per bee, or GPB for short.
John Berbrich: I think the number is determined by the weight, although I wondered how one could accurately weigh thousands of bees, considering that at any given moment a large percentage of them are fanning their wings & sort-of hovering. Whatever, itís still a great deal of bees. When the sun hit the bee-box this morning, off they buzzed, intent upon their work. The vegetation along the river glinted w/ dew.
William Michaelian: Paradise. Do you plan to stick with just the one hive? Back on the farm, there was a bee man in our neighborhood who had 2,000 hives at the height of his career. Once he needed a place to park a few, so he put them on the avenue next to our apricot orchard when it was blooming. Bees go berserk over apricots. We could hardly go near the place. But one of my favorite kinds of honey is made from orange blossoms.
John Berbrich: Well, we canít grow oranges here. And itís too cold for most varieties of Apricot. But weíve plenty of wild & domesticate flowers & berries for them to assiduously inebriate themselves on. I can hardly imagine 2,000 hives. Weíll start w/ this one & see how that goes. The thing is that I really donít like honey ó itís far too sweet for me. But I love the sound of the word ďhoneyĒ & also the word ďhoneycomb.Ē I plan to try to like it, sipping little bits at a time to develop a taste. Honey simply sounds like some kind of divine substance. Iíve read that itís the only sort of food that will never go bad w/ age.
William Michaelian: In fact, the bee man told me that many times. He used to say, ďThey even found honey in the pharoahís tomb.Ē He also said that bees have the same kind of venom as black widow spiders, and that once youíve been stung enough times, black widows canít kill you. Of course, maybe you wish you were dead, I donít know.
John Berbrich: Yow! Iíd much rather get stung by a bee than a black widow, even if the venom is the same. Black widows seem like evil incarnate. They will go out of their way to sting you. Bees are merely industrious & will sting if you get in the way, a quite understandable response.
William Michaelian: True. The colony never sends outs diplomats. Everything about bees is do or die ó a quality you have to admire. The bee man claimed he could bounce a black widow in the palm of his hand. In general, he was very understanding about bee stings, and grateful to the bees for all they taught him, and for providing him with a living.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a great guy, this bee man. I can imagine a documentary film about him, or some amazing book. Or a poem, written by someone who knew him.....
William Michaelian: He was born in 1930 in our old farm neighborhood, a short distance from where my father was born. His father was a bee man, and so was his grandfather. My grandfather used to buy five-gallon buckets of honey from his dad. Talk about having a sweet tooth. In the Eighties, I used to ride around with him in the countryside in his pickup, which had over 400,000 miles on it. He loved the San Joaquin Valley and knew every road, stick, and landmark. I saw him last in the late Nineties. Havenít been to the old hometown since then. I hear through the grapevine that heís still on the homeplace. I need to get down there and see him, but long distance travel is out of the picture right now.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a sweet road trip. Make plenty of notes & you could film that documentary, or write that article or poem. The way I picture the San Joaquin Valley is like unpaved roads & everything is very dry w/ tiny dust devils swirling about, but itís all well irrigated so youíll find orchards everywhere. You can see a long ways in every direction & far-off nearly everywhere you look there are distant bluish mountains. Anything like that?
William Michaelian: Quite a lot, really. But the roads are paved now. Some even have white lines. Because the area is so flat, from the air the valley is sheer geometry. Some of those roads go forever, getting narrower and narrower, until somewhere along the line they die of exhaustion, or from a lack of interest. There are petrified barns, lizards, buzzards, and tough old oaks that would be offended if you offered them more than a glass of water. To the east, the glorious high Sierra. To the west, the Coast Range. Due to pollution, the view is not what it once was, but when the air is clear, especially in the morning and evening, the place seems enchanted. Unless youíre on Highway 99, trying to figure out which exit to take into Fresno.
John Berbrich: Sounds lovely. I was in Utah a few years ago, driving north up the center of the state. The land is as flat as a tabletop & the view is unlimited until you see those mountains way off to the east & west. Really rather breathtaking. Itís like an endless wall on either side of you. And the land is so dry. Here the place is absurdly green. In the summer anyway.
