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: ...I guess itís a deal. What have I got to lose? Fifty percent of nothing is still nothing. Reminds me of that song by Billy Preston: nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
John Berbrich: I like that song. But the reverse is not necessarily true: something from something does not always leave something. Now Iíve got that song in my head.
William Michaelian: Youíll probably hate me for saying this, but thatís the way God planned it.
John Berbrich: Willie, itís wrong to hate anyone; but I do despise you for saying that.
William Michaelian: I donít blame you. I despise myself, always trying to be clever with song titles. I try to improve, I really do, but then I slip back into the habit.
John Berbrich: You mean, ďThatís the Way God Planned It,Ē is a song title?
William Michaelian: Are you kidding? That was a big hit for Billy Preston. He did a great performance of it at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. His album of the same name came out in 1969, an Apple release, I believe.
John Berbrich: Oh. My bad. All I know from Preston is that nothing from nothing song. Which I do have on a CD, a collection of hits by various artists. Mathematically, itís totally logical.
William Michaelian: In fact, it was said that his mother wanted him to be a mathematician. Never mind that Iím the one who said it.
John Berbrich: I think the song is supposed to put an upbeat spin on Jean-Paul Sartreís book Being and Nothingness. In fact, the song sums up much of Sartreís philosophy. Werenít you the guy who said that Sartreís mother said that her son would end up digging beautiful French ditches? Maybe it was the other son.
William Michaelian: No, Iím the guy who said Sartre, or sart, is the Armenian word for spider. But I wish I was the guy who had said the part about French ditches, because at least thatís quotable.
John Berbrich: Well, I donít know. I think the Armenian spider angle is pretty quotable. And you can quote me on that.
William Michaelian: I just might do that. Sart was a spider who ended up digging beautiful Armenian ditches.
John Berbrich: No, no, no. What I said was, Spart drank the cider & ended up digging beautiful American bitches.
William Michaelian: Wait ó is that what you said? I thought it was Spzarte drank the spider and ended up digging beautiful wenches.
Joe Linker: Thereís more than wan wave to gig a drench.
William Michaelian: Well, see, now youíre getting to the nitty gritty. Iím glad someone here knows his philosophy, because I donít. Mr. Berbrich, meet Mr. Linker. Joe lives up the road a piece. Mr. Linker, meet Mr. Berbrich.
John Berbrich: Pleased to meet you, Joe.
William Michaelian: Brilliant! Okay, now who said that?
John Berbrich: Spart?
William Michaelian: Spart? You mean the guy who digs birches?
John Berbrich: No, youíre thinking of Spzarte. Spart is the guy who pigs witches. Actually, to be honest, Iím not sure if he does the pigging himself or if he merely said something quotable about it. So weíre left w/ that ambiguity.
William Michaelian: I think you mean ampiguity. Either way, it sounds like weíre up a tree without a puddle.
John Berbrich: Or up pigís creep without a saddle.
William Michaelian: The funny thing about this is, today ó June 21, that is ó is Sartreís
John Berbrich: And itís the first day of summer. Weird.
William Michaelian: Come to think of it, it is weird. How do you think he managed that? Did he ever say? I know youíve read every word he wrote. Maybe not in his books, but somewhere.
John Berbrich: Probably not every word. The guy wrote a lot of books. I canít recall him ever mentioning this Conversation, though. So anything I say would merely be speculation.
William Michaelian: Well, I confess, I havenít even read him in Spurtz. And itís been years since Iíve thrown Dartz. Both formidable men. Maybe you know which one of them said, ďIf you are lonely when youíre alone, you are in bad company,Ē and which said, ďLife begins on the other side of despair.Ē Or maybe one said both. Or both said one.
John Berbrich: I think youíre confusing Spurtz & Dartz w/ Mertz. Thatís Fred Mertz from the old ďI Love LucyĒ show. He too said some funny things although right now I canít think of a single one.
William Michaelian: I canít either. And yet he was brilliant. But I like him best in The Miracle on 34th Street as the cigar-smoking crony of the judge who declared, to the joy of all, that Santa Claus really does exist.
John Berbrich: I was wondering who said that. Thanks. By the way, we had an earthquake today. Not a big one, but it measured 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Apparently it was felt from Syracuse way up into Quebec. Did you feel anything?
William Michaelian: Definitely. You know me ó in tune with the cosmos, in tune with every vibration. Although, I must say, it felt more like a 5.6. What happened? Did one of your bookcases go over?
John Berbrich: Gods, no. I have those anchored to the walls. But nothing dramatic. I was at work & felt this little tremor, or thought I did. Then another hit & there was no doubt. Then a third little trembling & that was it. My office is on the third floor. I looked out the window. No sirens or toppling buildings. The day resumed much as usual, although some of the women were scared. I thought it was cool. So no damage by you, eh?
William Michaelian: Are you suggesting I was behind it? Oh ó you mean no damage here in Oregon. Well, my beard took a beating, but itís nothing a stiff belt canít cure. I remember an earthquake that happened when we still lived in California. I was sitting with a friend in a carpet store in Fresno when the whole building began to rumble and roll, and we hung onto our chairs for the ride. It was centered in the town of Coalinga, to the southwest, near the Coast Range. Did a lot of damage there.
John Berbrich: Wow. Iíve felt four or five in my 25 years up here, but theyíve all been little shakings that last only maybe five or 10 seconds. Itís a scary, giddy sensation. A good reminder of how helpless we are when Nature rolls over in Her sleep. All we can do is jump & hide.
William Michaelian: So true. Especially when something like this hits the floor.
John Berbrich: Man, donít drop it on your foot. Thatís a big book.
William Michaelian: Shipping weight, according to the specs, is 1.62 pounds. Imagine a flat car loaded with them, chugging through the mountains of this fair land, covered with soot and ashes, fir needles, and pine cones, the books warped and swollen from a recent thunderstorm.
John Berbrich: That is a picture. And a crowd of cheering thousands, waiting at the station for the books to arrive. Theyíve been out there, in the rain & sunshine, for three days. In fact, theyíve constructed a shantytown made of cardboard. Vendors are selling beer & hot dogs. People are just getting loose & having a great time. I wish I were there.
William Michaelian: Me too. In fact, who needs the darned books? Everyoneís money will have been spent by that time. And so, after the party, the books are carted off the train and into a field, where theyíre used to fertilize next yearís crops.
John Berbrich: Iíd like to think that weird things would grow there. Maybe books?
William Michaelian: An inevitable byproduct, of course. And quite a few thorns, I like to think, noxious bitter weeds that suddenly flower and attract all manner of strange insects and birds. I would hope, too, for several new alphabets. And in the middle of it all, thereís an overgrown outhouse no one remembers from the day before. A kind of sacred reading room, if you will.
John Berbrich: Willie, that is so beautiful, Iím close to tears. Say, speaking of tears, whatís become of Joe Linker? I was kinda getting to like him. Flashy dresser, in an understated sort of way. And a good strong handshake. Seems like heíd be a pretty dependable neighbor, like heíd give you water if your well ran dry or something. Or heíd loan you a copy of your own book, if you ran out. That sort of thing.
William Michaelian: I wonder about Joe myself. Understated in a flashy sort of way. A dependable neighbor shake. Dry strong water. Prone to short statements and long silences. In other words, everything you said, and then some.
John Berbrich: I suppose heís working up some big statement even as we speak. Something pithy, soaked w/ irrefutable logic, but also hilarious, like youíd laugh out loud every time you thought of it. That sort of thing.
William Michaelian: The trick, I think, is not to wait. With a guy like Joe, timing is everything. Of course thatís the way it is with great sages and their piercing insight. Although, it would be funny if he popped out of that mystic outhouse. I wonder what heís reading in there.
John Berbrich: Whatever heís reading, itís taking him quite a while, & this lineís not getting any shorter. While weíre waiting, any good books lately?
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, I did bring home six more used books the other day. What Is Man?, Volume XII of the complete works of Mark Twain, published in 1917; Part 1 of Don Quixote in the Harvard Classics edition, 1909, translated by Thomas Shelton; Kiplingís The Jungle Books Volumes 1 and 2, 1948; Volume 2 of the Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benťt, 1942; and a thousand-plus-page reference volume of some kind published in Moscow in 1963. Itís not a dictionary, and not a thesaurus ó I donít know what it is.
