The Conversation Continues
|Welcome to Page 39 of my “forum.” The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from “intelligent” conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. That’s all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page — unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.|
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Well, it looks like the refrigerator my parents bought in 1951 is finally giving up the ghost. It’s humming along as faithfully as ever, but even at the warmest setting it freezes our apples. On the bright side, this could be that new bookshelf I needed.
John Berbrich: Or your coffin if you don’t make it to next Friday. Cryogenics at home!
William Michaelian: Fabulous idea. And I could have Dollface ship it to you as a birthday present. How’s that for being thoughtful?
John Berbrich: We do have some room in the barn. I dunno, though. Dollface might want to keep you around, for sentimental value. You know how women are.
William Michaelian: On the other hand, I’d hate to be just one more thing that needs dusting. And I do like barns. Especially if they’re full of old rusted farm equipment, chicken wire, and coils of rotting rope. Atmospheric places, barns.
John Berbrich: You might like ours. You’ll be interred among boxes of old clothes, obsolete yard equipment, & rough shelves of old books. There’re lengths of ancient stovepipe, cases of empty beer bottles, & plenty of that rotting rope you love so much. When your disciples make their obligatory visit to your final resting place, we’ll treat them right, w/ beer & poetry. Something to look forward to, eh?
William Michaelian: And best of all, I can be chilled upright — assuming you have electricity to the barn, that is. Really, it sounds ideal. Hospitable, even. I hate to miss it. By the way, what shape are those books in out there? Seems like they wouldn’t last too long exposed to the elements. And what are you doing with the stovepipe? Making hats?
John Berbrich: Not yet. But if those Abe Lincoln hats come back into style, we’re ready. The books are probably in tough shape, some of them. I need to build some more shelves & start to bring them in from their long winter. Now you’ve got me feeling sad about the whole lot of them. They’re all going to require some cheering up, I’ll wager.
William Michaelian: I think we should refer to them as the Community of Others. I had some books in the garage for twenty-two years. They were boxed up neatly and covered, but when we moved I had to throw away some of them. I still feel sick about it.
John Berbrich: I don’t doubt that. I cringe when I see a book abused. I get so bothered when I see someone lay an open book face down flat, which eventually cracks the spine. There should be a hot line number to call, turn these people in.
William Michaelian: And another hotline, to help us cope. I never put a book down face open. Most of my paperbacks, the ones I bought new, hardly look like they’ve been read. I opened the covers just wide enough to pull the words out with tweezers, examine them in the light, and then put them back.
John Berbrich: That’s exactly how I read them. Someday, when I’m gone, they’ll come in & look at my library. Yeah, they’ll say. He had lots of books, but it doesn’t look like he ever read them.
William Michaelian: And then the shelves will start to vibrate, and voices will emanate from the books. “Sieze them,” they’ll wail. “Out with these intruders.”
John Berbrich: The Haunted Library. Great book & TV possibilities. Hey, just as brief digression — have you ever heard of the poet Nathaniel Mackey? We saw him last night at St. Lawrence University. He read from his prose & poetry books, then answered questions from the audience. After that he did a book signing. What a wonderful experience. I was very impressed.
William Michaelian: I believe I have. Based in Santa Cruz, I think. Wait. Yes. Here’s his page at the Academy of American Poets. I see he was chancellor of the Academy for six years. Hmm. There are a couple of audio links, but they don’t seem to be working. Did you get to talk to him afterward?
John Berbrich: Yes. We talked for a few minutes then shook hands. I asked him if he was a tough grader in the classroom. He laughed & said pretty tough. Nancy & I were actually invited to a party afterward that he was to attend, but we had responsibilities at home & couldn’t stay. It was a pleasure to listen to him & to meet him.
William Michaelian: Little did he know your responsibilities included clearing out a space for me in your barn. Well, it sounds like you had a good time — although a little more time would have been even better. Anyone else there I don’t know? Dr. Zirn, for instance?
John Berbrich: Nope, Neal couldn’t make it. No other SLAPPERS showed up, so I guess it was just me & Nancy. Wait, you may have heard of Pedro Ponce. A brief review of his marvelous chapbook Superstitions of Apartment Life can be found in my From The Marrow sheet. He’s a professor at SLU & was in attendance. Curiously, your name didn’t come up at all.
William Michaelian: Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but that’s been happening with greater and greater frequency. Let’s see ... Chum, Exquisite Corpse, Suffering Bastards, Shadow of Book ... ah, here it is: Superstitions of Apartment Life by Pedro Ponce. “It’s an alphabetic pseudo-academic collection of legends, myths, & prognostications of apartment life, written w/ an absolutely straight face.” Published in Portland, Oregon, of all places.
John Berbrich: Yeah, what’s up w/ that? It’s really a good book — I enjoyed it a great deal. The idea is a novel one, & the execution is perfect.
William Michaelian: I’m glad to hear that. It’s certainly time someone compiled these bits of urban wisdom. The author must have spent countless hours with his ear to the ground, not to mention the walls he shared with neighbors.
John Berbrich: It just presents the truth of that old idea that poetry is everywhere — one merely needs to keep one’s eyes & ears open & then write the salient points down. And let the reader find the connections. By the way, we’ve just finished off the October Yawp. You should get yours next week. How many do I owe you?
William Michaelian: Great news. You’d better send me an extra five. We’ll be having company during the holidays, and we can use the coasters. I can’t wait to see the cover you dreamed up for this one. Not to mention all those crazy new forms of poetry.
John Berbrich: Five. Okay. I think you’ll like the cover. And you’ll find the article on new poetic forms interesting, too. Some guy came up w/ this crazy idea to write haikuish poems about crows. And don't miss today’s radio show.
William Michaelian: I’ll do my best. In the meantime, since your birthday has finally arrived, I have a present for you. Three presents, actually. Look at these lovely photos of Robert Louis Stevenson, here, here, and here.
John Berbrich: Wow! Some great shots. I’d seen that family photo before. Doesn’t Stevenson sometimes have a sort of Chinese look to his face? I mean w/ his straight hair, wispy beginnings of a beard, but mostly the bit of puffiness around the eyes. And he’s so thin & rather sickly. I can see him propped up on the steps of the entrance to an opium den. Anyway, excellent pictures. Thanks.
William Michaelian: You’re very welcome. It’s true, there’s something captivating, hypnotizing, almost, about his face. And I want to thank you for yesterday’s great radio show. That interview with Nate Lewis was something, especially when it got around to those last couple of poems he read. And “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix was a great touch.
John Berbrich: Yeah, the Hendrix song was pure inspiration. Nate’s a good guy. He’s read at a couple of our SLAP poetry extravaganzas. What an experience for a kid, for anybody. By the way, if anyone wanted to listen to an old show, all you have to do is go to radio.clarkson.edu/recordedshows & it can be found. Each show is eventually deleted, unless it’s a special one. Any show title that starts off w/ HW is us, Howie & the Wolfman, get it? The particular show w/ Nate is called “War & Poetry,” or “Poetry & War,” I can’t recall which. Anyway, anyone who wants to hear the interview again can. Thanks for listening.
William Michaelian: I had no idea the shows were saved. That’s good to know. Oh — and that bit you guys did after the interview, going up in the helicopter and checking the roads and weather, was an absolute riot.
John Berbrich: Thanks. Yeah, it was fun, although Howie needs a few lessons in piloting the WTSC traffic-copter. That first rush up from the roof of the building always leaves my throat in my stomach, or my belly in my heart, or something. Nate enjoyed the ride.
William Michaelian: Probably needed it, after that grueling interview. That’s pretty interesting about his book, the fact that the cover is made of military uniforms. I was a bit distracted when he was first talking about it, and didn’t quite get the part about the paper itself.
John Berbrich: What floored me was learning that one guy had cut up his Purple Heart to put in the mix. You can actually see the purple fibers in the book’s cover. The cover is rough yet soft & flexible, more like fabric than paper. It’s a beautiful thing to hold in your hand. And the cut-up uniforms — it’s actual & symbolic. When you hold that book, you’ve really got that Iraqi sand & the sweat & blood of soldiers right in your hands.
William Michaelian: And not just uniforms from Iraq; uniforms from Vietnam, even a couple from World War II. Amazing.
John Berbrich: Yeah. It’s something real, something that could never be duplicated digitally. Is there soul or spirit involved? Again, it’s nothing you could download, has nothing to do w/ pixels or anything virtual. It’s staggering to contemplate. Doesn’t surprise me that the printing company is located in Burlington, Vermont. It’s a cool little city.
William Michaelian: Yes, I remember you saying there were good vibes there. And indeed, Nate’s book is organic, a living thing that has grown out of its subject matter. A triumphant weed thriving against the odds. I really do have a soft spot for rugged covers and handmade paper. Every once in awhile I see a publication that looks like bugs might crawl out of it at any second. Hold it up to the light, or next to the burner on the stove, and look out, here they come!