William Michaelian: The countryside here in Western Oregon is buried in lush growth right now. Half of it must be wild blackberries, and they're blooming like mad. The bee man made a trip to Utah once, with a carpenter friend of ours. They brought back a load of reddish flat rock and surrounded a fireplace with it, the whole wall above and on either side, and used some of it around the side door to the house, which is really the front door for all intents and purposes. We consumed many a cold beer on those steps.
John Berbrich: Hey, that reminds me. We missed Bloomsday.
William Michaelian: Youíre right. We usually do make mention of it. The funny thing is, this time around, a writer by the name of Mike Miliard quoted from my review of Ulysses in his Bloomsday article in the Boston Phoenix. Take a look. The article starts with a Joyce reading accompanied by a weird animation based on one of his photos.
John Berbrich: Amazing. Hey, you are so becoming famous! The thing w/ Ulysses is that not a line, not a word of it, is dead. Every part of it writhes w/ life. I have strong memories of that book. Your review really captures it ó that book has everything. It is everything. And we missed Bloomsday.
William Michaelian: I wouldnít say we missed it, exactly. We were more like shadowy characters on a Dublin side street. Two faces in a bar room window. Idle hearse drivers having a smoke.
John Berbrich: And a stout.
William Michaelian: Yes, driven outside the pubs by the non-smoking laws.
John Berbrich: Now thatís a sad state of affairs, I think. A man needs a little smoke w/ his brew. Jaysus, itís like corned beef without the cabbage. A national disgrace.
William Michaelian: Itís antiseptic is what it is. A smokeless pub is like drinking in a doctorís office.
John Berbrich: Itís like sleeping in a mortuary.
William Michaelian: Or leaving the light on after the embalmingís done.
John Berbrich: Thatís sick. Or publishing a weather forecast on the last day of the world.
William Michaelian: Or wondering what to wear the day after that.
John Berbrich: And not caring whether or not itíll be in style.
William Michaelian: I wonder ó does Heaven have smoking and non-smoking sections?
John Berbrich: Iím hoping for a really good cigar. Some might say that the smoking section is also known as Hell.
William Michaelian: Excellent. We have no worries, then.
John Berbrich: None that I can think of.
William Michaelian: Reminds of ďBig Rock Candy MountainĒ:
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains thereís a land thatís fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains....
John Berbrich: Yup. That must be in the smoking section. Great song....weíve discussed it before, back a few pages. If only that darn Index was finished, weíd be able to find it no sweat....
William Michaelian: Oh, God. Donít get me started on that again. I feel terrible that I havenít made any progress in that department. ďAn index!Ē I cry in the night. Hey, maybe Heaven could use an index....
John Berbrich: Perhaps. Donít try to induce me to work on it. Say, Iím reading this biography of HG Wells & guess who I ran into ó our old pal, Yevgeny Zamyatin!
William Michaelian: Oh, really? Whatís their connection?
John Berbrich: Itís a brief & a tenuous one. In 1920 Wells was in Russia, staying at Maxim Gorkyís place in St. Petersburg. This was a hangout for local artists, writers, & homeless people, also for folks hiding from the cops. Apparently Zamyatin was one of Wellsís ďmore vocal Russian admirers,Ē who ďcame and went, sometimes staying for a few hours and sometimes for the night.Ē If Iím not mistaken, that would have been around the time that Zamyatin was writing We.
William Michaelian: Right. He finished it in 1921, I believe. What an atmosphere that must have been. Gorky would have been about fifty, and I think he spent a few years in Italy after that. Wells, letís see; how old was he then?
John Berbrich: He would have been in his mid-50s. I wonder about the language barrier. Youíre right though ó what an amazing political-intellectual ambience. Plus the added excitement of hiding out from the police. This would make a great movie. I love reading about times where the paths of famous people crossed. It makes history seem much more real.
William Michaelian: That it does. And some of those crossings are like train wrecks. How long did Wells hang around there? And who else turned up?
