Summer Break Problems
It’s 1:18 PM. Having woken early, walked the dog, made and consumed tea and toast, I proceeded to listen to the news. This caused me to consider whether I was better off asleep. So I napped, woke again, walked the dog again. And then I realized that I have yet to shower. Do I eat first? Shower first? Can I get away with not showering?
It’s 2:20. I’ve showered, eaten some soup, had another cup of tea. Too early for a beer?
Last night, I finished binge watching The Wire. It's as amazing as I’ve always heard. I’ll spend much of my day debating with myself: The Wire or Breaking Bad? Which is the best show ever? This is so important it’ll stop me from doing anything else today.
Finished reading Class by Francesco Pacifico. Having no student essays to grade, I’m free to read anything I like. Berryman’s Sonnets? A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley? The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray? Poems of Lucia Perrilo? Eggshells by Caitriona Lally? Watt by Samuel Beckett? Boss Cupid by Thom Gunn? No Logos by Naomi Klein? So many choices... I just don’t know what to do.
Master of None and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, both on Netflix simultaneously... paralyzed.
Takeshi Muakami exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, newly opened American Writers Museum, poetry readings, every genre of music being performed live. All sounds like work.
I have a friend who wants to have coffee. Another who’d like to meet for a beer. Another who’s asked me to come to his place for drinks with friends. While it’s very nice to have friends interested in my company, the idea of talking to anyone other than my dog seems, at the moment, laborious.
Last weekend I washed all my clothes, did some cooking, and got the car serviced all in one day. A miracle.
Shave? Who am I trying to impress?
In the middle of a solid nap, the sound of people outside my window wakes me up. They’re so cheery on this warm day in June after so many gray-skied rainy days. Their laughter is so sincere, even beautiful. Fuck them for waking me up.
During an early time in my tenure as an adjunct instructor (and yes, the use of the words “tenure” and “adjunct instructor” in the same sentence is meant to raise a laugh) I thought it wise--for whatever goddamn reason--to show the film Death and the Maiden in class. It is one of my favorite films, and I used it to raise the question of justice. The movie (in case you haven’t seen it) ends not with the Death Wish style bad guy getting what’s coming, a point that did not sit well with some students craving--after all the horrors discussed in the film--some “Texas justice.”
One student raised a different question: Why were we watching a film by Roman Polanski? He went on to inform the rest of the class that the director is a pedophile who fled the US without serving any jail time for his crime. I amended the biography to better represent the facts but still couldn’t deny that, indeed, Polanski drugged and slept with a young girl. This is an event his defenders seem more than ready, willing, and able to excuse, though Polanski’s relationship with the underage Nastassja Kinski certainly complicates their argument that the auteur’s misdeed was a singular occurrence.
One student, a self-professed cinephile, countered with: “Polanski’s a genius.” Case closed, I guess.
Full disclosure: Roman Polanski is responsible for four of my favorite films (the before-mentioned Death and the Maiden, Chinatown, The Tenant, and Rosemary’s Baby, which is definitely in my top ten). That stated, I cannot defend the man. I just can’t. And I’ve tried. Once, in the middle of one of those sticky conversations that you know you simply can’t win, I had to admit that my efforts were stupid. The guy fucked a young girl who was on pills he supplied to facilitate the fucking. No way around it. Sure, he was grieving for his wife, a victim of the Manson Family; and sure, his childhood was spent dodging bullets from Nazi guns; and yes, so many people he knows have died; and, okay, he’s a victim himself of the sort of trauma most of us can’t imagine. But none of that excuses his actions that night in Jack Nicholson’s house.
How can I continue to watch those four amazing films? Frankly, it’s not easy. I have no answer that’ll satisfy those who point out that Polanski the artist, while brilliant, doesn’t excuse Polanski the man. Every October, as I re-watch my favorite horror films, I have to remind myself that the guy who helmed Rosemary’s Baby somehow managed to go from this film--with its protagonist embodying the fears and insecurities of a woman carrying a child in a very patriarchal environment--to violating a young female in only a few short years.