John Berbrich: Well, when you figure it out, let me know. Iím sure itíll come in handy, that Russian book. I love Kiplingís Jungle Books. Iíve avoided the movie. I have that Twain set, well most of it, published by Harper & Brothers in New York, 1917. Iím missing Volume 21 in the lovely 24-volume set. Oh, what to do?
William Michaelian: Thatís a tough one. Something like that would eat me up. If it were Volume 12 you were missing, Iíd send you mine. It would kill me, but Iíd rest peacefully in my grave knowing you had the complete set.
John Berbrich: Thatís nice. The thing is, I donít even know what book Iím missing; I mean, I donít know what volume 21 is. Actually, I suppose I could click around on Google & figure it out. Or Iím sure one of the Conversationís many readers will supply the answer. Anyway, itís a great hardcover set, very readable, & not a typo that Iíve found yet. Had it for over a decade.
William Michaelian: Did you come by the books all at once, or did you have to piece the set together?
John Berbrich: Just before my Aunt Joan the English Professor died she told me to raid her personal library. I did so gladly, but was able to pack only a fraction of her books into the back of our station wagon. I didnít realize we were missing volume 21 until I was building new bookcases at our house. She had a massive library in her climate-controlled basement, at least 5,000 volumes. We took maybe 500, a mere 10%.
William Michaelian: Five thousand books. Amazing. What became of the rest of them? ó that is, if youíre at liberty to say.
John Berbrich: I know that she donated at least some of them to local libraries in Queensbury, New York, an hour north of Albany. As for the rest ó well, I really donít know. I hope they found good homes.
William Michaelian: The journey of books. Once upon a time, my 1924 Websterís dictionary must have been in a used bookstore, because someone wrote ď$1.50Ē just inside. What really breaks my heart is finding loving inscriptions that are fairly recent. Right away, I start imagining the circumstances that led to the book being for sale, sometimes far away from where it was signed. Hard to imagine them being cheerful.
John Berbrich: Thereís definitely a poem in there. Hereís a recent story of an inscription. I picked up the poetry book Embouchure in a local used bookshop. It was published in New York in 1995, runs 42 pages, & has a nice glossy cover featuring a photograph of a saxophone. The book was written by Akua Lezli Hope, a good-looking young black woman raised in Queens & the Bronx. The poetry is jazzy & hopeful (like her name) & quite musical in its phrasing & word-choice. Anyway, thereís an inscription signed by Akua written to someone named Maurice in June of 1997 in aqua-blue ink made by Iíd say a felt-tip pen. The inscription is bright, positive, & contains much hope for the future. I decided to find out what the author was up to now so I googled her. Turns out sheís a paraplegic living somewhere in upstate New York. I found this particularly depressing, & it lends a deep poignancy when re-reading the inscription. I feel as though I want to contact her but I donít want to hassle her.
William Michaelian: Well, I donít know her, of course, but if I may say so, that is probably the exact opposite of the way she feels. In fact, there are some nice pictures of her with that saxophone on her Facebook page. Why not drop her a line?
John Berbrich: I think I will. Thanks, Willie. Itís a good idea. So, did you have a spectacular Fourth of July?
William Michaelian: The racket here is just beginning. There are some people one street over who really go in for the big illegal stuff, so weíre expecting cannons until midnight. Also, itís my motherís eighty-eighth birthday and my brother and sister-in-lawís anniversary. To top it off, Momís grandmother was also born on the Fourth ó way back in 1859, in Sweden.
John Berbrich: Wow. Sounds as though youíve got reasons to celebrate. Here things are pretty quiet. One of these weekends Russell will hold its own fireworks display. For a small town, itís a pretty impressive sight. We have a great view from our yard, as the fireworks are held at the baseball field directly across the river. Best seats in town, literally. Are fireworks illegal in Oregon? They are in New York, but that doesnít seem to slow anyone down.
William Michaelian: Only the bigger ones are illegal for home use, I donít know which ones, exactly. But theyíre legal just up the road in Washington, and people buy them there and haul them back by the car load. I like your setup much better. It reminds me of when I was a kid and we used to travel to the neighboring townís high school football field for fireworks. There was always an ambulance on hand, parked on the track. Theyíd set off a big one, weíd all be amazed, and then weíd wait several minutes for the next one to go off.
John Berbrich: Yeah, Russellís been doing its own for only a few years. Before that, we used to go to a neighboring town for their display, which was pretty pathetic & getting worse every year. This is much better. Like I said, theyíre illegal in New York, but legal in Pennsylvania. The most amazing fireworks Iíve ever seen was for the Bicentennial back in 1976. A friend & I drove down from Connecticut. A huge flotilla sailed down the Hudson River right by Manhattan Island, then a spectacular display was set off in Liberty Park in Jersey City, right across the river from Manhattan. Then me & my buddy spent all night just wandering lower Manhattan. On every street corner youíd see a guy w/ a whole shopping bag filled w/ fireworks. It was crazy. We went down to Chinatown. The colorful explosions were not-stop all around & not a cop in sight.
William Michaelian: Itís the same here, cop-wise ó in fact, I think theyíre out shooting off their own. And of course tending to fires and accidents. We heard on the news that someone in Portland blew up his garage when he was altering one of his fireworks. Injured an eight-year-old boy. The neighbors, though, were surprised to find out it happened, since there was already so much racket in the area. Ah, freedom.
John Berbrich: Yeah, enjoy it while you can. Zero tolerance & all of that. I just found out the Russell fireworks are scheduled for July 17th, donít ask me why. We do things a bit differently up here.
William Michaelian: Well, in their wisdom, the city fathers probably thought it wise to wait until after the frost season. The temperature has suddenly shot up here ó yesterday it hit seventy, and today itís pushing ninety, and weíre supposed to be close to a hundred as the week progresses. This means one thing: an iced railcar packed with zucchini is headed your way.
John Berbrich: I like zucchini although I must admit I do tire of them quickly. Our raspberries are doing well. And the bees love these hot sunny days. Speaking of wild animals, yesterday there was a reliable sighting of a bear just one mile from my house, up by the rock-cut, & two weeks ago a cougar was spotted, just a couple of miles away. And this morning, while walking the dogs, I saw a brown rabbit in the next yard. Whatís next?
William Michaelian: Possibly a herd of snails. Enough of them together and they cause quite a rumble. You know, Iíd forgotten all about your bees. Howís that little enterprise going?
John Berbrich: Well, they did survive the winter. The problem is theyíre not building the way they were expected to build. They must not have read the manual. I find it rather difficult to explain the precise problem in laymanís terms, but trust me when I say that any more of this & theyíre likely to swarmóómeaning, I take it, that the little buzzers will create another queen, then the majority of them will fly away w/ the old queen to build elsewhere, leaving the new queen & some drones behind to start the botched hive over again. Something like that.
William Michaelian: Well, thatís not a bad description. Youíve just reminded me of a familiar occurrence each year on the farm. It happened there in the late spring or early summer, as I recall, when weíd be out working in the vineyard, and the air would fill with the hum of bees. It would go on for hours, and generally speaking we wouldnít actually see the bees. But occasionally there would be a swarm that would make us hit the ground.
John Berbrich: Sort of like an air raid drill. I remember you telling me about the tastes of the honey culled from bees whose hives were located in different orchards. Those days are sweet to imagine, like a memory that I donít have.
William Michaelian: Hey, that sounds like Brautigan. My insanity actually dates back to one season around 1981 or 1982, when the orange honey was so good. Never did recover, thank goodness.
John Berbrich: I can tell. Actually today we had to monkey w/ the bees, if Iím not mixing metaphors there. We had to rearrange some of the boxes & scrape out one of them. I came home from work early. I tucked my work pants into my socks, then slung on tall boots. Over my pants I pulled on my old karate pants, all white. I guess white is a good color to wear when youíre dealing w/ bees. I donned a heavy long-sleeve shirt & over that put on my old karate top, white. Then we wrapped my ankles & wrists w/ that clear packing tape. I turned up my collar, put on my old fishing hat, & over that placed a sort of bug helmet made of netting. I wore cool shades. Oh, & a pair of sleek black gloves. Nancy has a standard white bee outfit, complete w/ helmet & visor, so she was all set. I performed most of the lifting & she did most of the scraping. Thousands of busy disrupted bees covered us & filled the air. But no stings. We worked in the 90 degree heat, all bundled up, until we had improved things a bit & added another small box filled w/ frames. Hope they donít take off on us. There is nothing more we can do. We did glean one bowl of honey which is pretty dang delicious.