John Berbrich: Well, the author doesnít really say, but it sounds as though Wells was in Russia for at least a month or two. The other people at Gorkyís place are people I donít know, poets & countesses, various people w/ long jaw-breaking names. It looks like Wells carried on an affair w/ Gorkyís secretary, a woman named Moura Zakrevskaya. Apparently she had been in prison but was released into Gorkyís entourage as a sort of police informer. Itís all very complicated. But Wells did have at least one meeting w/ Lenin himself. Thatís the Big League.
William Michaelian: Fascinating. This really is turning into a movie. Who wrote the book? When was it published? And be careful ó your jaw might get stuck that way.
John Berbrich: Okay. The book was written by Anthony West & published in 1984 by Random House. And get this ó West is Wellsís son. The reason for the different last name is that Anthony West is also the son of the feisty writer Rebecca West, w/ whom Wells carried on a lengthy affair. Apparently old Herbert George was quite a ladies man.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes. And for that matter, West was also quite a menís lady ó a term that doesnít have the same ring. Meanwhile, take a look at this paragraph from Westís page in Wikipedia:
Relationship with her son
Westís relationship with her son, Anthony Panther West, was not a happy one. The rancor between them came to a head when Anthony, himself a gifted writer, his fatherís biographer (H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life ), and a novelist of some repute, published Heritage (1955), a fictionalized autobiography. West never forgave her son for depicting in Heritage the relationship between an illegitimate son and his two world-famous, unmarried parents, and for portraying the mother in unflattering terms. Essentially, she felt, Anthony was airing in public his accusations against her as a bad mother, which stemmed partly from the fact that she had made a fiction of his provenance ó asking him to call her Auntie, and his father Wellsie, until he was about four or five, and partly from her habit of leaving him in institutions in his early years while she developed her career in the United States. West countered by claiming that she spent as much time with him as any child could reasonably hope to spend with a mother who was a professional. She was exasperated at his focus on her parenting, when he did not accuse his father of abandonment, even though Wells had been even more absent during Anthonyís youth. Anthony, in fact, idolized Wells. The depiction of Westís alter ego in Heritage as a deceitful, unloving actress (West had trained as an actress in her youth) and poor caregiver so wounded West that she broke off relations with her son and threatened to sue any publisher who would bring out Heritage in England. She successfully suppressed an English edition of the novel, which was only published there after her death, in 1984. Although there were temporary rapprochements between her and Anthony, a state of alienation persisted between them, causing West grief until her dying hour. She fretted about her sonís absence from her deathbed, but when asked whether he should be sent for, answered, ďperhaps not, if he hates me so muchĒ.
John Berbrich: That agrees quite harmoniously w/ the book Iím reading, in which Anthony West continually accuses his mother of histrionics & of creating a fantasy version of the situation between her & Wells. I have a copy of Rebecca Westís 1981 interview in the Paris Review. She mentions Wells twice, once to say that she was a ďvictim of a sort of sadistic situation,Ē & the other to say that she had ended the relationship w/ him because it wasnít very interesting. According to Anthony West, Wells was trying to get away from her, but she pursued him. Who knows?
William Michaelian: Someone, or perhaps no one. Likely itís somewhere in between, a combination of both, and other missing ingredients. A gaudy, lopsided cake with peculiar frosting. A bottle of champagne without the fizz. A gardener near the window, pretending not to listen.
John Berbrich: Right. So even though the book is roughly 95% gossip, Iím still enjoying it. Say, did you know that there really is a website called Willipedia? Check it out.
William Michaelian: My, my. Will you look at this. There are many Willipedias. All of them selfishly and foolishly contrived. Clever on the surface, but ever so shallow ó so unlike the useful compendium that is the real Willipedia.
John Berbrich: Buncha dumb copycats. I wouldnít believe a fraction of what they say. Retards.
William Michaelian: Well, I suppose you canít blame them for trying. But how many people are going to be willing to put in the necessary work? I mean, the real Willipedia is a way of life, not just something you play around with at your convenience.
John Berbrich: Thatís it. A lifestyle ó no, more than a lifestyle. As you say, a way of life. And you can trust everything you find on the real Willipedia, right Willie?