John Berbrich: Well, there’s another local poet who is working on a really creative project. I hope to interview her once it’s completed, but at this point it isn’t & I can’t say any more right now.
William Michaelian: So, leaving us in suspense, eh? Well, that’s fine. But don’t forget to let me know if and when this comes about. Speaking of rugged materials, we had a big windstorm recently, and I was outside raking up the debris this afternoon. I found several nice pieces of “paper” that had blown off the white birch trees, and managed to save a couple. They’re somewhat brittle and curled around the edges, but for the most part still flexible. Maybe I can do something with them — not that they aren’t already works of art.
John Berbrich: You could write little poems on them, or maybe draw some of your faces if you don’t consider that some sort of desecration to the individual leaf. Then you could place it in a little frame & exhibit it in a local art gallery. That would work.
William Michaelian: It would at that. The side that faced the elements is whiter, but the side that hugged the trunk is smoother and a bit more supple. And there are random parallel lines that bleed through, about three-eighths to half an inch in length. Interesting. The larger piece also seems a little thicker than the other, like maybe a 60# cover stock. The smaller feels like a 24# sheet.
John Berbrich: Aren’t trees amazing? We’ve discussed them before. The roots, the leaves, the bark. The cool shade. Paper. A home for the birds & all that. Changing colors, providing wood for building & burning. Providing fruit, too. They are beautiful to look at, plus you can climb them. Why would anyone not worship a tree?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. I’m stumped. Meanwhile, as the next step in our little exhibit, I’ve posted a photo of the paper in my blog. What do you think?
John Berbrich: Wow. For some reason I see birds & shamans in there; specifically, as I look closer, it’s a shaman dressed in bird-garb, one arm uplifted, feathered wings rising behind him. I’m not sure what he's up to, exactly, whether it’s a healing ritual or what. Actually the shaman is located in some particularly remote region of Siberia. The day is cloudy. There might be some chanting in the background. Really, the whole scene is rather scary.
William Michaelian: I see what you mean. Hey, maybe I should call it “Siberian Shaman.” But it is amazing, the things you can see. Did you read the comments underneath? One visitor saw “two tree creatures,” one with “an air of dejection,” while the other “meditates on its rejection.” I know one thing — I don’t have the heart to write on them. They’ve also dried out a bit more. I might have to put them in a humidor. Of course that means I’ll have to smoke a hundred cigars in the next three days.
John Berbrich: You can do it if you wash the smoke down w/ enough strong homebrew. I have faith in you, Willie. Do it for the trees, the bark. This is bigger than us, bigger than you, certainly.
William Michaelian: And then, as if life weren’t complicated enough, the new Yawp arrived late yesterday afternoon. So now I have a fine, wicked light to smoke by. I should get my first crack at it tomorrow.
John Berbrich: See if you can find yourself. Unless there’s another Willie Michaelian running around.
William Michaelian: Find myself? As in soul-searching? Or do you mean through all this smoke?
John Berbrich: No, no. I mean find your words, in the Yawp, the magazine. You might find a bit o’ soul, too.
William Michaelian: Okay, okay — I’ll open it. Yep, I see words, alright. Pretty ordinary, just at a glance. And, the, to, with ... wait — these are nice: misery, deprivation, pain...
John Berbrich: Yeah, those are nice ones. But here are some of yours: wagon, splashed, skulls. And some more: tricycle, strangers, haunting. Willie, where did you find these words?
William Michaelian: I remember those words. I found them in the driveway. I hosed them down to the gutter, but they came crawling right back up.
John Berbrich: Well, it’s important to have good words, hosed down or not. But lining them up & putting them in order, that’s the thing. In fact, that reminds me of something I once read by Coleridge. I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe he said that writing prose is putting words in the best order & that writing poetry is putting the best words in the best order. So is that what you’re trying to do w/ these vagrants you found in the driveway?
William Michaelian: I suppose, more or less. I really admire the ones that bite. I’ve got the welts to prove it. Did I ever tell you about the time I was bitten by 86,865 words? It happened seven years ago, over a three-month period. This is what came of it.
John Berbrich: Hold on. This is a picture of you taken seven years ago? Willie, how you’ve changed......
William Michaelian: I know. The doctors did the best they could.
John Berbrich: Did they graft on the beard or what? Oh, by the way — Happy Thanksgiving!
William Michaelian: And the same to you. Yes, I was the victim of a grafting accident. Very traumatic. I’d rather not go into the details. Especially with this glorious Yawp sitting here, staring me in the face.
John Berbrich: Yes, w/ the friendly face on the cover just smiling away at you.
William Michaelian: And more friendly faces on the back. Lovely. And I must say, this issue has to be one of your best.
John Berbrich: Well, thanks. We kinda liked it too. You’re finished already?
William Michaelian: What do you mean, already? You’ve been asleep for days. I was wondering if you’d ever wake up.
John Berbrich: It’s that tryptophan in the turkey, man. And I ate a lot of turkey.
William Michaelian: In other words, you sounded your barbaric gobble over the roofs of the world.
John Berbrich: That’s a poetic way to put it — along w/ stuffing, pie, pie, gravy, potatoes, & pie. And other stuff. And whipped cream. Gary Every’s poem is perfect. Gobble, gobble.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes — “Feather Gift.” Delightful. A true poem of the Southwest. It should be etched on a wall somewhere out in the wild, to be discovered by future generations hoping to learn something about the local population.
John Berbrich: Gary’s been writing about the Southwest for years. In fact, he’s coming out w/ a new book, Shadow of the OhshaD, a collection of his best newspaper columns for The Oracle. OhshaD is the Hohokam word for jaguar.
William Michaelian: Meow. Here’s a page about it: “Feather expert publishes new book.” Say, that’s a nice looking cover.
John Berbrich: Yeah. I bet it’s a pretty good book. Gary’s been writing for us for years, almost always about the Southwest. He’s a good observer. And he likes to get involved, taking long walks in the desert, participating in poetry readings. And collecting things. Plus he’s generous.
William Michaelian: It all shows in his writing. I’ve never been disappointed in his offerings. And again, I’m delighted with the way this issue came together. Your ordering of the pieces couldn’t have been better. And there were some fun surprises, like Raul Garcia’s poem, “Roach,” which I finally had to crush with the heel of my shoe.
John Berbrich: Oh yeah, I love that one. We do spend a lot of time on the order of the pieces. It’s the last thing we do, & it’s always a big production. We stack them in little categories, then see what flows into what, & decide when we need to keep a mood consistent or when it should be changed, & should that change transpire gradually or abruptly. It’s a real art. In this way, each issue becomes an organic whole, rather than just a compilation.
William Michaelian: Which is why cockroaches and feathers come out of it. It’s a living thing, a musing, philosophical organism. Now, what about those new poetic forms? In a couple of cases, I had to get out my calculator and ruler just to make sense of them — not the poems, but the forms themselves. Some intriguing results, I must say.
John Berbrich: Yeah. Different forms yield different results. The form often dictates the poem. Maybe you start w/ a certain hazy idea, but the form helps to shape it. Pretty interesting stuff. I’m glad I got such a good respose, especially from the West Coast.
William Michaelian: Yes, way out west, they call the forms Mariah. I like Nancy’s Butterfly. Lovely little poems. And I find Holly Interlandi’s Denneds intriguing. It must be quite a challenge to write one of those. In general, I think I liked the reversed version of the poems better. But really, there’s something to like about all the forms. Of course, it could take months and years to really get into them from the writing standpoint, and for them to reveal their possibilities.
John Berbrich: Yes. Thirty years from now, someone will come along & write the definitive book on new poetic forms of the 21st century. In fact, that would be the title. The book would be heavily indexed, w/ appropriately stuffy contents, academic dribble, but will still sell pretty well, going through four printings by 2050. In 2066 a woman will buy an old copy in a bookshop in Des Moines. She’ll flip through its pages & see our names in there. She’ll smile, but I’m not sure she’ll buy the book.
William Michaelian: She’ll have no need, because she already has a copy of the Yawp. Years before, she had found her grandson looking at it in the yard. “Where did you get that?” she asked him, and he pointed to a big hole that he’d dug. She goes to the hole, and in it there are stone steps leading down to some sort of vault-like room that’s full of old books.
John Berbrich: And there’s an elaborate wooden sign: Antique & Junk Pome Cellar. This is the archeological find of the century.
William Michaelian: And the room, oddly enough, is warm, and there are indications that it has been occupied only moments before....
John Berbrich: The grandma suspects the grandson of some sort of conspiracy. He is flogged & sent to bed. She puts on her reading spectacles, grabs a bottle of vin ordinaire, & heads back down into the book-vault, alone....