William Michaelian: What a treat. We have some local honey right now thatís marvelous, made out of anything and everything thatís in bloom. Well ó you sound quite official there in your beekeeping outfit. Our old bee-man friend carried this little smoking can with some burlap smouldering inside, and heíd puff it around the crevices to keep the bees in their boxes. But of course you were working them in the heat and bright light of day, so who knows how many were out and about. He used to move the hives at night, of course. In fact, he supplied us with the honey that made me lose my mind. Wow ó I just realized something: heís eighty years old now. Iíd go see him tonight if I didnít have to drive 735 miles. Thatís the exact distance from our house to his front step, give or take a few feet.
John Berbrich: Whereíd you get that stat from, MapQuest? The bee-man should be awarded some kind of honorary literary prize for feeding you that honey years ago & thus enriching the literature of the planet. Although not everyone he supplied w/ honey turned into a poet, novelist, & all-around literary figure, so you must have been born w/ some particular sort of DNA imbued w/ the ability to scribble clearly & wonderfully about the stuff thatís in our world & the stuff that isnít. The honey brought forth your particular literary madness. Some would call it Destiny.
William Michaelian: Ah, excellent ó it sounds like the honey is getting to you as well. Now, about the 735 miles. The figure was not supplied by MapQuest. Rather, it was supplied years ago by my father, after our move from California to Salem. ďSeven hundred thirty-five miles,Ē he said, stretching in the driveway. He also kept track of temperatures and rain totals ó not to the extent that heíd chart them from year to year, but he liked to know where things stood in that department. He was also good at remembering when a certain batch of kittens or puppies was born.
John Berbrich: Some handy knowledge there. Wouldnít want to miss out on a birthday. Funny how some people have certain knacks. I mean, youíll get these guys who are amazing w/ historical dates, while others have incomprehensible abilities w/ foreign languages. I often wonder how frequently technology renders a personís ability obsolete. I heard a rather sad story not long ago. It concerned a car ride w/ a young married couple & the wifeís grandfather. Now the grandfather is one of those guys who always knows where he is & is always the navigator on any sort of long car ride. But their GPS has made his talent useless. They told me that he was actually repeating the instructions spoken by the GPS bot, as though the driver couldnít comprehend the words unless spoken by him, since he was the traditional navigator. They laughed about this, like ďabsurd old grampa,Ē while I felt sad, thinking that one of the few things the old guy could contribute to the group had been taken away.
William Michaelian: Thatís a heartbreaker. It reminds me of a short story by Guy de Maupassant ó I donít recall the title right off hand, but the narrator was visiting an old friend and his family who were making fun of the grandpa when he spilled things at the table and in his senility made desperate silly sounds trying to express himself. The narrator was thoroughly disgusted by the familyís behavior. I think of my own grandfather, who at ninety knew more about the weather and the areaís natural surroundings than meteorologists and teachers. He could sing circles around them too.
John Berbrich: Well, thatís the thing. When you are in tune w/ nature, it is possible to know what is going to happen w/ the weather, even if you donít know how to explain it to someone else. Meteorology is quite wonderful, w/ all of its expensive gewgaws & gizmos, yet meteorologists are often wrong about the weather, in fact often make serious blunders. They donít know how to measure everything. And they donít know the value of anything. And, as you say, most of them probably canít sing.
William Michaelian: A shame, too. Because this much is certain: besides good posture, singing is another cure for our physical and psychological ills. By the way, my grandfather was a great honey eater. In his younger days, even before my father was born, he was buying honey in five-gallon buckets from our friend the bee manís grandfather. For them, beekeeping was a generational thing. Oh ó and this just in: Iíve just released a book of drawings. Itís called Primitive. Thereís also a preview on this siteís main page, under the Authorís Press Series info. Itís mad, I tell you, mad.
John Berbrich: Willie ó good lord but you are on a roll! You have that restless pen (& pencil) that just canít sit still. Tell me something ó have you ever considered making a book out of this Conversation? I realize it would run to Proustian length. Could be what the world really needs.
William Michaelian: As a matter of fact, I have. I wonder if it would even fit between two covers. Well, I suppose if the type were small enough.... On the other hand, maybe we should wait until we get into it a little further. I mean, weíre still only at the beginning.
John Berbrich: Thatís true. Thereís a long way to go. I have no idea just how many pages weíre talking about here, although Iím sure itís a pretty big number. What would you call it? The Conversation? Whatís weird is that if you ever publish the book, then this part here, where weíre talking about the book, will be in the book. That is so self-reflective.
William Michaelian: Indeed. Another approach would be to publish each page as its own chapbook. Wait ó that would mean forty-one chapbooks, with more to follow. Nope, that wonít work. It needs to be one big whopping volume. It could be divided by years, if I knew where one ended and the next began, but I donít. Which reminds me ó my index idea never got off the ground. As it stands, Iím hoping someone will take up that noble task after Iím dead.
John Berbrich: Iíd put the elves to it. Although when weíre kicking around at the Antique and Junk Poem Shop, Iím sure someone will want to get involved. I can see Ezra Pound just wanting to take over.
William Michaelian: Heíll need an activity like that. Heíll probably re-write half of it as he goes, but by then it wonít matter. Not like now, when every word we breathe is pure gold and of the utmost importance.
John Berbrich: And just as important as the word is the space between each word. The little silence, that intangible tiny hiatus, makes all the difference. Toward the end of his life, the voluble Pound removed all the words from his speech & retained only the silence. Sounds like a job for John Cage.
William Michaelian: Interesting. A speech with the words removed would be infinitely longer than the original, or so it seems to me. In fact, it would still be going on. But I agree completely on the importance of the space between each word. Words are informed by the space and silence between them. And in a written work ó and in a spoken one too, for that matter ó the words also inform the silence.
John Berbrich: Speaking of silence, at our SLAP meeting tonight one of the guys told me that a new Mark Twain autobiography is due out soon. Apparently Twain wrote this w/ the instruction that the book was not to be published until 100 years after his death. Well, he died in 1910 so here it is. I think the fellow told me it was coming out in three volumes. What a treat!
William Michaelian: Yes, absolutely, this is big. And just think ó Iíll only have to wait a hundred years to buy it used, thus bringing my recent purchase full circle. No more sanitized Twain. As it is, Letters from the Earth is such a huge treat. So ó I assume youíll pick up the first volume as soon as itís out.
John Berbrich: Could be. Oh, yeah ó Letters from the Earth is a feast. Iím really excited about this. No telling what Mr. Clemens was up to, although it could be a huge joke. Without him, American literature would be lifeless.
William Michaelian: Hey, lifeless is some pretty strong talk. Donít you think thereíd at least be a cold, nervous twitch here and there? A dry, mechanical gasp? A hint of daylight in a drab, stale room?
John Berbrich: Maybe a hint, Iíll grant you that. I was just carried away w/ excitement. Thereís Poe & Whitman, of course. How about this? Minus Twain, Poe, & Whitman, 19th century American literature would be pretty forgettable.
William Michaelian: Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau.... I donít know. Without a doubt, Twain and Whitman tower above. Stephen Crane. Emily Dickinson.
John Berbrich: Okay, okay. Youíve let all the air out of my argument. I feel so inadequate. Tell me, how much have you read of Melville? I started one novel, I forget the name, & put it down after 25 or 30 pages. I simply could not bear the prose style.
William Michaelian: I have not gotten into Melville. I have a nice little edition of Moby Dick that Iíve started two or three times in recent years with the same result. Iíve always attributed it to bad timing. Then again, Iíve managed to get into other things during that period, so I donít know. I want to like it. Certainly Melvilleís trials and tribulations appeal to me. But I daresay peopleís lives would be different in strange subtle ways had there been no Twain or Whitman, and that goes whether theyíve read them or not. You donít necessarily have to read a great writer for your life to be affected by him. And now, a shocking surprise: Dollface and I are leaving town today with one of the kids, heading north to Port Angeles and the Olympic Forest. They think weíre going hiking, but the real purpose of the trip is to visit used bookstores along the way. We should be back day after tomorrow.
John Berbrich: Well, have a good time. Donít think about me while youíre gone.....