I raise this now because Derek Walcott died the other day. Here was a great poet, one who was admired by most poetry readers and a good chunk of the literary world. He was a friend of Seamus Heaney and he pops up in documentaries about Robert Lowell and C. K. Williams (and I love all of those writers). He has a cemented reputation, to be sure. But he also had a string of sexual harassment claims dogging him. The stories are terrible--withholding a proper grade from a female student who refused his advances, pulling out of a play he agreed to produce when another female turned him down, just to name a few. Indeed, the legacy of disrespect and harassment toward women should be enough to tarnish his name, but few on my Facebook feed brought that up. Most of my literary minded friends simply shared a New Yorker obit and made some statement about the great loss to the poetry world.
I’m not a big fan of Walcott’s, mostly because I’m under-read where he’s concerned. I have a book of his somewhere, and I could dust it off and give it a look now that he’s passed, but knowing of his past actions will make it difficult for me to get through his book. I used to think I could separate the art from the artist, but now I’m not so sure. Why do I have to? Should I?
This morning, Chuck Berry died. Berry was another great artist, an undeniably important figure, and another man with a history of (to put it mildly) bad behavior with women. Berry was said to have transported “an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes,” to have spied on female employees at his club via hidden cameras in the bathroom, and, well, to be into some kinky shit. The last of these claims is hardly reason to demonize the man, but the other two shouldn’t be so casually ignored when discussing his life. He wrote great music, changed the culture, and did some shady things with and to women. Do I divorce the bad from the good because I like the music? Is there an obligation to accept the serious flaws because I dig the work?
My answer: hell no. Fuck these men. Geniuses, artists, assholes.
I am not going to stop watching Rosemary’s Baby, but I will not give Polanski a pass either. I will not stop reading T.S. Eliot (anti-Semite) or Ezra Pound (anti-Semite) or Céline (anti-Semite) or Bukowski (genuine shit to women) or any of the other deeply flawed men and women who, nevertheless, made wonderful art. But I will not ignore their bullshit either. None of us should.
Michael Donaghy’s essay on poetry “The Shape of the Dance” has me thinking. The longish piece is mostly a means of justifying formal poetry, or, to be more accurate, attempting formal poetry in a time when free verse is de rigueur (at least in the U.S). Donaghy’s concern about this seems to stem from his roots—born in Queens to Irish parents, moved to England in his 30s—as he continually references both early rejections of his formal approach and the American so-called war between the so-called avant-garde (along with the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, the Black Mountain gang, Louis Simpson, Diane Wakoski) and the poets more (can’t help this pun) versed in formalism (James Merrill, Randal Jarrell, and other names that I can’t recall). Donaghy’s ideas about negotiating with forms are very interesting; he writes (and this is a big over simplification) that the forms exist to suggest something, to hypnotize the reader, to allow for memorization. Nevertheless, fitting a poem into a form can also make for some rotten stuff.
The idea is that one sees the tradition as more than a thing to immediately reject simply because it is a tradition. I’ve often said as much: the most radical thing one can do in the era of free verse zealotry is to write a fucking sonnet. Or try, because who cares if the sonnet is imperfect? Sure, a single stray line that breaks an otherwise perfect bit of iambic pentameter can be jarring, but the balance that comes from establishing a scheme and then breaking it a bit (just a bit) can work wonders. I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson and Donald Justice specifically, both of them having poems that do this sort of subverting of expectations. In the case of Justice, his poem “Dance Lessons of the Thirties” is a favorite. Having written twelve lines of a sonnet he drops the mic with “O little lost Bohemias of the suburbs!” One line. No need for the couplet.
Had Justice felt the need to force another line to make a perfect sonnet (is there such a thing?) the poem might be ruined. The effect is greater for having defied the form. Know the rules then break them—good advice, sure, but that’s not the same as a refusal to demonstrate any knowledge of them.
I can’t write in forms. Not well, at least. And I don’t care. But I try. Oh lord, do I try. And fail.