William Michaelian: From the bottom step she hears a radio playing an old dance tune. Lively voices. Intellectual banter. It sounds almost like a group of adults acting out some kind of period play. She steps onto the floor. A board creaks. The voices stop.
John Berbrich: She steps up onto the bottom step. The voices resume. She steps onto the board, they stop. Up to the bottom step, they resume. She decides that the creaky board is a sort of on-off switch. She twists the cap off the wine.
William Michaelian: And the same thing happens. Open, the voices stop. Closed, they start in again. After about the tenth time, she goes into a little bottle-and-step dance.
John Berbrich: Pretty soon she tires of the dance, sits down on the bottom step, & begins to guzzle the wine. Then all Hell breaks loose.
William Michaelian: On the step beside her, Bukowski appears. With a gruesome little wink, he says, “You’re not gonna keep that all to yourself, are you?”
John Berbrich: “Find your own, loser,” she says. Then she looks closer. “Hey, wait a minute. What happened to your face?” Bukowski looks down. Grandma softens. “Here. Have a taste. A small one. But first — write me a poem. A love poem. And say it like you mean it.”
William Michaelian: “Jeez,” he says. “Are you always this demanding of the dead?”
John Berbrich: “Look,” she says. “Do you want the wine or not? No one’s written me a love poem in years. I’m waiting.”
William Michaelian: “Love is broken glass and bottle caps,” he begins. After a long pause, he adds, “I’m puzzled by your beard.”
John Berbrich: “That’s a strange second line,” she says. “But I love how you started off the poem, broken glass & all. Very romantic. Tell me more.”
William Michaelian: “Very well. Sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.”
John Berbrich: “Now how did you know? I’m about to swoon.”
William Michaelian: “That makes two of us. Can I have some more wine now?”
John Berbrich: “Very well. Just save some for me. Don’t guzzle it!”
William Michaelian: “Relax. You have to die a few times before you can really live.”
John Berbrich: “My goodness, you really are a poet! Wait, wait...oh, go on & finish it. I’ll send my grandson out for another bottle. White or red?”
William Michaelian: “Red. It matches your eyes.”
John Berbrich: “Oooo, I’m feeling all fluttery inside. You really are quite a man, Mr. Buk...Buk...uh, how did you pronounce your last name?”
William Michaelian: “Cocka-doodle-doo. And my beerdrunk soul is sadder than all the dead christmas trees of the world.”
John Berbrich: “Does the wine make you happy, or sadder?”
William Michaelian: “Wine is the blood of the gods. Why all the technical questions? And who will sell alcohol to your underaged grandson who was just flogged?”
John Berbrich: “Did I say anything about him buying it, Mr. Sage Beerbelly Poetaster?”
William Michaelian: “That earns you a smooch, my bearded angel.”
John Berbrich: “Wooooo!!! Get your hands off me, Mr. Buk!!! Wait. Here. Come a little closer. Let me adjust my beard.”
William Michaelian: “Ah-choo! Man that thing is scritchy. Oh? What have we here? Mistletoe? Love, you think of everything.
John Berbrich: Well, you make me feel everything, big boy.
William Michaelian: The kid returns: “Grandma? Grandma! Hey — who’s that ugly man?” And do you know what’s weird about this? I was at Borders today, and there was a guy there who looked exactly like Buk in this picture. I’m not kidding. The snow cap, the stubble, the coat, everything. He kept crossing my path like a ghost.
John Berbrich: Hmmmm. Perhaps he wants to get into the conversation but was too shy to ask. Bukowski has the best face ever, or one of the best faces. It perfectly matches his poems. Ugly, unique, & curiously appealing. Raw, blunt, candid. His poetry reminds me of Hemingway’s prose: simple, solid, & a lot more effective than you would expect.
William Michaelian: Both do have a strange cumulative effect that keeps you reading, almost as if you’re doing so against your own best judgment. I was in a rather strange state of mind. As you know, I don’t get out much. It might be the image was a mental projection of some sort. Like when I was back out in the parking lot and the car had turned into a sagging ’62 Lincoln with suicide doors, and the thing creaked like an old bedspring when I got in. From there I drove to Goodwill, where I bought a couple of books and a nifty little bookshelf that looks like a clothes rack. In the checkout line, there was a boy in a shopping cart ahead of me. He was about three, and when he saw me he started a game of peek-a-boo. And at the mall the other day, a Santa Claus was taking a break with his reindeer, and as I walked by he said, “We’re not in competition, are we?” I did my best to put his mind at ease, but soon I was mobbed by children, all of them wanting things. I ducked out a side entrance. Buk was waiting for me in his sleigh. So I ran the rest of the way home.
John Berbrich: No wonder you don’t like to go out — so much weird stuff happens to you. No one has ever mistaken me for Santa Claus. Charles Manson, yes. I like going to local thrift stores, our version of Goodwill. There’s no Goodwill around here, if you get me. Racks & racks of strange fashions, old neck-ties, belts, pullover shirts, pants w/ gigantic middles. You can always find a shelf of old books. There’s usually a cripple working the cash register. I can pay $10 & walk out of there w/ a shopping bag filled w/ cool stuff.
William Michaelian: I love those places. I rarely leave them empty-handed. By the way, I left out the implausible parts, although they are just as true. But I don’t want you thinking I’m crazy. That’s always been a major concern of mine — that you think I’m crazy. Mr. Manson.
John Berbrich: Willie, old friend, you’re no crazier than I am. Hey, guess what — I cut out of work early today & went to a used bookshop in Potsdam. Remember that old Peter Pauper Haiku series? I found volume 2, the one I was missing! I now own the entire 4-volume set! What a glorious discovery.
William Michaelian: Aw, man — and here I sit with Volumes 1, 3, and 4. Before this, we were equals. Well, sort of. Now I’m just another bum with no Volume 2. I suppose it’s in good condition. Sturdy little devils.
John Berbrich: That’s a real bummer. From what I can see, volume two is way better than the other three. I mean, the poetry is amazing, fantastic, unbelievable. I don’t know how you’re going to survive without it. Hey, if I ever see another copy, I’ll buy it for you. Okay? I’m sensitive like that.
William Michaelian: Oh, I know you are — after you’ve rubbed it in. But yes, absolutely. I accept. And I know exactly what will happen. If you find Volume 2 and send it to me, within a week I’ll find another copy of it here. Then what will I do?
John Berbrich: You’ll probably buy it & read it again. That’s what I’d do. Then you can give the book to someone as a gift, someone you think might benefit from reading haiku. That’s a better plan than lending out a book, because you don’t have to worry about it being returned. That’s my practical answer. My impractical answer? — Let me mull it over....
William Michaelian: Well, see, with me it’s different. It depends on my mood, and myriad other factors. For instance, I’ve seen Volume 3 at least two times since I found the copy I have now. And both times, I looked at it, opened it, read a little, and put it back on the shelf for someone else to find. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I’ve bought different editions of the same books quite a few times, though. And if I know of someone who’s looking for a certain book, I definitely buy it. Then I keep it.
John Berbrich: It seems we have a similar sickness. I can think of worse things to be semi-addicted to. I’m building new shelves soon.
William Michaelian: I really envy your shelf-building ability. These past few years, I’ve been relying on Goodwill. What really bothers me, though, is that there is so much furniture in this house, finding room for shelves is an ongoing nightmare.
John Berbrich: Well, you’ve got to build them tall, that’s one thing. Then you’ve got to ask yourself — do I really need this chair? It’s taking up valuable space. And you’ve got to be creative. Take that big gloomy parlor. Divide it up into two bright little reading rooms, simply by constructing bookshelves right across the middle of the room, like a wall. The books will be accessible from both sides, & just think of all the new shelf space! How can you go wrong?
William Michaelian: The answer is, I can’t. I was just thinking the same thing. As it is, there’s a couch that divides the parlor area from my work area. There are bookshelves in both areas, of course. But with the couch removed — and the thing’s a good seven feet long — I can actually put shelves back to back and have access from both sides. So when you enter the room, you’ll see this fabulous wall of books, and when you venture into my workspace there will a wall of books looking over your shoulder. Even at a modest four feet high, there would be room for at least 300 more books. Tack another two feet on that and ... when are you coming to build them?
John Berbrich: When I finish mine. Which won’t happen anytime soon, so don’t worry. On my visit I want dark beer, cheeseburgers, real French fries, ice cream, & the opportunity to take a real long sleep. Deal?
William Michaelian: Well, with a diet like that, the sleep should be no problem. Absolutely: your wish is my command. Your room will be waiting. It even has a bookshelf. Full, of course.
John Berbrich: You think of everything. Listen, I’ll be in Virginia for several days, plan to return home late Sunday night. So why don’t you just carry on the conversation without me. You know, the usual. Make some jokes, a few philosophical observations, quote famous poets. That kind of thing. And save a beer for me. Bye. Oh, Merry Christmas.