William Michaelian: Ah ó but I simply couldnít help it when I was buying these Dover Thrift Editions in Port Angeles: Carl Sandburgís Chicago Poems; Great Short Poems, edited by Paul Negri; Early Poems by Ezra Pound; Sandburgís Cornhuskers; Frostís The Road Not Taken; and Maxim Gorkyís Chelkash and Other Stories. Yes, weíre back. Although now thereís talk about another escape for a climb up Saddle Mountain.
John Berbrich: That sounds like a good time, although I wonder if thereís a bookstore on top of the mountain.
William Michaelian: Iíll be disappointed if there isnít. Or at least a decent coffee joint. Saddle Mountain Editions has a nice ring to it, too.
John Berbrich: I like that! Someone could write a chapbook length history of an imaginary publishing company by that name. The owners & editors were always operating on a shoestring, as the saying goes. They evaded the law, their creditors, a few muscular skateboard gangs, & maybe even some spirits from beyond the grave. Wow, I like it, like it, like it. They met fascinating but little-known poets, & gave some of them their start down the long road to obscurity. Romance, adventure, mystery. But nothing as tawdry as bankruptcy.
William Michaelian: Right. That would hardly be worthy of such a noble pursuit. And their imaginary logo could be a man with a worn floppy hat, riding backward on a mule.
John Berbrich: Perfect! Iím thinking that this takes place in Saddle River, New Jersey. Thereís this big pile of garbage somewhere (maybe at the town dump) that the kids play on & call a mountain. It becomes Saddle Mountain. Well, at first itís Saddle River Mountain. Then the River gets unofficially deleted. The kids grow up, develop a fondness for poetry, & thus a great undertaking is born!
William Michaelian: Inspired by garbage, in other words. From urchins to publishers. Meanwhile, in Upper Saddle River, they pass ordinances against garbage, children playing, and spontaneous enterprise itself. As a result, the town is taken over by a foreign corporate publishing conglomerate that night and day feeds the population drivel. ďNow entering Upper Saddle River, home of the next bestseller. Please drive carefully.Ē
John Berbrich: Okay, you write that one & Iíll write the other one & weíll see where they meet.
William Michaelian: So. I take the high road, and you take the low road. But now there are some more facts to consider, because we actually went to Saddle Mountain today ó the real one. What a hike. The mountain itself is a shade over 3,200 feet. The hike, which is two and a half miles to the summit, starts at 1,600. It was foggy and cool, about fifty degrees, a good breeze blowing, the trees dripping, ferns, wildflowers, ethereal stands of birches, firs, rotting stumps teeming with other life forms. Glorious. At the same time, a real workout, especially the last half-mile or so, where the rocky path is held in place by a wire mesh and very steep. But we made it! And what could have been a 360-view of the Pacific Ocean and Cascade volcanoes was a foggy world blowing by. There was the peak of a mountain the kept appearing and disappearing not too far off; other than that, it was an experience more of sound that sight. Voices on the path below. Tiny insignificant publishers and editors clawing their way up and down the mountain.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a great day. I love looking out from a mountaintop, even if it is only to see fuzzy gray fog. Any piles of garbage at the peak? A cafe? Used books? Wild animals? We have some low mountains like that around here, but I havenít climbed any in years. I should.
William Michaelian: Yes, I think itís time. No garbage. A handful of peanut shells. No paper of any kind. Two swallows and a junco. The cafť was closed. A little sign said the owner had gone into town for supplies. The Saddle Mountain Tavern, though, was open, so we stayed for a few brews.
John Berbrich: Really? Well, I can certainly imagine a poem emanating from these high altitude vibes. Beer & fog? Sorry I missed it. Beer & fog seem to go together, somehow, along w/ high altitudes.
William Michaelian: And if thereís no fog, itíll arrive after a few beers. Or maybe descend is a better word. Then the real publishing begins.
John Berbrich: Regarding the Junk Poem Shop, thatís one thing we havenít discussed, or at least I donít recall discussing. Where are we planning to build it? On top of a mountain, w/ a river in the backyard & an ocean next door? Itís gotta be the right location.
William Michaelian: I guess we never did pin that down. I wonder if itís possible. Seems like each time we talked about it, the dimensions and features kept shifting, to the point that the landscape was actually indoors. Among other things, thereís been a jazz band on the roof and a trout stream in the living room.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I remember that. I think Brautigan & Hemingway were trout fishing together in the living room. Thatís fine, & I have no problem w/ it. But still, we need to construct the place somewhere. How are your carpentry skills? How about electrical? And I hate plumbing.
William Michaelian: Me too. And if there are enough trees around, we can skip it altogether. Electrical is out too, unless Ben Franklin drops by. But hereís a picture we could hang. Unless you think it would be more appropriate to hang the subject.
John Berbrich: Well, we could certainly find room for something like that. I swear, the painting looks to me like Robert Louis Stevenson dressed up like Walt Whitman. You know, Iím going to be rather upset if we canít build this. Itís such a good idea, & the world really needs a locus of
(in)sanity like the Junk Poem Shop.
William Michaelian: Oh, I agree completely. And thereís no canít involved. Itís something we need to do and must do. But youíre right ó we should settle on a location. Size. Materials. You donít suppose the painting will upset Robert and Walt, do you?
John Berbrich: Doubt it but if so, theyíll just have to deal w/ it. I have an essay by Stevenson about Whitman, which was quite positive. I donít know how Whitman felt about Stevensonís work, though. Stevenson was in New York State a few times, so I wonder how close they were to meeting. I should research that.
William Michaelian: We could hold a sťance. Is it the essay that begins, ďOf late years the name of Walt Whitman has been a good deal bandied about in books and magazines.Ē? If so, I have it in his Familiar Studies of Men and Books, published by the Current Literature Publishing Co. in 1909. All I have to do is read it.
John Berbrich: Yeah, thatís the one. Definitely worth reading. Stevenson says that Whitman came into the world naked & unashamed. I love that line. I hope itís right ó Iím quoting from memory. Stevenson has such a gentle, playful way of writing. He speaks like a guy packed w/ seven or eight decades of experience, yet he died at 44. Although, Whitman wasnít quite naked; he was pretty elusive to his readers. Heís always transforming & vanishing before your eyes, then he reappears, a quiet presence, a gentle hand on your shoulder. He brushes away the flies.
William Michaelian: The flies of ignorance ó of which there are plenty, at least in my case. Naked and unashamed in his delivery, maybe. Itís funny, there are stretches of writing in Specimen Days that strike me as less than brilliant, or wordier than they need to be, but even they have a good cumulative result.
John Berbrich: I know what you mean. Whitman has such an odd prose style. He loves to string long lines of nouns & adjectives together w/ no commas, & he loves to punctuate his sentences w/ dashes. And he does seem at times to go on at length. But I donít think his writing would be improved by clipping or pruning. Itís like the ocean ó relentless, vast beyond our puny analyses, & a lot deeper than it looks.
William Michaelian: I agree. I read the book under rather odd circumstances. In fact, Iím pretty sure I didnít read every word or every piece. And some I probably read two or three times. I bought the book ó you remember that nice Dover edition I mentioned way back when ó around the time I had to start spending nights at my motherís house, when she could no longer stay alone. Each night, after she was safely in bed, Iíd read a few pages just to sort of set things right in my mind. The beautiful, heartbreaking Civil War material, his walks in the woods. It made a nice bedside reader.
John Berbrich: Absolutely. It makes an excellent companion. Two or three pages here & there, then you sort of digest those before you go on. Night, death, the ocean among his big themes. He has an incredible feeling for the natural world, the plants & the animals all around him, yet he loves the social & personal interaction between people. Gods, his work is driving me crazy, just thinking about it.
William Michaelian: Mind if I watch? But you know, weíre missing a logical solution here in terms of carpentry and the Junk Poem Shop. Olí Walt new how to swing a hammer, didnít he? And Iím sure heíd have a different outlook on plumbing. We could ask him to help.
John Berbrich: Iím not sure I have a current address for Whitman. Facebook?
William Michaelian: Well, there are a few fan pages, but he doesnít seem to have his own profile. Maybe the Phrenological Society?
John Berbrich: Yeah, Iíve heard he was into that. Apparently a lot of the strange terms he uses in his poetry are Phrenology words. Iíd have to try to find the article if you want to know more.
William Michaelian: Nah, donít knock yourself out. I know the term pops up several times in his writing. But I figure we can ask him ourselves once the Junk Poem Shop is up and running. In other news, we did make it to Powellís Books yesterday morning. Hereís what I brought home.