I’m thinking about the ways I read poems and the poetry that I love now versus the stuff I loved in my 20s when I first thought, “Hey, I like this shit!”
There was no real reason to read poems when I was in high school save for the need to pass a test. Aside from “Ozymandias” I was left cold by most of it. Well, that and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” which I memorized by writing and rewriting line by line in my notebook while my Spanish teacher tried to give us a foreign vocabulary.
During my first year at my first college, I was seduced by Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” and the bulk of Anne Sexton’s book Love Poems. I think I expected Love Poems to be, well, love poems—stuff I could use to get a date with classmate. But I thought “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” was pretty fantastic, though reading it now (which I just did) makes me cringe. No writer I’ve met is fond of Sexton—any mention of her work nets the response: “Well, Plath is better.” Plath is probably the better poet, sure, but to be a dick I respond to that response with: “But Ted Hughes is better.”
Soon I was reading Bukowski. I was a young man, so his drinking and whoring poems appealed to me as a way to live vicariously and regard myself as sneering and raw without, of course, having earned any of that world-weary cynicism. When I moved to a new apartment last year, I had the option to keep or chuck the Bukowski books—about 20 of them total, hardly all he published in his lifetime (not to mention the posthumous collections—Hank is the Tupac of literature). I opted to keep the books. I may someday want to reread Buk, though I’m not expecting to feel the same way about his loose poems as I did when I was a younger, angrier man.
My interest in confessional poetry led me to Robert Lowell. Then—doing a sort of 180—I was onto T. S. Eliot. I tried Ezra Pound, but got nowhere. Then I got the bookstore job and started reading whatever I could. Now I’m pretty partial to the Irish poets of yesterday and today (Patrick Kavanagh, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Leontia Flynn, Conor O’Callaghan, Rita Ann Higgins). And some of the American poets I’ve forgotten about or neglected (James Merrill, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, John Berryman). And some of the great poets of world literature (Cesar Vallejo, Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Ernesto Cardenal, Wisława Szymborska). And a few others I can still dig up interest in (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Elizabeth Bishop).
I could go on, but I’m just grandstanding now.
I haven’t had the inclination to read a novel lately. Well—I did get through Skippy Dies over Christmas break, but that’s the first piece of prose I’ve managed in about six months, not counting newspaper articles and think pieces about the crumbling state of the world, starting first with my stupid country.
I’m thinking of Joseph Brodsky who said: “By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman, or the charlatan.”
Looks like it would benefit the entire country to read more poetry before the year 2020.
I’m leading a short workshop called Intro to Poetry. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while. I get to share poems I love and talk about what I think the writers are up to, though I’m likely full of shit.
We’ve read work from my usual list of favorites. Most of the poems have gone over well, but the most enthusiastic response came from a young woman who loved “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin, probably due to the famous first line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The directness was appreciated.
I shared Larkin’s poem during a week devoted to clarity in poetry. It’s my contention that poems should be clear, or at the very least engaging. I hate the myth that only the dense, coded stuff counts as poetry. This is merely my idea of what I want my poetry to be—clear, engaging, fun. Of course, this belief helps me not a whit when I my manuscript gets its thirtieth rejection in a month.
Did I miss Burns Night? Is there another celebration coming up?
I’ll skip the haggis and drink some Laphroaig and read this: “Let other poets raise a fracas / ‘Bout vines, an' wines, an' drucken Bacchus, / An' crabbit names an'stories wrack us, / An' grate our lug: / I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us, / In glass or jug.”
Poems are usually trotted out for weddings and funerals. Shakespeare or Pablo Neruda for the tying of knots and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” to honor those who’ve passed, though that poem seems out of place for such an event. “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” might fare better (I prefer it, anyway).
The suggestion seems to be that poetry’s place in our culture is firmly rooted to big events that require big ideas or big words spoken in affected ways. Simple prose will not do. We need rhyme and meter and the reading of these little crafted boxes in a voice with sufficient bombast. Going to the dentist does not require a poem. Driving to work, eating lunch on the go, making coffee in the quiet kitchen at 6:00 AM... none of these are poetic occasions.