William Michaelian: Thanks. And the same to you. But rather than jokes and observations, how about a pleasant dose of the Statler Brothers?
John Berbrich: Wow. Thanks, Willie. I loved that song when I was a kid. The bass singer is great, & the whole quartet makes it look (& sound) so easy. What professionals.
William Michaelian: They really are. It’s one of my favorites too. And the bass — what a voice. Sometime when you have a few minutes, you should listen to some of their other songs. There are quite a few online, some earlier performances, some much later. They’re all good. So how was your trip? Here — let me pry that snow shovel out of your hand.
John Berbrich: Thanks for helping out, especially in the driveway. Oh, we had a great trip. There were two primary highlights. 1) We got stuck in traffic around D.C. on the Beltway. I’m not joking — we moved about five miles in five hours. Totally unforgettable. 2) We saw the movie Avatar in 3-D at the IMAX theater in Hampton, Virginia. My first time at an IMAX. What an incredible experience. The movie was a good one, & the 3-D was simply fantastic. The images still bob in my brain. If you get a chance, this is definitely worth seeing. Trust me.
William Michaelian: “Trust me,” he says. Don’t I always? You’re actually the first person I’ve talked to who’s seen the movie. Come to think of it, you’re the first person I’ve talked to since it was released. I’ve never had the IMAX experience. I was always afraid I’d come out of there without my teeth or something. Granted, I struggle with some unreasonable fears. So, you saw five movies in five hours on the Beltway? What did you do all that time? I’m willing to bet it would make a good chapbook.
John Berbrich: Possibly. I grumbled & cursed a lot. I remember shouting, “There’s absolutely no reason for this!” more than once. Completely ridiculous. I fear the chapbook would be a bit slow-moving & repetitious. Still, writing one might help expel some of the angst I’m sure is lurking inside. There really was no reason for it.
William Michaelian: What? No wrecks? No stage coach robberies? I wonder how many people ran out of gas in that time. And here I thought you’d be inventing word games, or memory games, or singing every song you know.
John Berbrich: No, there was no singing & no word games. Mostly we just bitched. And the disappointing part was that there really was no accident or any other reason — no robbers, no cops, no escaped zoo animals in the road. Just a buncha cars going slow. And the sun was setting. The only drama came when we approached (at roughly one mile per hour) a fork (no puns, please) in the road. One could veer left or right. But of course there was no sign, not a one, & I was afraid that we had somehow gotten on the wrong fork, that we would be carried slowly away from our destination, unable to exit the highway, caught forever in this grinding Hades of traffic. As it turned out, both ways were right, as they joined later on. The highway lords had constructed a fork there for no reason.
William Michaelian: “And they bitched for hours.” Well, whatever you do, don’t look at a map of the area, because I’m sure that fork in the road won’t be there. You think you were on the Beltway, and in the beginning you might well have been, but something happened out there that wasn’t supposed to. Some sort of less-than-divine intervention.
John Berbrich: You sound like Rod Serling. I’ll tell you the most disconcerting thing that happened during the trip. We had Chinese food delivered one night. It was delicious, but my fortune cookie was empty. That was creepy.
William Michaelian: “As he spoke, his wife appeared dreamy, lost in thought. He picked up his hat in the foyer, put it on, and looked at himself in the mirror. No one was there to return his gaze.”
John Berbrich: “It must be the Chinese noodles,” he thought to himself. Meanwhile, every dog in town began to bark.
William Michaelian: Owooooooo.... One thing I get a kick out of is that every time you take a trip like this, somewhere along the line, you always order Chinese food. I’m beginning to think this is the actual purpose of these “vacations” of yours.
John Berbrich: Well, that’s a pretty astute observation, Willie, but it really doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as there are at least three decent Chinese joints around here that I could visit rather than drive 800 miles. Of course, there always is that allure of the unknown & the new, that great Chinese place just around the next corner or in the next state, or the next time zone. What I’m looking for now, I guess, is a Chinese restaurant w/ fortunes in their fortune cookies, & really positive fortunes, too.
William Michaelian: Ah, so you’re counting on fortune cookies to bail you out. And if you have to, you’ll eat your way up and down the East Coast until you find the one you want. Well, 2010 is about to begin. That could be your resolution — to eat in every Chinese restaurant from Russell to Key Largo.
John Berbrich: Well, it’s too late now for that resolution — the date is January 2nd. Resolutions must be made before the Ball drops. So anyway — what were your resolutions?
William Michaelian: Oh, the usual. To be nicer to my dog. To have a dog to be nicer to. To have a farm so the dog has a place to run. And one other: to not wish for ridiculous things. And you?
John Berbrich: Nothing really specific. Just a general injunction not to waste time. I don’t mean always being busy. But a reminder against frittering away those precious minutes, one following another. It’s not an endless string of moments.
William Michaelian: Right. And as you said, it’s not a matter of keeping busy, but of being attentive. Puppies aside, my general injunction, as silly as it might sound, is to improve my posture and get back into the habit of breathing more deeply. I remember writing in One Hand Clapping once that there could be a great, quiet revolution if everyone did those two simple things. Our injunctions are quite similar, when you think about it.
John Berbrich: It’s not silly at all. Keeping a decent posture & breathing deeply are two of my personal tips on how to achieve & maintain good health. Another is drinking clean water, & not out of those toxic petroleum-based plastic bottles either. Another good idea, really, is to get yourself a dog. But don’t get the wrong kind.
William Michaelian: We always had dogs back in my farming days. I grew up with them, and through work and play they were always at our sides, playing, helping, following, keeping us in line, teaching us, reminding us of our humanity. Best of all, they were free to roam, to chase rabbits, roll in the pasture, herd the neighbor’s cows — which he didn’t appreciate — and swim in the ditch. I do miss them. I’ve never had one in town. And water — you couldn’t be more right. We’re really lucky in that regard, because our part of the city has its own wells, and the water here is great. It’s still by far my favorite thing to drink, although the dark suds of BoneWorld still holds a special appeal.
John Berbrich: As well it should. And don’t forget that BoneWorld Beer is mostly water, a liquid beneficial to your health & success in life. Here in BoneWorld we simply improve, in our humble way, upon what Mother Nature in her wisdom & generosity has already provided. So of course those dark suds create a special appeal in the Desire regions of your brain. It’s totally natural.
William Michaelian: Are you reading from the label again? It might be argued, perhaps not effectively, that all regions of the brain are rooted in desire of one form or another.
John Berbrich: Maybe. But how about the analytical region, or the hub of memory? I suppose Desire could soak through the entire works. Perhaps that’s why Buddha spoke of Desire as a thing to be avoided. It can get you soaked w/ suds.
William Michaelian: In other words, he desired no desire. The desire to analyze. The desire to remember. Etcetera. As I said, perhaps not effectively.
John Berbrich: Not entirely. It’s like some zen paradox — you let desire in if it comes, since it’s natural & thus not something to be avoided or cast aside. Yet this “natural” argument could be invoked to justify & excuse the most hideous actions. But hideous in whose estimation? Who is one who can judge another? I need a drink.
William Michaelian: Which can mean only one thing: you desire enlightenment. Unless it means something else, such as, you desire to wet your whistle.
John Berbrich: I believe that enlightenment consists of wetting one’s whistle. Care to join me, O seeker of wisdom?
William Michaelian: That is one big glass. Looks like there’s room in there for both of us. Say, I wonder if people think we’re a couple of lushes. I hope so. It’s good for our images.
John Berbrich: Lush is such a better word than alcohol abuser or, even better, substance abuser. What the heck are substances? Here, have a taste.
William Michaelian: Thanks. Besides, I have never done anything unkind to alcohol.
John Berbrich: Likewise. I welcome it w/ open arms & parted lips. Whoa, check out that crazy foam....
William Michaelian: Wow. You know, we could advertise this as “the meringue of beers.”
John Berbrich: Wow, that’s catchy. We could do that, you’re right. And we need to come up w/ an amazing jingle — for advertising purposes, of course. Plus the jingle will give the good old boys something to sing when they’re getting deep into their cups.
William Michaelian: Good idea. How about this: “Mud in your eye and egg in your beer, things only get better from here.”
John Berbrich: Not bad, not bad. “Things only get better,” that’s positive. And I like how you worked in the egg-meringue connection. Say, what’s a good rhyme for meringue?
William Michaelian: Dang the meringue, this beer has more bang for the buck.
John Berbrich: Hmmm. How about, “Dang the meringue, this beer has more buck for the bang.” It doesn’t make as much sense, but it rhymes. I think it’s important for a TV jingle to rhyme, & it’s better if it doesn’t make sense.