William Michaelian: Absolutely. I like to think of the Willipedia as the LSD of encyclopedias.
John Berbrich: How do you mean that? Is Willipedia illegal?
William Michaelian: Well, letís just say its accuracy is sometimes frowned upon ó like so many things that are misunderstood. But it isnít illegal. Its entries bloom like flowers on jeweled licorice staircases.
John Berbrich: Wow. What does Willipedia say about....say about....rhubarb?
William Michaelian: It starts from the logical premise that rhubarb is really just red celery. People have tried hiding rhubarb in pies for many years. The oldest rhubarb pie, in fact, was baked over 3,000 years ago by a witch for her husband. It killed him. From that point onward, husbandless witches quickly multiplied. Now rhubarb pies are considered a harmless tradition.
John Berbrich: Wow again. Finally, someone is telling the truth. How about, uh....donít I feel silly...I canít think of anything. Oh, I know. How about Crassus, the Roman general & statesman. What was he really like?
William Michaelian: The wealth, the conquest, the power, the intrigues ó all stemmed from his frustrated desire to be a poet and musician. Women found him a bore. Men were amused by the way he picked his nose when he tried to think.
John Berbrich: Who was Crassusís favorite poet?
William Michaelian: Rigor Mortis. Of course, that was just a pen name.
John Berbrich: And what was his real, Roman, name?
William Michaelian: Krikor of Moosh. He was Armenian. You can see why he chose Rigor Mortis. Very similar. Almost.
John Berbrich: So Krikor of Moosh was an Armenian poet from over 2100 years ago. Fascinating. Tell me, is this Willipedia Indexed in any way?
William Michaelian: Yes. Each time someone examines an entry, an index is generated on the fly ó although Iíve heard not everyone is interested in flies, if you can imagine such a thing.
John Berbrich: Indeed. So, where does one find this amazing Willipedia Index?
William Michaelian: Well, you donít find it, exactly. Itís generated, you read it, and then it degenerates just as quickly. Pretty much like the entries themselves. Thatís why the entire Willipedia can fit on the head of a pin. Itís a pinhead encyclopedia.
John Berbrich: Fair enough. Itís a pinhead encyclopedia. I guess what I want to know is this: if I ask a question a second time, will I get the same answer? What does Willipedia say about...say about...rhubarb?
William Michaelian: In fable, Rhubarb is the name of an exiled frog prince croaking for the one he loves.
John Berbrich: Thatís slightly different from the answer I got last time. What use is an encyclopedia that changes its answers? Is it trying to tell us that the universe is mutable & truth is elusive? Tell us, o oracle. We need to know the secret truths of the universe. Iím counting on Willipedia.
William Michaelian: And you are wise to do so, my eager yet addled friend. Indeed, an encyclopedia that doesnít change its answers only shows the bias of its authors, who live in fear and are set in their ways. So secure they feel in their knowledge! Much better for an encyclopedia to be a living thing that tailors itself to the individual user, his current needs, and his fleeting state of mind.
John Berbrich: Hmmm. Sage words, o oracle. Iíll bet those other willipedias give the same answers every time. Dumb!
William Michaelian: Say, this reminds me of our ancient set of Funk & Wagnalls. Last night our son took them home with him. I appointed him guardian of the musty tomes, which were collected by my mother one at a time at the grocery store. Of course, that was in the old days, before Willipedia ó or, I should say, when Willipedia was in its infancy.
John Berbrich: Hey, thatís how I got my set of Funk & Wagnalls ó at the grocery store, one by one. I was living in Rockville, Connecticut, at the time. And I didnít have a car, so I had to carry the books along w/ the groceries. So buying them one at a time made sense, otherwise Iíd have to carry the entire set back to my apartment.
William Michaelian: Right. For that youíd need the famous Funk and Wagnalls backpack, designed to distribute the weight evenly while massaging your muscles with thousands of tiny rotating marbles. You know, thereís something comforting and inspiring about that image of people going home with their new volume.