John Berbrich: Wow! Excellent. I recognize that Gauthier on the left. It was published by Walter J. Black of New York, yes? I have a couple dozen classics published by Black ó Kipling, Dickens, Voltaire, etcetera ó all in the same format, & Iíve got to say that the books have the weirdest layout inside. I mean the way the stories are set up. What do you think?
William Michaelian: Black, yes, in that double-column layout they used. And the way chapters begin right in the column itself immediately after the one just ended ó up, down, left column, right column, it doesnít matter where. Or a whole new story or volume, beginning right in the middle of a page, if need be, the title across both columns. I find it all quite pleasing. And get this ó Vahan and I now both have the complete 1933 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past. I had the first volume, he had the second. Powellís had both. So he bought both and is giving me the extra second volume. Now he says we have to read them, starting any day now, maybe beginning in August.
John Berbrich: Why does he want to read them? And youíre going along w/ this? Well, it should be an experience. He certainly has had an effect on subsequent authors, & I canít say much since Iíve never read the things. Maybe some day.
William Michaelian: Well, the truth is, I think this is his way of avoiding Finnegans Wake. But he does like long books. Heís already read War and Peace, for instance. But he looked it up online, and Proust rings in at about a million and a half words, whereas Tolstoy is a pitiful half-million or
John Berbrich: Pathetic. Barely a novella. Speaking of Proust, hereís a poem by Brian Aldiss that you might find interesting. I found it in his weird novel, Barefoot In The Head.
The Data-Reduced Loaf
The greatest novelist
Of our space/time wrote his novel
Five million words about an unnamed girl
Arising one morning from her bed
Going across the room to open
Her casement window....Of course he had
The tactical sense to leave it all unfinished
But he oversimplified
Has anyone ever opened
Or finished opening
William Michaelian: Hey, I kinda like that. I also like this description of the novel from Wikipedia:
Perhaps Aldissís most experimental work, this first appeared in several parts as the ĎAcid Head Warí series in New Worlds. Set in a Europe some years after a flare-up in the Middle East led to Europe being attacked with bombs releasing huge quantities of long-lived hallucinogenic drugs. Into an England with a population barely maintaining a grip on reality comes a young Serb, who himself starts coming under the influence of the ambient aerosols, and finds himself leading a messianic crusade. The narration and dialogue reflects the shattering of language under the influence of the drugs, in mutating phrases and puns and allusions, in a deliberate echo of Finnegans Wake.
Sounds like good reading to me. Does this coincide with your impression?
John Berbrich: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was definitely picking up on the Joyce thing. Lots of amazing puns. Aldissís book was a bit hard to follow at times, as the drugs were shattering everyoneís perceptions, but all in all Iíd say that reading the novel was quite an adventure & worth the effort. I think thatís five novels Iíve read by Aldiss. His Helliconia Trilogy is really quite spectacular. And heís written a history of science-fiction called Trillion Year Spree, which is without doubt a great book if you like sci-fi.
William Michaelian: Wow. So youíre really into this guy. Iíve read so little sci-fi when you get right down to it. I keep threatening to branch out, and then there I am again, picking up an old Gautier volume and getting roped into reading Proust. But I should really make an effort in this case. Seems like the book wouldnít be hard to find.
John Berbrich: Go to thriftbooks.com. They have thousands of used books at reasonable prices. For science-fiction, Iíd recommend anything by J.G. Ballard, particularly Concrete Island, High-Rise, & maybe even Crash if youíre feeling adventurous. But especially Concrete Island. I love that book.
William Michaelian: Concrete Island, again from Wikipedia:
A twisted adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, the storyís protagonist, Robert Maitland, a wealthy architect, finds himself stranded in a manmade Ďislandí (a section of fenced-off wasteland in the middle of a motorway intersection) between the Westway and M4 Motorway in West London, forced to survive on only what is in his crashed Jaguar and what he is able to find. As his condition degrades, it soon becomes difficult to determine whether Maitland is finding sanity or watching his mind fall apart as he finds companions on the island and eventually decides to remain there and forsake his former life.
And hereís a plot summary about Crash:
The story is told through the eyes of narrator James Ballard, named after the author himself, but it centers on the sinister figure of Dr. Robert Vaughan, a ďformer TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expresswaysĒ. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in a car accident himself near London Airport. Gathering around Vaughan is a group of alienated people, all of them former crash-victims, who follow him in his pursuit to re-enact the crashes of celebrities, and experience what the narrator calls ďa new sexuality, born from a perverse technologyĒ. Vaughanís ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with movie star Elizabeth Taylor.
So ó this is how you spend your lunch hours, eh?
John Berbrich: Yah. Some of my evenings too. The description of the motor vehicles in Crash is incredible. The seats, grille-work, fenders, all described in loving detail. Vaughan takes photographs at the accident scenes & later back in the studio arranges models in the positions of the victims for more films. Sometimes while doing acid. Whoa, Iím having a flashback!
William Michaelian: Sick. Okay ó Iíll read that as soon as I finish Proust. I also discovered today that I have to learn French, because I brought home the fourteen-volume 1862-1868 edition of Madame de Sťvignťís letters.
John Berbrich: Oui. I bet those will be interesting. The worst part about trying to learn French is that they donít know how to spell. Consequently Iíve never learned it. Iím still working on English.
William Michaelian: As am I. But think of the pleasure, meanwhile, of pronouncing Sťvignť as Suhvignee, as if it were some kind of lunch meat.
John Berbrich: Sounds yummy. Are you pronouncing that w/ a hard G, like in gut, or that sort of G that you slide over, like poignant?
William Michaelian: Oh, a hard G, definitely. I mean, I have class.
John Berbrich: Okay. So youíre speaking like a native Parisian already. Do you have any idea what these letters are about? Philosophical treatises, steamy love notes, musings on the weather?
William Michaelian: Family matters, news, Parisian gossip and politics. I read online that many of the letters were in circulation in her lifetime, which she was aware of, and so she crafted them accordingly.
John Berbrich: I see. Yes, back in Olden Times, letters were a big deal. Have we ever discussed the time that Alexander Pope arranged to have his own letters ďstolenĒ in order to give him the chance to release the authorized version in print & also to drum up a little advertising?
William Michaelian: I donít believe we have. Seems I read about that somewhere long ago, but Iím fuzzy on the details.
John Berbrich: Me too. But I guess he hired some thugs to steal the letters. Oh I donít know the details. Itís a great story though, whatever happened. They never teach these guys properly in school. They always look like schoolmasters & stuffed shirts. But some of our greatest literary figures were really devils, eccentric, & maybe even dangerous. Youíd think that sort of presentation would make the kids pay attention.
William Michaelian: Powdered, stifled, stuffed ó when in reality they were characters, often lewd and lascivious, carrying out their literary and court intrigues through the press. You bet theyíd pay attention.
John Berbrich: I know. They defied authority, got drunk, carried on marvelous affairs, brought bears to school, beat people up, et cetera. Except for Shakespeare. From what I hear, he was a totally decent chap.
William Michaelian: How quaint. And yet heís still remembered. Must have had a good publicist.
John Berbrich: I understand he was a pretty fair writer, too, although sometimes ability has little to do w/ fame. Did you know that Shakespeare had never heard of Voltaire? Positively shocking.
William Michaelian: Right you are. Someone of that supposed caliber should have at least been able to predict his birth.
John Berbrich: I donít understand anything anymore. How about you?
William Michaelian: About all I understand these days is that I donít understand ó which, I think, is understandable. Understand?
John Berbrich: Could you please repeat that ó in French?
William Michaelian: Oh, very well: fromage.
John Berbrich: Willie, you possess a cheesy sense of humor.
William Michaelian: Thatís it? I answer you with all the eloquence of, well, a Proust, letís say, and this is all you have to say, that I have a cheesy sense of humor? Harrumph. I might as well starting speaking English.
John Berbrich: English? How tiresome. Why donít you spice it up w/ some Armenian?
William Michaelian: Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, rocku, sitchi, hatchi, kyu, jyu.
John Berbrich: Thatís kinda like Japanese, only w/ a twist. I often wonder about the efficacy of universal language projects like Esperanto.