I just this week wrote a poem about making coffee in the quiet 6:00 AM kitchen. I even stole a line from Robert Frost in the process. My kitchen was as lovely, dark, and deep as his woods, so why not?
I’m confident that there are wonderful dentist poems and poems about the rush and demand of our days. In short: anything in life is worthy of poetic representation. Lately I’m drawn to the small moments in poetry rather than the big, blustery ideas. The reason people may shy away from poetry could be that it too often tries to pack profundities into tiny packages. This is, of course, a wonderful endeavor, but not always a successful one. And it contributes to the idea that poems—the reading and writing of them—are to be reserved for momentous events only. There being so few of them in life, poetry is condemned to collect dust until the next grandparent dies or the next cousin gets hitched.
Craig Raine’s sonnet “Arsehole” is my current favorite poem. It’s a riff on a Rimbaud poem with the same subject. The subject is, of course, that most embarrassing of body parts—the noisy, smelly one we pretend not to have unless, of course, we truly want someone to know we have it. Lovely.
Raine opens the poem this way: “It is shy as a gathered eyelet / neatly worked in shrinking violet; / it is the dilating iris, tucked / away, a tightening throb when fucked.” Just lovely.
Why write a poem about the asshole? Why not? There’s no limit to what can be written about in any genre, and poetry might be the most accepting of them all. The endurance of the sonnet is likely due to its somewhat short length. If one has to (pardon me) dive deep into thoughts on the asshole, the knowledge that the (um) exploration will be limited to 14 lines is helpful. We won’t be up in that asshole for very long. (Long enough. Maybe too long for some.)
Imagine a novel about the asshole. No thanks.
Brian Doyle writes on the playfulness of the essay and on it being the most free form of writing. In his rather playful essay “Playfulness: A Note” he states, "the essay, because of its form and size, lends itself more to playfulness in terms of speed and pace and timing than other written forms. Poems are bursts (and really, if we are being honest, all long poems, especially book-length poems, don’t really work as poems, do they? they’re just too looooooong, you know? who really thinks of the Odyssey or the Illiad or, God help us all, that incredibly boring prison sentence called Paradise Lost as a poem?)."
I don’t disagree entirely, but Doyle likely has not read Watercolor Women Opaque Men by Ana Castillo, a book-length poem (sold as a novel, actually, but comprised of tercets). I’m forcing my ENG 215 students to read this book. They seem to like it, though a lot of their journal responses are along the lines of: I usually hate poetry, but this is good.
The reason many people hate poetry is because they don’t read it. If you stop at the stuff forced upon you by the high school classroom, you may only know of Homer and Milton. You will not have read Ana Castillo’s long poem or Garbage by A. R. Ammons or A Hospital Odyssey by Gwyneth Lewis. All of these long poems do, as Doyle suggests, work as long stories. But they’re often more fun to read than a meandering essay without some sense of restraint and order. They’re also quite playful and digressive in exactly the way he argues only the essay can be. Hell, we can even include Byron’s Don Juan in this discussion, as there is likely no more playful, digressive, and fun long poem in the English language. And for god's sake, what abut The Divine Comedy?
My intention is to normalize poetry, as it feels a bit like a niche art these days. At least it does in my city, Chicago, where the Poetry Foundation hails (though it often seems impenetrable) and poetry readings are prevalent (yet cliquish) and people identify as poets, which is mistake number one. I’m not a poet. I’m a guy who plays with poetry. I’ve stolen that from Michael Longley who said that (paraphrasing) as soon as you call yourself a poet you’re doomed to not be one. Someone other than yourself calling you a poet... that’s the best compliment you can get.
Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon echoed this. I saw them lecture and read a few years back and they joked that whenever someone calls themselves a published poet, you should run from them. I told that story at a dinner party thrown by one of my graduate school classmates. The room was full of aspiring poets and the teachers of MFA classes, all of them (us... I’m no better) with their desires for recognition and immortality. The most pompous person in the room (and that’s saying something) was a professor who broke the awkward silence (I was expecting laughter) with: “Well, that’s easy to say when your name is fucking Paul Muldoon!”