John Berbrich: I really looked forward to each new volume. I actually read a great deal of the articles therein. Funk & Wagnalls always sounded like a joke name to me ó they were always using it as a sort of punch line on the Rowan & Martinís Laugh-In TV show. So I was skeptical at first. But I soon learned to value those red & gold tomes.
William Michaelian: Funny what a name will do. On one hand thereís World Book and Britannica, and on the other Funk and Wagnalls. Funk, with its messy brass section; Britannica, a proud ship on the sea of knowledge. I like the smaller dimensions and plain paper of Funk and Wagnalls. The simple drawings as opposed to lavish glossy photographs. Theyíre more to be read than looked at.
John Berbrich: I agree. And sometimes Funk & Wagnalls would serve me better, depending on just how much I wanted to know about a particular subject. Say I was seeking general information about a particular plant, or person, or whatever ó Funk & Wagnalls might have one easy-to-read column on it, while Britannica might include several pages of in-depth material, way more than I wanted to know, & more than I wanted to sift through. So each definitely has its place.
William Michaelian: Along with their respective yearbooks. The last Funk and Wagnalls yearbook we had, I think, was from 1962. Meanwhile, what were some of the other old encyclopedia names? Colliers comes to mind, and Comptonís. Seems like there were a few others. Obviously, I wasnít paying attention in school.
John Berbrich: I briefly sold Colliers door-to-door when I lived in Connecticut. I hated it. Technically, the name was P.F. Colliers. I used to muck up my pitch & call it P.F. Flyers. The sneaker encyclopedia.
William Michaelian: Well, really, that concept should have led to more sales. Especially after you shamed the parents into thinking the only way they could show they cared about their children was by buying an encyclopedia. A woman selling World Book tried that angle on us back in 1987. I told her we already had a thirty-five-year-old set of Funk and Wagnalls. She smirked, as if to acknowledge such a remark in words was beneath her.
John Berbrich: We were trained never to smirk at potential customers. We were told to smile, in fact, & I felt like a blooming idiot every time a door opened. The spiel went like this: we were merely taking a survey in the neighborhood. We showed the couple (we were instructed to talk to husband & wife only, no singles) this great encyclopedia in all its glossy glory & then asked if theyíd like to purchase a set if it were offered to them at a reasonable price. If they said yes, well, then, you made the offer. They could hardly refuse. Gods, how I hated it.
William Michaelian: And so after ten years of bitter success, you finally quit. Imagine a guy succeeding against his will, unable to fail fast enough. Damn it ó I sold another one! Also, this anti-smirk training sounds interesting. I suppose new sales people were assigned an exhausting set of daily facial exercises.
John Berbrich: The entire pitch was rehearsed. You had to follow it exactly. The big problem came when someone called the cops on me ó I guess I made quite an impression during my routine. The trouble was that I had a major disagreement the year before w/ the law in New York & could have been incarcerated if I found myself in more trouble. So I didnít need people calling the cops on me for ringing their doorbell. The cop was nice enough ó but told me that I could get in lots of trouble because I didnít have a peddlerís license. Our sales ďteamĒ leader, this guy Dennis from Nebraska (he walked w/ a severe limp), told me not to worry cuz the company had its own lawyers, but I sure didnít trust those guys & quit. What a ridiculous escapade!
William Michaelian: Sure sounds like it. You were right not to trust them. Somehow, I donít picture the companyís lawyers going to bat for one salesperson. Anyway ó to move my work table, my son just transferred all of my computer stuff onto an old round card table. Iím sitting at a miserable angle, and everything shakes when I type. And tomorrow morning heís going to take the card table. So it looks like weíll have to take a short break from our Conversation while we finish our historic move from here to my motherís house. Well, what the heck ó weíve been here only twenty-two years. And you and I have been sitting here talking for six or seven of those years. Finally, we have a chance to stand up, stretch our legs, and visit the bathroom. Lord, will you look at this ó my beard is a foot longer than when we started....
John Berbrich: My, my. Youíre growing more dour all the time. And youíre right ó it does feel good to stand up. Good luck w/ the move. I hate moving. See you soon.
William Michaelian: Okay, I ........ pssssst ó Iím over here.