William Michaelian: But actually it does make sense — sort of. I mean, if you think of buck in the sense of kick. On second thought, you’re right. Still, it sounds great! I say let’s go with it.
John Berbrich: Okay. We’ll need t-shirts, radio spots, maybe a breakfast cereal, & we want to saturate all the nation’s high schools w/ a vigorous ad campaign. Sounds like fun!
William Michaelian: Yes, and we can tweet our way into the schools, and create the world’s funniest most addictive video and put it on You Tube. A viral ad campaign. At this rate, we’ll be rich in days.
John Berbrich: Tweeting! That’s a great idea! Do you know how to do it?
William Michaelian: Sure. You just put your lips together and blow.
John Berbrich: Okay, so you’re in charge of the tweeting. And you’ll sing the jingle, too. I’m not much of a singer, unless I’ve been quaffing a series of big BoneWorld Brews — then you should hear me!
William Michaelian: What makes you think I can’t? Anyway, not to change the subject, but change it we must. I have sad news. A few hours ago, I heard that Mr. Hinshaw passed away.
John Berbrich: I hope to hear that the story of his death has been greatly exaggerated, but I fear such is not the case. Perhaps a voice has been added to the wind.
William Michaelian: Beautifully put — and accurate. Even though no one exaggerates more than I do, this is the cold, unvarnished truth. And he would think we were two dumb crackers indeed if we didn’t pour ourselves another drink.
John Berbrich: If it wasn’t 6:26 in the morning I’d hoist one right now. Tell you what — I promise I’ll do my part tonight, in honor of Mr. Hinshaw & to recognize his passing. He was some sort of journalist, is that right?
William Michaelian: Yes, as he used to say, he was a newspaperman by trade. Many years ago, he wrote for a couple of dailies here in Oregon, before life and his desire to go out on a limb brought him to Salem, where he started a small newspaper of his own, which is what he was doing when we met back in 1988.
John Berbrich: I find newspapers fascinating to think about, disturbing to consider their imminent demise. So you two worked on some sort of newspaper project together?
William Michaelian: We published a community monthly for a couple of years, the one he’d started, to which we added a business monthly, and a totally ridiculous news and entertainment monthly — all of which left us feeling weakly. The fact is, we were sought-after local personalities. For all the wrong reasons, of course.
John Berbrich: If I may ask, what were the names of these estimable publications? Also, in honor of Mr. Hinshaw’s passing, I last night drank a glass of rum & three bottles of Belgian beer.
William Michaelian: Belchin’ beer, did you say? And rum? I guarantee you, that would have raised a smile. Names. The main publication, which is being published to this day albeit under different ownership, is called the West Side, its name referring to the part of town on the west side of the Willamette River. When people cross the bridge heading west, they enter West Salem, which was pretty much its own town until it became part of Salem proper, back in the Forties or Fifties, I think it was. I’d have to look that up. There’s even an old brick city hall building on Edgewater Street, a street that skirts the river and is flooded every few years. The business paper was called the Willamette Valley Business Journal. Pretty good coming from a couple of guys who couldn’t add. The third, our crowning insanity, was the Capital Parade. I’ve got a few old copies around here somewhere. I’ll show them to you someday, if I can find them.
John Berbrich: I’d love to see them. You guys really had, er, guts to publish things like that. Were these periodicals distributed for free or did you charge?
William Michaelian: They were mailed directly to homes for free and supported by advertising. Funny, the things a guy does in the course of a lifetime.
John Berbrich: Funny describes it well. Were you in charge of the comics?
William Michaelian: We were the comics. Once, though, we did have a “Find the Typo” contest. And wouldn’t you know it, in the contest announcement itself, there was a typo. That pretty much sums up our entire operation.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a blast. The good old days. Wonder if we’ll look back on this conversation someday w/ wonder & amusement. Those were the good old days.
William Michaelian: Without a doubt. As far as I’m concerned, these are already the good old days. But give us twenty years. Or twenty minutes, whichever comes first.
John Berbrich: Speaking of the good old days, can you believe that 10% of the 21st century is gone? Kaput. Finished, over, done, terminated, never coming back, expired. To me it seems as though the century is just getting started.
William Michaelian: Well, ten percent is still a fairly small slice of the pie. You do know that centuries are pie-shaped, don’t you?
John Berbrich: Of course, of course. You don’t think that you’re the only one who reads Willipedia, do you? So every year has its filling & its crust. A year is a tiny slice. It’s kind of a nice way to look at time, round as a clock, round as a pie, a pie w/ lots of whipped cream.
William Michaelian: Right. And it’s every bit as realistic. You can even choose the flavor. Say, is that a new sun dial you’re wearing?
John Berbrich: Yeah, but I’m having problems w/ it. It doesn’t seem to work at night. I suppose I could purchase a moon dial, but I hear they’re rather expensive.
William Michaelian: The good ones are. Whatever you do, don’t buy one from a street vendor. They look nice, but they’re all stolen. And they still don’t work on cloudy nights. Interesting. Moonlight isn’t really moonlight. It’s sunlight.
John Berbrich: That’s right. I know I’ve written about that in a couple of poems. That’s really something to think about, the mechanics of the solar system — this steady dance around & around & around. Grand balletic circles orbiting common centers of gravity. It’s really astounding when you think about it.
William Michaelian: And even when you don’t. Yet people are still bored. Imagine, being part of that, and still feeling dissatisfied. Like planets out of sync.
John Berbrich: I know. We are surrounded by wonder, & yet...we see so little of it. Does poetry help?
William Michaelian: Well, it helps me. So does a smile. A voice. A tragedy. It’s all a poem, really. Or maybe music is a better word.
John Berbrich: Yeah, words do get in the way sometimes. That’s one of the virtues of good, concise poetry — no superfluous words. What was Twain’s writing advice? — Eschew surplusage?
William Michaelian: Right. He also said, Use the right word, not its second cousin. Which reminds me — Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences is some pretty entertaining reading.
John Berbrich: Oh, that is hilarious. I love the part where he describes Cooper’s Indians. It’s so true!
William Michaelian: Suddenly, a twig snapped.... I like where he says Cooper wears out barrels of moccasins having a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy to hide his own trail.
John Berbrich: Yes, or where he describes Cooper describing an Indian dropping from an overhanging tree-branch onto a passing boat below — & missing! Or describing the shooting prowess of hero Natty Bumppo. Really, it’s a rich & sharp piece of writing. Twain’s, that is, not Cooper’s.
William Michaelian: Seems like every time I go to a used bookstore, I find Cooper books. Some of them are old and quite nice. And then I open them, and the writing just kills me. And I can’t read it without thinking of Twain. One of these days, I’ll bring one home, just to have. Maybe I’ll slip it in beside the book of essays that has Twain’s piece. American Literary Essays, it’s called.
John Berbrich: Good idea. I have several of those Cooper novels, but have never read one; they are nice old hardcovers. The Twain essay I have in two or three different volumes. As a non sequitur — have you ever read the novelist Robert Stone?
William Michaelian: Nope. Can’t say that I have. Shall I add him to the list?
John Berbrich: Maybe. A year or two ago I read an interview w/ him in a collection of Paris Review interviews & it was really interesting. So the other day I saw his book, Prime Green, in the dollar bin in a Potsdam bookstore. It was a nice hardcover, so I bought it. Anyway, it turns out to be about his adventures in the 60s. He knew Kenny Kesey & the Merry Pranksters. He was also a reporter in Vietnam. But here’s the part that gets me. He was from New York City. He & his young bride moved to New Orleans in 1960, apparently just for the heck of it. He had trouble getting a decent job, to the point where he wound up selling Collier’s Encyclopedias door-to-door. What’s funny is that I used to sell Collier’s Encyclopedias door-to-door & his experience paralleled mine almost exactly. Hold on...lemme get a drink....
William Michaelian: Stay right where you are. I’ll get it for you. Keep talking.
John Berbrich: Okay. Thanks. So where was I? Oh yeah...Stone describes the exact same procedures that I had to learn when I lived in Connecticut. There was a local leader who trained the new salespeople, drove them out into new neighborhoods to scatter for the day’s adventures, & then picked them up at the end of the day. Stone describes exactly how you have to memorize precisely the pitch to the potential purchaser. You sell only to couples, & you go into the house only if both husband & wife are present. And you use a bait & switch technique. Stone’s was different than mine. He was trained to tell the homeowner that his neighbors looked up to him as a sort of a model & if he bought these great encyclopedias than all the neighbors would be buying them; hence, Stone could offer him a special one-time price. In my case, we told the suckers that we weren’t selling anything, that we were merely taking a survey. Can I come in & show you this marvelous set of hardcover knowledge? You run through the spiel, pointing out specific color photographs et cetera. When you are done you say, “Well, what do you think?” If they like what they see, you tell them that maybe you can fix it so that these people can actually purchase these wonderful items from you. And Stone had a run-in w/ the police, as he & his whole group were thrown briefly in jail, until sprung by Colliers’ lawyers. My own engagement w/ the local gendarme wasn’t as dramatic, but I was stopped by a cop who questioned me & said that I couldn’t sell anything door-to-door without a permit. Fortunately, he let me go, but since I had some legal difficulties back on Long Island that had yet to be resolved, I decided to quit the job rather than push my luck. Hey, can I have another drink?