William Michaelian: It is Japanese. Thereís an interesting article on Esperanto in Wikipedia. It claims there are about a thousand native speakers, and estimates of people who are fluent speakers range from 10,000 to two million. Wow ó when you think about it, thatís a lot of estimates.
John Berbrich: Yeah. Well, I think itís just an estimate of how many estimates theyíve gotten. Sort of like being someoneís half-cousin, twice-removed. Itís blurry. On the other hand, I have nothing against a universal language, but I donít like the idea of an imposed universal language, the enforcement of which would require a large force of language-police & wouldnít work anyway. Iíve read that there are a lot of speakers of Klingon, too, & that some enterprising individual has translated Hamlet into Klingon.
William Michaelian: A noble accomplishment. But donít these Klingon speakers have any literature of their own? Now, if the Klingons were the Esperanto language police, then weíd have something. Anyway. For Esperanto or any other universal language to foster peace and understanding, the people speaking it have to change. Because any language can be used to manipulate, and every language is open to interpretation and shades of meaning. Otherwise, is it even a real language?
John Berbrich: You sound like George Orwell. Thatís a good thing. And youíre right ó each group that uses a particular language will put its own spin on certain words & phrases, which is what I meant earlier when I said that an imposed language wouldnít work anyway. Twelve-year-olds will charge words w/ their own energies. No way the dumb adults can keep up.
William Michaelian: Ah, to be a great-grandfather, unknown for your failings and exploits, the little ones crawling over and around you, babbling their sweet language of new and made-up words.
John Berbrich: Itís beautiful when you put it that way. Ah, communication. And expression. At night, when all the neighborhood dogs start barking, our dogs always join in, & I sometimes wonder exactly what it is that these vociferous canines are discussing so energetically.
William Michaelian: ďWhich way to the Baskervilles?Ē no doubt. That is a mighty form of music. Back in our farming days, I used to marvel at such sounds. Once, late on a summer evening, our two burly dogs, Buster and Spike, started barking. But there was something strange in their voices, and then out of the blue two riders on horseback roared by on the dirt avenue in front of our house. The next thing we heard were the dogs, still barking, but from where they had retreated, about an eighth of a mile away. The horses had caught them completely off guard.
John Berbrich: Interesting scene. Sometimes the dogs bark at nothing, or nothing we can see at any rate. Weíve found that if you simply holler ďShut up!Ē they keep right on barking, but if we praise them w/ ďGood dogs!Ē & pat their tummies, they are happy ó their job is done, theyíve alerted the pack, & now they can relax. Cuz donít forget ó we are part of the pack.
William Michaelian: Well, that would explain this dream Iíve been having: Iím the eighth cigarette in the first row. The seven before me were all snatched up in the prime of life. I fear Iím next. The tenth cigarette in the second row is laughing. You, perhaps?
John Berbrich: Depends. Is it filter or not? And are we in a hard pack or a soft? That makes a big difference. Although I fear youíre trying to make me the butt of some sort of joke.
William Michaelian: Ah. I see. Worried about your ego while the dreams of your next door neighbors all go up in smoke. How about this name for a new cigarette brand: Howl.
John Berbrich: I can hear it from the schoolyards now. Ginsberg, what have ye wrought?
William Michaelian: As opposed to, Ginsberg, what rot have ye? or, Ginsberg, ye have the rot!
John Berbrich: Or Rotsberg, ye have the gin!
William Michaelian: Rotsberg, have ye gin? But still, this doesnít answer the question about whether itís a hard pack or soft. There was an uncle on my motherís side who had a gold cigarette case I marveled at as a kid. He opened it quite often. And yet I donít remember what brand he smoked. I donít think it was Howl, but it might have been some other poem.
John Berbrich: ďAsh Wednesday,Ē by T.S. Eliot, would be the perfect name for a brand of smokes.
William Michaelian: That is great. We could invent a whole line of poet-smokes. And the package designs could be based on great artwork, anywhere from DaVinci to Chagall. ďIíd rather rhyme than switch.Ē
John Berbrich: Lovely. ďJust a silly syllable longer.Ē I want to see the artwork by Dali, cigarettes as big as the sky, limp, held up by a crutch.
William Michaelian: Magnificent. Have you tried Free Verse? Now in menthol. You know, I think weíve hit on something here.
John Berbrich: Another great concept. Cubist cigarettes; hard to smoke; but worth the trouble. I tell you, Willie ó once we get going weíre going to change the world. And when that happens, are we going to need that manifesto that we discussed so many pages ago? I remember thinking at the time that it was a good idea. At least a snappy slogan.
William Michaelian: Weíll start with a manifesto, then reduce it to a slogan ó or, better yet, our smoking public will latch onto a key phrase and decide the slogan for us. Our cigarettes will be the cigarettes of the people.
John Berbrich: Of course. The people will work in the fields; the people will work in the factories; the people will work in the tobacco shops; theyíll drive delivery trucks; & theyíll smoke like chimneys. For this idea, you get high Marx.
William Michaelian: A capital idea. Cigarettes in the cradle. Cigarettes in the treetops. Cigarettes on the swings and rollercoasters. Hog Butcher for the World / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nationís Freight Handler, / Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Cigarettes.
John Berbrich: O, Burg of Sand. Of course, I donít even smoke. You?
William Michaelian: Constantly. Incessantly. With a vengeance. I fume night and day. But only mentally. My cigarettes are imaginary cigarettes. Thatís why Iím so excited about this new project.
John Berbrich: Well, that makes our task even easier. Imaginary cigarettes are simple to make. Arenít they?
William Michaelian: They are, but uniformity and packaging could be a problem. I hope so, anyway. I wonder ó do you think someone could be busted at work for smoking an imaginary cigarette at his desk or in the break room? Because the rituals, the inhaling, exhaling, and imaginary ash-flicking remain the same. I suppose to some it could seem quite threatening.
John Berbrich: Well, they need to get over it. I am so sick of listening to whining & other peopleís precious feelings. The way you describe it, smoking an imaginary cigarette sounds like an elaborate breathing exercise; & breathing, as we all know, is very important in maintaining health. I might try it today at work.
William Michaelian: I heartily recommend it. And thereís nothing quite like it when youíre in the middle of writing a poem and looking for that magical, elusive word. I use my thumbnail for a lighter. I flick it against the inner tip of my index finger and it lights right up. For matches, I generally use both hands. Iíve also lit up with the aid of candles and the burners on our gas stove.
John Berbrich: You mean your imaginary gas stove, for that imaginary magical, elusive word?
William Michaelian: Possibly. You mean I have to know what I mean? Iím not sure I can handle that sort of pressure.
John Berbrich: I mean, you can imagine you know what you mean. Know what I mean?
William Michaelian: Well, I can imagine I know what you mean ó without ever knowing, of course, if I truly know; that is, I can imagine I imagine I know.
John Berbrich: Well, I think thatís what we all do anyway. We imagine what we want to imagine, or what we think other people want us to imagine. So I imagine that you are doing the logical thing.
William Michaelian: In my case, you would have to. So ó do we do what we do, or do we only imagine we do it, while the action itself is what it is? Or does what we do depend on what we imagine we did? ó our interpretation of it, another words.
John Berbrich: I think both, simultaneously. It seems to me that your action would by necessity be required to follow what you imagine youíve done, since if these didnít coincide you could end up in Cleveland by mistake. Although how could you ever tell for sure?
William Michaelian: Thatís it exactly. As it is, itís impossible, really, to prove youíre awake, or even alive.
John Berbrich: So why bother?
William Michaelian: Youíre right. And anyway, if you succeed, it would set a dangerous precedent. Man, I could use a smoke.
John Berbrich: Willie, youíve got it bad. An imaginary arm-patch might help.
William Michaelian: I wonder. Itís interesting that the craving for an imagined habit could be so real.
John Berbrich: Psychology, man. It explains everything.
William Michaelian: Does it? Then why are we still so confused?
John Berbrich: Because the data is hard to interpret. Now, I realize that the word ďdataĒ is plural, but to say ďthe data are hard to interpretĒ sounds so wrong.
William Michaelian: Oh, yes. And the matter is further complicated by this question: Is the first a in data a long a or a short a?
John Berbrich: Depends whoís saying it. And Iíve got to say that finding a stand-alone ďaĒ four times in seven words might be ďaĒ world record.
William Michaelian: And Iíve got to say that some of them could be long, and others short. How do you say data? I use a long a myself ó that is, an a that is not a short a. Eh?