I’m not a poet. I write poems. Or, I write things that approximate poetry. Any serious practitioner of forms (those who count syllables and mark stresses and know every form under the sun, and who would never revert to a cliché like “under the sun”) would bristle at what I present to the world (yeah, Vince, you wish) as “poetry” but those with a more elastic definition might be fine with my scribblings. But who cares? The whole thing is fucked in the year 2017 when microbursts of bullshit make up much of what we read.
Maybe this, to go back to Brodsky’s idea, is why poetry is so necessary and vital. We need to remember that we are a species that is capable of anything, the bestial and the divine, and what better way to celebrate it all?
Maybe we need patterns, forms, puzzles, even when they’re made of words.
Maybe we can’t imagine fighting a war with a fat novel in our pockets, but we might—as the French soldiers did with Paul Éluard’s books—storm the battlefield with a slim collection of poetry opposite our riffles.
Then again, that’s dumb—poetry is not as dangerous as Pablo Neruda thought, which is what he said to the soldier storming his house. Poetry may be dangerous and powerful, but dangerous and powerful ideas are only ignited through reading. Ignore them and they go away. And just look at what we’re left with.
Trump won. For fuck’s sake, America… Or, as many of my fellow liberals are saying at the moment, “For fuck’s sake, Republicans/Third Party Voters/slacktivists/apathetic millennials!” But let’s stop blaming anyone other than ourselves. We did this. All of us. Even those of us who voted for Clinton. Definitely those of you who voted for Stein or Johnson. All of us. We did it not with our ballots but with our stupid, lazy culture. And we’ve all gleefully contributed to that.
When you live in Chicago, as I do, it’s hard to imagine anyone voting for Trump. Rare is the republican voter ‘round these parts, and ultra-rare is the Trump supporter. This is the city that responded to Trump’s hateful rhetoric with a protest that, despite the media spin, was peaceful and impassioned. And Trump ducked out of the event like a scared child. This should have inspired hope, but again, that was one rally in one city. My city. I am proud of my city in that regard, but it’s one fucking town that is not nearly as big as it likes to pretend to be. One town in a big country. And much of the rest of that country is very different.
But here’s what we all have in common: we share a culture that celebrates short-sightedness and rejects the difficult critical thinking necessary to find anything other than easy answers. We here in the big city tend to fancy ourselves sophisticated, intelligent, and, let’s be honest, better than the rubes we imagine populate the small towns. And in that regard, we are as guilty as anyone of creating the divisions that are plaguing our country. We reposted Samantha Bee and John Oliver and John Stewart clips mocking the rubes and their bloated orange representative. We figured our witty little Facebook posts would somehow save us and elevate our less-enlightened friends who felt antagonized and alienated from the political process to the extent that they were willing to vote for a clearly unqualified candidate over the most qualified one we’ve had in many years. We felt so superior. Well, my fellow urbanites, my fellow teachers, my fellow writers, my fellow self-professed smart people—how the fuck do you feel now?
We needed to take the threat seriously and we didn’t, not until far too recently. But we were screwed well before that. We think because we don’t watch Jerry Springer that we’re somehow better than the rubes. But we’re not. We’ve ushered in our own bullshit culture of distraction and spent too much time whistling past the graveyard.
This morning I’ve looked at my Facebook feed and seen the predictable responses of my oh so clever friends, all of them posting oh so clever little bon mots that I suspect they were writing in their heads hours before the election results were in. Because we feel that somehow absolves us, but, frankly, we’ve been too busy cultivating our own solipsistic wittiness to do much good on any other front. Hashtag activism is great but pretty ineffectual, apparently. And so we can spend the next four to eight years writing more witticisms and sharing them and sharing the shares and liking and arguing from the insulated position of comfort. That’s sure to do jack shit.