William Michaelian: Of course — as soon as I tap another keg. Oooh.... I just thought of something. The Merry Pranksters selling encyclopedias... Booooooooosh! Wow. Looks like a good batch.
John Berbrich: Yeah, man, check out those crazy colors.
William Michaelian: Which is exactly why we need to christen this brew Further. I’d apologize about your clothes, but hey, it looks good on you.
John Berbrich: Quit licking my shirt, will ya? Here, squeeze some of the foam into this here flagon. Great. By the way, according to Stone’s book, the Merry Pranksters’ bus was named Furthur. What a coincidence. Too much acid, I guess. Unless it’s all some sort of merry joke on us, planned by Kesey some 45 years ago.
William Michaelian: You mean that rat stole our beer name? Next you’re gonna tell me “Electric Kool Aid” is also taken. Oh — by the way, here’s the column I wrote about Mr. Hinshaw for the February 2010 issue of the West Side. Better have another belt first. And after.
John Berbrich: That’s a lovely piece, Willie. I feel like I knew the guy. The way you’ve written it, your adventures sound as though they had taken place in the good old days, before electronic living & zero tolerance. I promise that next time I raise my glass, I’ll salute Mr. Hinshaw.
William Michaelian: Good. It’s definitely the thing to do. Come to think of it, back in 1993, I was years away from sending my first e-mail. I’d just gotten my first computer, a roaring 486 50 megahertz machine, with an enormous 340 megabyte hard drive. And that’s what I used to crank out our newspaper copy. As for zero tolerance, things were definitely more relaxed then. Not as relaxed as they were in the Sixties and Seventies, but at least tolerable.
John Berbrich: And what’s in store for us 20 years hence? If God knows, he ain’t sayin’.
William Michaelian: The first thing he has to do is find a fresh typewriter ribbon. Or maybe a new chisel and mallet. Unless he’s gone fishing. It’s possible, you know:
Send Them Up
Do you imagine God always on call
With myriad receptors,
Or a universal switchboard
Staffed by patient angels
In soft white gowns?
Prepare for the worst:
God is an old man gone fishing,
A grump with irritable bowel,
Discolored toenails, and stained
Underarms that will make
Your yearnful eyes water.
Go ahead, send them up.
He’ll scrape them into his bucket
And use your prayers as bait.
Beer cans and dirty magazines
Line the bottom of his boat.
He sticks pins in Jesus dolls,
Snacks on eyeballs harvested
From humble believers,
Spies on virgins with binoculars.
Go ahead, send them up.
His call center has been outsourced
To third world angels who live
In rusted tenement clouds.
Your prayers will be ignored
In the order they’re received,
Expedited service for a fee,
Major credit cards allowed.
All the while, the old man
Is rocking in his boat,
Eating pork rinds,
Belching famine and pestilence.
Faith, creed, and color
Are all the same to him.
If they were fish, they’d go back in.
Sink or swim, amen, tough luck
For the brotherhood of man.
Vivid, isn’t it? I wrote that four or five years ago, when I was in one of my good moods.
John Berbrich: It is vivid, no argument there. It’s not a cheery picture, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.
William Michaelian: Not necessarily. Nothing is pretty hard to beat. Although, like silence, nothing can be hard to define.
John Berbrich: How about: “Absence of anything”?
William Michaelian: Well, sure, if you want to be simple about it.
John Berbrich: Let me quote Thoreau: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” On the other hand, Salvador Dali said: “Complexity, complexity, complexity.” Taken together, they pretty much sum up everything. Say, did you hear that J.D. Salinger has just died at the age of 91?
William Michaelian: I did. Just a little while ago. It always seems strange when someone like that disappears from the landscape. He disappeared long ago, of course, but you still knew he was there. Well, his Catcher won’t disappear anytime soon.
John Berbrich: No, it won’t. Kids still read it & love it. My niece who is like 16 was just telling me over the holidays how much she loved that book. I’ve read it several times & plan to read it again. I understand that something like 15 unpublished novels were found stacked up in his home.
William Michaelian: Wow. Well, that says it all right there. I’ll be reading the book again too. Actually, it was on my list long before he died. I wonder what will come of those novels.
John Berbrich: Good question. I expect there’ll be a big spread in an upcoming New Yorker. He sold a lot of stories to them in the 50s. If you like, I’ll mail you a photocopy.
William Michaelian: Hey, that would be great. Although, I suppose I could live dangerously and splurge for a copy. But that would mean leaving my room. No. The more I think about it, you’d better send the photocopy. Go ahead and put it on my account.
John Berbrich: Or I could just deliver it myself, that would be more fun. Or I could roll up the copy & stick it in the dog’s mouth. “Go, Crockett! Bring it to Willie,” & see what happens.
William Michaelian: I can see it now. Somewhere in Colorado, your faithful hound gets distracted by a squirrel. Maybe I should go to BoneWorld? Really, it’s the least I can do, since you’re doing the photocopying.
John Berbrich: That does sound fair. But I think we’ve had this conversation before. You were going to head East & I was planning to head West. On foot, both of us. And meet in the middle. As I recall I didn’t get very far. Where did you end up, if you ever left?
William Michaelian: I made it out to the street. Then I got lost. It took me a month just to find the driveway again. And you?
John Berbrich: I really can’t remember. At this rate, we’ll never get anywhere.
William Michaelian: Hmm. Somehow, you make that sound almost important.
John Berbrich: I do hope you’re not taking me seriously. Remember, every step forward is a step backward. Just depends on which direction you’re looking.
William Michaelian: Well, at the moment, I’m looking west. So you’re saying that if I step forward, I’ll be heading east?
John Berbrich: Sort of. If you’re heading west, then you’re moving closer to Japan, which, you must admit, is generally considered to be located in the Far East.
William Michaelian: It is. And it’s taken most of my life to realize that although Japan is in the Far East, I can make it there in no time if I simply turn left instead of right. I think that bears out what you just said. And yet you’re also in the East, and a left turn would hardly be right.
John Berbrich: That’s right, a left turn would be wrong. Unless you were facing south, in which case a left turn would be right.
William Michaelian: So there are times when right is right and right is wrong. There are also times when right is all you have left. Still, one thing bothers me. If I’m facing south, is north left behind?
John Berbrich: No, that would be northeast. Left Behind is a book. North would be dead-center behind.
William Michaelian: Right. And yet if we were to conduct a pole... nah, never mind. Bad joke. I take it you’ve read this book you refer to, if not the whole series.
John Berbrich: No, I haven’t. Something creepy about the photos of the authors.
William Michaelian: I know what you mean. While that’s often reason enough to read a book, in this case it isn’t.
John Berbrich: Correct. Plus it’s a pretty long series. So the combination of the authors’ mugs & the length of the work has pretty much consigned this series of novels to a sort of...well, not really a Limbo...& not quite a Hell either. I know — how about the oubliette?
William Michaelian: That’s where I would consign it. With mushrooms, peppers, and cheese?
John Berbrich: Cheese enhances almost any type of food. Willie, I said almost any. So cheese, yes. And peppers & mushrooms, you say? I am feeling a bit peckish right about now. I suppose we have beer on tap, or a few big bottles of wine. I’m really in the mood for a feast.
William Michaelian: How about this idea — a little sign over the cellar stairs that reads “Wine Oubliette.”
John Berbrich: Yeah, I like that. Some little underground bistro w/ coffee & wine & guitar players & beat poets & college students. There’s a railroad track right behind the joint. The train rumbles by every 15 minutes or so, but it merely adds to the ambience of the place & no one cares. “Going to the Oubliette?” “Yeah, dude.” Typical Saturday night conversation.
William Michaelian: Perfect. And the train arrives from nowhere, and is on its way to nowhere, freightless, melancholy, and wise. Say — somehow, this little follow-up piece I just finished about Mr. Hinshaw fits right in, don’t you think?
John Berbrich: Well, yes. Thanks for the ride. I’m glad fringe sort of places like this one still exist, even if mostly in your mind. Once all the houses satisfy local codes, I expect the planet to implode. I mean, what would be the point of going on, other than to break the codes? Which I suppose would be a good-enough reason by itself.
William Michaelian: Always. But even more frightening would be all the minds satisfying local codes. In the meantime, it’s wonderful to see these places, an old jalopy or two parked alongside, a little smoke rising from the chimney. It isn’t hard to imagine the people holding them up from inside. Of course, you’d reinforce the walls with bookshelves.