John Berbrich: What/ I say data like this ó day-ta. Not dah-ta. Thatís for British & robots.
William Michaelian: I see. Itís not hard to imagine a huge robot convention, the speeches, the jovial talk of conquests over drinks, and then, out of the blue, one of the robots lets slip a long-a-ed data. The entire hotel falls silent, and then they turn on the offending robot and dismantle him.
John Berbrich: Wow. Sounds fascist & tyrannical, not to mention narrow-minded. I certainly hope that the robots of the future wonít behave in such a human-like manner.
William Michaelian: Who knows, they could be among us now. Say, what do you think of this oddity?
John Berbrich: How did you do that? Looks like a vibrant cross between an old man & a dog, I think. This is some sort of digital creation?
William Michaelian: It is. I made it with the same program I used to create some of the black-and-white drawings in my art book. So, it kind of reminds you of a portrait of the artist as an old dog?
John Berbrich: Yes, a paraphrase of Dylan Thomas who twisted a James Joyce title. Your book is impressive. The drawings look like the representations of individuals in some newly-discovered race of humans living in a musty forest on an isolated island. They havenít discovered razors or scissors yet, & most of them look quite melancholy. I wonder what the women look like, or maybe these are the women.
William Michaelian: That ó is the funniest thing Iíve heard. Well. I too wonder what the women look like ó although, come to think of it, there are a couple of women in there. Basically, though, youíve just described a lot of my relatives. I did, meanwhile, read an interesting book recently about Dylan Thomas ó maybe youíve read or heard of it: John Malcolm Brinninís Dylan Thomas in America.
John Berbrich: Nope. Whatís the story?
William Michaelian: He came, he read, he drank, he died. But of course thereís a lot more to it. Brinnin was a contemporary and a poet himself, and was in charge of bringing Thomas to this country to read. What he wasnít prepared for, though, was Thomasís incredibly needy and all engulfing personality. Thomas drank like a fish and expected those with him to do the same, as they stopped at a string of bars almost daily. Finding him plastered in bed the next day and apparently unable to go on, fearing the eveningís literary event would have to be cancelled, Brinnin was surprised time and again to find Thomas pull himself together at the last moment and give a masterful reading that had a thousand people enthralled and dying for more. Meanwhile, there were parties almost every night, and Thomasís behavior both attracted and repelled. With the right kind of people, he would enter into thoughtful literary discussion; with curious onlookers, he would put on a performance, proposition women, and chase them around the room. Anyway ó you would enjoy the book, as it recounts the last three or four years of the poetís life, and shows what a talented, tragic character he was.
John Berbrich: A brilliant fellow. Did most of this take place in New York?
William Michaelian: Mostly in the East, but he traveled west as well, making it all the way to the West Coast. He was in the U.S. four times. Have you, by any chance, read his ďplay for voices,Ē Under Milk Wood? That was the last thing he performed before his death.
John Berbrich: Yes, I read that one about 35 years ago. Itís quite gone out of my head, although I still have the paperback. Refresh my memory.
William Michaelian: I wish I could, but I havenít read it myself. All I know is that he was working on it until and beyond the rehearsals, and even perfecting it after the readings themselves had begun. I hope I can scare up a copy one of these days.
John Berbrich: Well, if you get desperate let me know & Iíll mail my copy. Wait a minute *** Yeah, I still have it. Found it downstairs on the shelf between Arthur Rothís novel A Terrible Beauty & Three Great Irishmen by Arland Ussher, a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, Yeats, & James Joyce. Under Milk Wood itself is a rather fragile paperback, complete w/ music & songs, 5th printing, 1962, from New Directions. Or as Ezra Pound called it, Nude Erections.
William Michaelian: Aye. But you mustnít send such a fragile volume. The trip itself might do it in. It belongs there, ítwixt beauty and Irishmen. And then there was Jack Butler Yeats, who knew a thing or two about painting.
John Berbrich: Iím not familiar w/ Jack, but he has a great name. Related to William Butler Yeats, I presume?
William Michaelian: Yes, Jack was Billís junior by about half a dozen years. Lovely colorful paintings. I havenít read much about him, really. But his name pops up in my web wanderings every so often, and you can see his work in Google images.
John Berbrich: I remember when the kids were little I used to read to them books by an Ezra Jack Yeats. Another brother, I wonder, or some distant relation? Wait. The name was Ezra Jack Keats. Either way, Yeats, Keats, itís a great literary name.
William Michaelian: A little catchier, perhaps, than his given name, Jacob Ezra Katz. Those books are still readily available. We never had them, though, I donít know why. I guess a guy canít have every book, although Iíd still like to prove that wrong.
John Berbrich: Well, between us we probably have them all. Nancy & I figure we canít die until we read all of our books, so we keep buying more than we can possibly read, & you do the math....
William Michaelian: And then when you finish yours, youíll have to read ours, and vice-versa, all the while the accumulating going on. Yeats, Keats, Katz, the Beats ó almost a poem. I do have Andrew Motionís biography of another Keats, some poet you might have heard of. One more book to read.
John Berbrich: Motionís that British lad, isnít he? Ought to know something about that Keats feller.
William Michaelian: I reckon he does, son, I reckon he does. Which reminds me ó along with Proust, Iím reading Stephen Vincent Benťtís lengthy Civil War poem, John Brownís Body. Iím about a hundred pages in. Quite enjoyable, really. The shooting, bleeding, and dying just started a few pages ago. I was thinking Benťt must be related to William Rose Benťt, the fellow who edited The Readers Encyclopedia. Turns out Billy was his older brother.
John Berbrich: All of this family stuff. Well, Iíve lately read the works of two brothers, Frederick Barthelme (two novels) & Donald Barthelme (short-fiction collection). I prefer the former to the latter, but that may have simply been my mood.
William Michaelian: Or maybe the reading dictated the mood. The Barthelme boys ó isnít it funny how, when you add ďboysĒ to the name, it makes them sound like cement contractors?
John Berbrich: I think more along the lines of moonshiners. Old Fred & Donny, those boys could whip up a s-t-r-o-n-g batch of down home toe curliní whiskey. And them guvíment men better stay clear away.
William Michaelian: Fact is, I still remember when the boys blew up that outhouse, just as a way aísayiní hi.
John Berbrich: See whut I mean? Friendly fellers, them boys. Thick as thieves, like they say, & it were a purty good joke, w/ the outhouse being new & all. Bet you laughed.
William Michaelian: Yep. Like I always do when them guvíment men get whatís cominí to íem. So which novels did you read?
John Berbrich: Um, Tracer (1985) & Two Against One (1988). Both pretty good, funny & weird. Frederick has a brisk style of writing. The action moves along quirkily, w/ plenty of dialogue. But unexpected things happen, & I like that.
William Michaelian: So those books go back a few years. I read on this page that he had planned originally to be a painter, and that his art was shown in galleries back in the Sixties and Seventies. And then, saying he ďdidnít want to carry big pieces of lumber through the streets of New YorkĒ all his life, he changed direction, earned an M.A., and became a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he still is. Hmm.... and it says further down the page that one reviewer referred to the author as ďthe bard of suburban disconnectedness.Ē
John Berbrich: Well, Iíll admit, most of the characters seem pretty disconnected. I often had the feeling that the action was going to get totally out of hand, grow so crazy as to become farcical. But that never quite happened. So the stories approach the brink of implausibility without tumbling into the abyss.
William Michaelian: Something which can be said about a lot of great fiction. And whatís your impression of Donald Barthelmeís stories?
John Berbrich: I read a collection of his back in, oh, maybe 2004. Letís put it this way. I donít remember a single story. I recall that some were clever & surprising, while others made no sense & I got nothing out of them. I guess if you are an experimenter/innovator, youíll end up w/ a lot of misses. Have you read him?
William Michaelian: Years ago, but not as extensively, and with the same results. You know, it bothers me sometimes to think that I havenít given certain writers a fair shake ó that I havenít read them with undivided attention, or that I havenít put aside any possible preconceptions. And yet, for all that, itís also plain that plenty of writers donít give readers a fair shake either ó which is a way of saying, I guess, that theyíre also less than honest with themselves.
John Berbrich: Well, itís a two-way street. Itís a relational sort of arrangement. I suppose itís a balance between spitting out vulgar popular material that sells & writing whatís true to your guts in a personal language that no one will understand. Sounds like James Joyceís masterpieces, but he got away w/ it.