John Berbrich: Yeah, & the bookshelves would help to insulate the place, too. Say, Willie, what’s this curious item over here?
William Michaelian: Interesting, isn’t it? I’m not sure. Judging by the little flashing lights, I’d say it’s a ghost monitor. Oh, wait. Those aren’t lights, they’re rivets. It’s a bellows. Man, I need to have my eyes checked. Stand right there. Let me show you how it works. You grab the handles, see, and then you — oops. Those aren’t rivets either. Ah, heck. It’s a cat. You knew it all along, didn’t you?
John Berbrich: Well, I was certain it was a mammal. I was sure of that. That’s a pretty big feline, though. And so ambiguous. My cat looks exactly like a cat, if you know what I mean. Minus the flashing lights.
William Michaelian: Obviously, it’s keeping things from you. Almost all the cats I know have flashing lights. And they make a funny whirring sound just before take-off.
John Berbrich: Sorry, mine stay on the ground. It’s an East Coast-West Coast thing, I’m afraid. We’ll never agree on this. How about your dogs, do they chase jets instead of cars?
William Michaelian: Of course not. That would be ridiculous. But there’s a local cab company here in town that’s staffed entirely by dogs. You find their cars in the strangest places, the drivers dozing at stop lights and stopping at fire hydrants. Just the other day, I saw one make an abrupt turn onto a side street and then speed off in full pursuit of a squirrel.
John Berbrich: What do you tip them in, bones? By the way, The New Yorker, instead of running a big article on Salinger, ran three short ones, two of which are of a personal nature. Photocopies of them will be winging their way to Oregon shortly. Did you watch the Super Duper Bowl?
William Michaelian: We had it on, but paid only occasional attention to it. Of course I watched The Who. I guess they didn’t die before they got old.
John Berbrich: Not all of them, that’s true. Daltrey can still sing. And Townshend can still wheel that arm. I thought they did a good job. I could have done without all those fireworks, but then again it was the Super Duper Bowl. You have to make a big deal of it; that’s the point.
William Michaelian: Quite the spectacle, that’s true. Although for a change I’d prefer opposing teams of philosophers, maybe, or gravediggers, or even bartenders. Kind of interesting hearing the old songs an octave lower — but it’s hard for guys that age to screech like twenty-year-olds. Despite the fact that I’m still marvelously young, I can’t do it either. We were trying to figure out who they’d get next year, having been through McCartney, Petty, Springsteen, the Stones, and whoever else in recent years. Who’s next, especially now that Salinger’s out of the picture?
John Berbrich: I’m trying to think of some big-name old-timers still extant. Some of Led Zeppelin is still around. And most of the Sex Pistols are alive, too. I remember the Springsteen halftime, thought that was great. I agree w/ your bartender idea, but they’d need cheerleaders jumping up & down behind them. Philosophical cheerleaders, wearing football uniforms. W/ chainsaws.
William Michaelian: And one of the teams could be called Crunch Time. Led Zeppelin would go over well. What about ZZ Top? They could do “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Jethro Tull?
John Berbrich: I’m not sure how many of the Tull guys are left, although ZZ Top is a splendid idea, especially if the game is played in Texas. Or maybe they could hire a mime — that would be different.
William Michaelian: It would. How about a group of haggard mimes playing air guitars? They could play “Hush” by Deep Purple.
John Berbrich: I love that song — haven’t heard it in years. You know who they should get, though, for halftime, is Ozzy Osbourne. He could bite the head off a referee, or a cheerleader.
William Michaelian: A fine idea! That would go over big. Say, you know, I checked the mail awhile ago, and sure enough, your Salinger photocopies are here already. Two days, despite the wild East Coast weather. I appreciate that. Brief pieces, but quite enjoyable.
John Berbrich: Yeah. I like the personal touch of the second two articles, as well as Gopnik’s closing statement about Salinger’s eye & ear for the world around him. I always felt that way about the speech of his characters: he’d present the dialogue & italicize the words — maybe just one syllable of a word — to get the emphasis exactly right. Not some fussy oration, but real human speech.
William Michaelian: I’m with you on those italics. And to capture speech he had to be a great listener. I also liked Gopnik’s opening, in which he referred to Salinger’s silence and withdrawal, and people’s gossip, “as though readers were somehow owed more than his words, were somehow owed his personal, talkshow presence too...”
John Berbrich: Yeah. How they’d be hounding him now. Oscar Wilde said something like the artist should remain on his pedestal, & in many ways I believe him. The artist’s mystique often enhances the production. What happens when you find out he’s a regular guy?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. I guess you sign him up to do laxative commercials. But of course the real answer is, if he’s a regular guy, how can he possibly be an artist? By the way — what is a regular guy?
John Berbrich: Good question. A statistical abstraction. In the mind of the viewer, not a real thing in the real world. Unless of course Plato had a Form for the regular guy. Aristotle would have disagreed.
William Michaelian: Well, you don’t get to be a famous philosopher by agreeing. On the other hand, there are people who exist as if they aren’t a real thing in the real world, basically swallowing the opinions, mannerisms, and ideas they’re served.
John Berbrich: Oh, I know. They seem like they’re empty, waiting to be filled from the outside. The hollow men, eh? The stuffed men.
William Michaelian: Yep. Leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Statistical abstractions, walking arm in arm. Tah-ruhmp, ruhmp, ruhmp...
John Berbrich: Sort of makes you want to climb into the hills & go it on your own, eh? If you’ve got that fierce pioneering spirit. People can be put in boxes for only so long before things start happening.
William Michaelian: That’s right. Sooner or later, they want a bigger box. And a bigger TV.
John Berbrich: Yeah, & if they can’t get it, there’s trouble.
William Michaelian: Real hell to pay. A new “reality” show: people trying to survive without TVs. The pain. The angst. The withdrawal.
John Berbrich: It won’t take long for pharmaceutical companies to persuade the government to set up new programs to administer this wonder drug to these poor TV-deprived reality folks — w/ the government (i.e. taxpayers) footing the bill. Or the government could say “free beer” for everyone.
William Michaelian: Free beer programs at the local, state, and national level. Free beer lines. Free beer kitchens. The portable toilet lobby will make a fortune.
John Berbrich: Things might be a lot better; by “better” I mean more relaxed. People could nap in the afternoon, sleeping it off. They could throw away most of their pills. We’d have more music, more people spontaneously bursting into song. I like it.
William Michaelian: A great Program of Deagitation — if deagitation is a word. Even if it’s not. In fact, under this program, it won’t matter. And as we both know, singing is probably the best and greatest drug there is. Beer of course being a close second.
John Berbrich: Well, pal, we’ve solved that problem. And deagitation — it should be in every dictionary. Certainly it will be found on Willipedia. This solving of problems doesn’t seem so hard — you just have to think on a grand scale. Funny thing — my spell-check doesn’t like the word deagitation. It wants me to substitute the word “decapitation.” I guess in both cases the goals are similar.
William Michaelian: How so? Decapitation is the removal of one’s cap. Deagitation is the removal of one’s adgj, and thus a far more serious business. Hmm. My spell-check also offers “regurgitation” and “debilitation.”
John Berbrich: Hmmm. Pretty advanced, although I fail to see how removing one’s cap is anything like gurging again. Well, I can see that I’ve got more studying to do, as the world keeps changing along w/ the language. When I write Michaelian my spell-check likes it, suggesting nothing. I guess you’ve passed the test.
William Michaelian: Maybe, maybe not. When I type in my name, the spell-check says “no hope.” But of course mine is integrated with Willipedia and, as such, it is subject to changing moods.
John Berbrich: So, therefore, considering the mood swings, is Willipedia an example of Artificial Intelligence, do you think?
William Michaelian: I think it’s a very advanced form of Artificial Intelligence — a form we would probably fear if it were not also so informative, addictive, and entertaining.
John Berbrich: And pervasive. As you pointed out (or I pointed out) there are many Willipedias active in cyberspace, all doing their part to enlighten & amuse blighted humanity.
William Michaelian: Wait. Are you saying that there are parallel Willipedias?
John Berbrich: I’m not sure if they’re parallel or merely tangential. Why don’t you ask
William Michaelian: Which one? On the other hand, what I’d really like to ask is, how were things at the Hookah House? Was there a poetic, shisha-filled atmosphere?
John Berbrich: Ah, I see you know the lingo. Yeah, we had a good time. The Hookah has low lights, plush furniture, exotic smoking-devices. Good atmosphere. Two newcomers took advantage of the open-mike, & it sounds as though they’re interested in joining up. There’s no tobacco smell whatsoever. Which is unfortunate cuz I love the smell of a good cigar. I read my introduction to the next Yawp as a prose piece. You’ll see it soon — it does have something to do w/ smoking.
William Michaelian: Does it? I’m inspired already. I had a feeling you were working on the new issue. Not because it’s time, but because I get these weird vibes when you go into the home stretch. Must be the ink in my blood.
John Berbrich: Oh, what type ink/blood do you have? I’m sure it’s “B Positive.”
William Michaelian: Clever. But it’s actually an Irish ink, “O’Negative.”
John Berbrich: Oh, I didn’t realize that you were Irish. Was the original spelling of your name McKellian. Am I close?
William Michaelian: Hardly. But since when has that mattered? You’d be surprised, though, at how many people, upon seeing my name, ask if I’m Irish. Although there is that Scottish great-grandfather of mine. We mustn’t forget him. In fact, here’s my picture of a picture of him. I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen it.
John Berbrich: I hadn’t. Looks like he’s wearing a gigantic monocle. Do you know where they lived, your great-grandparents? In the Old World or the New?
William Michaelian: They lived in California’s gold country, early on around Bodie, and then Sonora. Henry was born in 1835, and was much older than Eliza. They’re both buried in Sonora. All my life I’d heard that Henry was born in Scotland. Then, a few years ago, in a rambling letter that was part fact and part opinion, one of my mother’s elderly sisters said he was born in Boston. So I don’t know for sure, except that there had to be some basis to the Scotland story for it to have started so early and lasted so long. I’ll tell you what — the whole thing leaves me feeling mighty dour.
John Berbrich: Well, I always said you had a Scottish look about you. Dour, too, now that you mention it. 1835, the year that Mark Twain was born, I believe. Do you know when he died?
William Michaelian: No, not exactly. I might be able to find a record of it somewhere in the house. Around the turn of the century, I think. It’s something, these people lurking in our past. Not only that, “Dour since 1835” would be a great beer slogan.
John Berbrich: Willie, it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that all of our conversations eventually turn to beer. “Dour since 1835” is a great slogan. But really, our conversation is certainly developing a theme, a subject, a sort of lens through which every other topic is seen. And you know what? Unaccountably, I’m getting thirsty.
William Michaelian: Well, what’s it been — five, ten minutes already? No wonder you’re parched! But beer hasn’t always been our main subject. For several years there, we were preoccupied with elves.
John Berbrich: That’s right! And weren’t they mixing up a batch of killer homebrew?
William Michaelian: So, then — you’re saying it’s been beer from the beginning, that it’s beer now, and that it’ll always be beer?
John Berbrich: Well, I’m no prophet, but...wait a minute. I’ve got this great poem about beer in my files. It’s not by me — it’s by this fellow Gerald Locklin. Want to hear it? — If I can find it....The poem will answer all of your philosophical questions about the foam & the suds.
William Michaelian: Then find it, by all means. Dig it up. It’s been awhile since our last avalanche. Gerald Locklin... don’t I remember him from the Yawp?
John Berbrich: Hold on a second....
William Michaelian: Fine. I’ll just sit here looking dour.
John Berbrich: You’re so good at it, the whole dour lifestyle. I don’t think we’ve ever published Locklin, but I have reviewed a couple of his chapbooks, favorably. Oh, here it is! The poem was written for Ron Koertge & appeared in the Ugly Alcohol Anthology, published in 2000 by Staplegun Press, edited by small-press whiz Scott Gordon.
It takes a lot to get you there, but it won’t kill
Kids like it. The foam makes a fine moustache. When
they go to sleep they dream of goofy pink dragons
and slippery little smiling fish.
To the adolescent it is the first taste of the earth’s
bitterness. He has to pretend it gets him high.
He is afraid it will give him zits, and maybe it
will. He gives it to his girlfriend and thinks it is
because of it she gives herself to him.
She doesn’t like the taste of it and never will. She
doesn’t have the thirst for it. She is afraid
it will give her a gut, and maybe it will.
Eventually she’ll be a little insulted when it’s
offered her. And probably should be.
But the best of friendships are formed over it. It
helps men to speak to each other, a difficult
thing these days. It lets men sing without
embarrassment of auld lang syne and of the sheep
that went astray somewhere along the line. It
goes excellently with pool and pickled eggs,
beef jerky and baseball games. Contrary to
popular opinion, it is good for the kidneys,
affords them exercise. It is good for all the
We all go beyond it; we always come back to it. It
is the friend who eases us through our philosophies.
It is the friend we talk to about our women,
the one who agrees with us that
they are not all that important. It
restores our courage in the face of cowardly
sobrieties. It laughs with us at our most
serious sonnets, weeps at our pratfalls. It
remembers us; it takes us back.
Finally, this blessed beer, it eases us towards
William Michaelian: Hey, not bad. Note the dour satisfaction in my mug — ah, what a great pun! The question is, was he drinking beer when he wrote it? For the record, here’s a link to the poet’s website, and here’s one to his blog. Interesting. He calls himself “The Toad.”
John Berbrich: Actually, the poem “Beer” was originally published in Locklin’s poetry collection, Go West, Young Toad. I haven’t seen his name around lately but certainly Locklin has been a prominent name in the small press for at least a couple of decades. I have a couple of his chapbooks in my rapidly expanding library. By the way, the January Yawps are done. Just letting them cool off before mailing them out.
William Michaelian: Necessary, I suppose, to avoid spontaneous combustion. Say, before you bale mine, toss in an extra five copies. And use new baling wire this time, none of that old rusty stuff — unless it’s part of the cover design. By now you must have thousands of chapbooks.
John Berbrich: I don’t know about thousands, but certainly many hundreds. I’m trying to organize all of this stuff in my office, & chapbooks & small press magazines are part of that process. I love looking at these old magazines from the — gasp! — 20th century. All the old names & crazy artwork. Inspiring.
William Michaelian: And just think of all those staples. Enough for a hardware store. The trouble is, since most of them don’t have writing on the spine, it’s hard to tell what they are when they’re shelved. That’s the way the small press section is at Powell’s — a big jumble, with people pawing through them all the time, taking out publications, jamming them back in, stuff being pushed to the back, corners getting mangled, covers creased — what a glorious experience.
John Berbrich: You make it sound like a paper orgy. The magazines & chapbooks that do have spines are alphabetized on shelves. But for those spineless publications, those are dumped into boxes, each of which is labeled as being a certain part of the alphabet or by particular publishers. So I can find things pretty quickly if I want them. I need to take a day off, buy a jug of wine, & work 10 hours cleaning up this place.
William Michaelian: That should do it. Of course, most of your time will be spent reading as you file the publications. A jug of wine, a box of chaps, and thou singing in the wilderness.
John Berbrich: You’re right, I will spend most of the time reading. So I’ll need a case of wine & maybe a week off work. That should let me get a decent start on the project. At any rate, I’ll have a great time.
William Michaelian: And all the while, more will be coming in. Have you been to the University of Buffalo library to see the special collections?
John Berbrich: No. They do subscribe to the Yawp, though, & have bought a number of our chapbooks. Maybe someday....
William Michaelian: ’twould be nice. I know Among the Living is there, as well as my two Cosmopsis editions. I was thinking it would be interesting if they started a collection of small press editors — although feeding them could get expensive.
John Berbrich: Well, the beer tab alone would be enormous. There’s a place in Lower Manhattan called the Poets House that I’m interested in. I believe it was started up by Stanley Kunitz in the mid-eighties. They’ve moved to a new building in Battery Park, really a nice spot on the Hudson, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. They have 50,000 volumes of poetry on their shelves, including quite a few gift copies from BoneWorld. I make a donation of chaps every year. Next time I’m in New York I’m going to check the place out.
William Michaelian: That’s a visit I have to hear about. I wish I could make the trip myself. I’ve read a little about the place. I’m glad to hear about the BoneWorld donations. That’s great.
John Berbrich: Maybe we can pull together a visit someday — next time you’re on the East Coast. People should donate to what they consider worthy causes — should donate time or money or merchandise of some kind. It’s sort of like voting for what you believe in, only it’s a lot more direct.
William Michaelian: It is, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of causes. And even if there were, you could create one. Like a local chapter of the Orderly Wood Stackers Association. There’s nothing like driving through a town with neat woodpiles, I always say.
John Berbrich: You know, that’s a worthy cause. I mean, most of the guys around here stack their firewood in pretty neat rows. Some have even built shelters w/ wood & canvas over the stacks to protect from rain. Mine, I stack it in the garage. Pretty neat too, I might add. I’m a fairly orderly wood stacker. But in general I’m not big on causes.
William Michaelian: Well, anymore, even the word can have a lousy connotation. I always found great satisfaction in stacking wood, and then making trips out to the woodpile later on during the burning season. The smell of it, the feel, the possibility of encountering intriguing life-forms....