William Michaelian: Genius has that knack. Works like his are really a tribute to the human brain. Itís fascinating that we can derive sense and meaning from them, and yet be blind to things right under our nose, and blind to ourselves, or parts of ourselves.
John Berbrich: Thatís really true, in a literal, anatomical sense. I mean, I canít see my chin, I just canít. But in a mirror I can. So itís like an author holds up a mirror. Where am I going w/ this? A writer of genius helps us to see ourselves & the world, to see things that we never could before, but were always there. Of course you havenít been able to see your chin in years.
William Michaelian: Only because I havenít tried. But itís possible, with machete and banana boats, to hack my way through the jungle to the anemic forest floor below, that underworld of dreams and cries and tribulations.
John Berbrich: Sounds dangerous & possibly not worth the trouble. To tell the truth, my own chin has been something of a mystery for several decades. No telling what Iíd find there if an expedition were attempted.
William Michaelian: Maybe a coffee plantation, or a lost band of interplanetary travelers.
John Berbrich: See? Banal. Speaking of interplanetary travelers, howís the Proust coming?
William Michaelian: Well, Iíve read 579 pages so far, so Iím not yet a quarter of the way through. Really, itís quite marvelous. As you might imagine, no stone is left unturned. Everything is remembered, held to the light, examined. And yet oddly, it isnít redundant at all. Not once have I had the feeling that I wouldnít finish the book. While the material is dense and phrased with many commas, the writing is straightforward and clear.
John Berbrich: And youíre reading this in English, right? What a hell of a book to translate. A lifetime project.
William Michaelian: In fact, Moncrieff died in 1930 before he was done. The seventh and final volume was translated by Frederick A. Blossom. Moncrieffís translation of the first volume was published in 1922.
John Berbrich: Seven volumes? So each book is like 400 pages? Iím impressed that youíve even started to read this. Well, it is supposed to be a classic piece of 20th century literature, along w/ Joyce & not much else. I do find the idea alluring, to enter this gigantic world & disappear for a while. When I was young & had more time I loved to read huge books & sink into the creation, thinking about it all the time, even when I wasnít reading, which of course led to problems in school. Keep me updated.
William Michaelian: I will. Itís true, school can be a nagging intrusion into oneís dreams and daily life. Dreams colliding and merging like clouds. Corridors, stairs, lockers, shouts. The seasons beckoning through prison windows. No wonder two plus two equals five.
John Berbrich: Yes, Cummings was right. The man couldnít add & could barely spell, but his poems were amazing. One of my favorite lines from this poet: ďProgress is a comfortable disease.Ē
William Michaelian: Yep ó we could discuss that line for a week. Iíd really like to see it on the front page of a major newspaper, as a slogan right under the paperís name.
John Berbrich: That would be great. Maybe we could make a wooden plaque & nail it to the wall of the Junk Poem Shop or place it above the main entranceway. Something fancy, w/ old English lettering & lots of curlicues.
William Michaelian: Or in a typewriter font with ink-clogged keys, all in lower-case letters.
John Berbrich: Oh yeah, w/ some ink blots & maybe a squashed bug.
William Michaelian: Make that two squashed bugs and youíve got yourself a deal. So, Moncrieff died in 1930. Wait ó I already said that. Anyway, the Wikipedia article about him has this to say about his translation of the title of Proustís classic:
Astute critics have pointed out that his choice of the title Remembrance of Things Past, by which Proustís novel was known in English for many years, is not a literal translation of the original French. The title Remembrance of Things Past is in fact taken from the second line of Shakespeareís Sonnet 30 (ďWhen to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past...Ē). Proust himself is reported to have been dissatisfied with the translatorís treatment of his masterpiece; on the other hand, the novelist (despite his own Ruskin translations) scarcely understood English. 
ďCitation needed.Ē So, he did or he didnít scarcely understand English, or he was or wasnít dissatisfied, and Proust might or might not have been Proust, and Moncieff Moncrieff. All of which brings me to this question: How are you doing in your quest to read all of the works of Shakespeare?
John Berbrich: Who might or might not have been Shakespeare. To answer your question: not too well. I went back & read The Tempest again & have been sidetracked ever since. But thanks for the timely reminder. I am such a waster.
William Michaelian: Well, Iím sure that when time is right, youíll devour the compleat works of Whatís His Name. Perhaps weíll read them together, side by side, as very old men on the porch of the Antique & Junk Poem Shop. A kind of call and response. In the meantime, I must share with you a rather astonishing development: the rare appearance of a story of mine that youíve published twice: Today the World.
John Berbrich: That is a great story, one of my favorites of yours. Glad to see itís still around, working its magic on new readers. I love the part where the whore & the narrator smile at each other without saying a word. They enjoy each other so much & donít need to descend to words to express it.
William Michaelian: An amazing, crazy development. I remember being quite surprised and pleased when I saw what was happening with that story. I mean, you donít plan a piece like that. I donít, anyway.
John Berbrich: Yeah, you might sketch it out a little, but the story often develops its own style & character. Itís not always easy, knowing when to try to regain control & when to simply drop the reins & hold on tight. When writing ďToday the World,Ē you received a blast of inspiration. From somewhere. Mysterious.
William Michaelian: And mysterious it shall remain. I certainly have no desire to dissect or analyze it. Even talking about it makes me nervous. I run across discussions where people try to chase down the creative impulse as if it were a wild animal, which, once they capture it, they would keep safely behind bars to study and display at whim. And still not understand it.
John Berbrich: Thatís an accurate analogy. I believe we contain depths that can never be plumbed. And, as some say, should never be plumbed. Who would want to tame & domesticate every wild beast in the world? Perhaps some would, but not I. I want vast wild regions out there, even if I never visit them. And I want those regions inside too, despite all their medications.
William Michaelian: Which leave you, on the one hand, comfortably numb, and on the other, wasted, haunted, disturbed. The wild regions wonít be denied. Somehow, they make themselves known, or if not known, felt. And if not felt, wool.
John Berbrich: Oh, Willie, I love that. Letís make anagrams. Loow. Lowo. Oowl. Owlo. Olwo. Oolw. Your turn.
William Michaelian: What do you call a person who makes anagrams? An anagramist? An anagrammer? And what about the act itself? Is it anagramming or anagrammery? And when an anagram has been derived from a word, can that word then be said to have been anagramatized?
John Berbrich: All true. I like the word anagramation. Which reminds me of anagram nation. That would be the place to live/evil/veil.
William Michaelian: Vile. How about anagramaton? She was an anagramaton, holding a flower.
John Berbrich: Nice. Course, some would prefer the anagramobot. Program her in many delightful ways.
William Michaelian: You mean program an anagramobot? Wouldnít that require someone with a degree in anagramatology?
John Berbrich: I wouldnít know, not really being into anagrams. I mean, some folks are simply crazy about anagrams, but Iím more of a casual observer. I watch from the sidelines, you know, contributing my little blurts now & then, but trying to stay out of the way of the big players, you know, those ones w/ the wit & fabulous linguistic skills, that keep you spellbound for hours even though you hardly know what theyíre saying. You know?
William Michaelian: Oh, yes. Thatís why Iím more inclined to think of anagrams as some kind of cracker. Anagrahams. I have enough trouble with words as they are. Never went in much for crossword puzzles, either. Our old pal Mr. Hinshaw was an expert at them, until in later years there got to be more references to modern entertainment, which he didnít really follow. Always kept sharpened pencils handy, though.
John Berbrich: Ready for anything. Myself, I never went in for puzzles either. Seems like such a colossal waste of time. But I love it when someone else is working on a puzzle & I am called upon for assistance. Then I canít help getting involved, at least for a while. I have absolutely no responsibility to complete the puzzle. The other person has started it & can finish it.
William Michaelian: That would make a good character in a story. A person you can call anytime, night or day, and get help with clues. But instead of just giving a quick answer, which he could easily do, he pretends to be stumped at first, and this leads to all sorts of interesting conversation, which usually leads to the caller telling him things he or she would never tell anyone else, kind of like a stranger you meet on a plane, someone youíre sure youíll never see again. Story, heck ó weíd better put him ó or her ó in a novel. Yeah, yeah. Iíll get right on it.
John Berbrich: You do that. Meanwhile, howís Proust coming? Through volume one yet?
William Michaelian: Hmm. Let me check.