I wish I could say I’m done with all of that, but the siren song of social media will surely steer me back to the rocks. But I’m going to do my best to read more actual books and fewer tweets, pay attention to more deeply researched and considered critical writings and fewer pundits. I’m going to try to talk to human beings by looking them in the face and spend less time arguing with them through a fucking computer. I’m going to remind my students, and myself, that critical thinking requires real effort and when we suspend that effort we fall for people like Trump who know how to churn up anger and twist perceptions. The things that have been said this election, the proven lies that have been accepted as truth is evidence of a lack of critical thinking. And we need to begin the difficult task of thinking through emotions and stop reacting like dogs to tone. And those of us who think we’re so fucking smart need to do a better job of not acting so superior. Because we’re not. We’re as lazy and tribalistic as the rest of the species.
As for Trump… while I’m worried about what he’ll do, I’m currently bummed about what he’s done. What he’s said and how it has now been legitimized. The racist, sexist bile he spewed was likely done to secure the presidency via appealing to the lowest common denominator. I’m willing to assume that Trump himself knows how ridiculous most of his statements are. He’s a showman. A carnival barker. A reality TV star. And we all know that reality TV is bullshit. And so does Trump. At least I like to think so. I want to spin this by grasping to the idea that little of the ugly shit he stirred was sincere. The campaign process has long been a dumb show. It almost stands to reason that the end result is a dumb president. But I don’t care if he was playing the game and aiming for the big win. What it took to get the big win was a level of repulsive conduct that has now been celebrated and rewarded. I fear it will be the new norm, but I guess none of the hate and ignorance Trump’s riding into the White House is really anything new. It’s up to all of us to do better, because we’re collectively all to blame.
A few people have asked me about my feelings on Bob Dylan being the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I assume they asked me because they know that I am a bit of literature geek—I have previously posted predictions about the prizewinner—and that I am no fan of Dylan’s music. I’ve made snide comments about the possibility of him winning every year since it first became clear to me that, indeed, the Nobel folks were considering him. My thoughts have never been very deep on this—mostly I’ve made poor jokes about the weather in Sweden affecting metal faculties and one pun: “Lame, Lady, Lame”—but now that Dylan has won the award, I felt it might be worth thinking a bit deeper about this.
That stated, this is by no means a think piece or an essay with a thesis or anything like that. It’s a blog post, so, by its nature, it is half-assed and opinion-driven. So here are my opinions:
I don’t like Dylan’s music very much, but that’s mostly because I spent the 1990s living with insufferable Dylan fanatics who refused to play much else on the stereo. I’ve heard the important records (Desire, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited) and the less essential ones (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy) and some of the truly bad ones (everything since Oh Mercy) as well rarities and remixes and live cuts and all that. I feel steeped enough to have some idea of what Bob was trying to get up to with all of these efforts. And I can concede that they do approach that nebulous classification “literary” quite often. But I don’t need to listen to the records anymore. I’m happy people like Dylan, just so long as they leave me out of it. The before-mentioned roommates/fanatics have saturated me with enough of the music to last a lifetime. Much as my present feelings on the church are a product of my time in Catholic school (“I did my time; the lord and me are all good”), I can say the same for Robert Zimmerman: I respect the institution and understand that there are devotees, though I would be lying if I said I had the faith.
The previous paragraph is a lot nicer than what I’ve said in the past about Dylan, mostly that he has a handful of good songs and has long coasted on his persona and enigmatic charm and that the cult around him is unfathomable to those of us who have not drunk the Kool-Aid. I suppose my resistance to him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is rooted in a notion I’ve long disagreed with: rock and roll lyrics are poetry. A boorish, prig’s contention, I grant you, but it’s a product of years of trying very hard to make words fit into patterns or rhyme well without being doggerel or sing-songy, things that rock lyrics can get away with. When my classmates in the undergraduate days would go on about the poetic quality of certain songs, I would roll my eyes. Now, this is mostly because the lyrics my cohort would trot out were written by Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison, and those lyrics resemble middle-school student poetry. One friend argued that Metallica’s “Fade to Black” was poetry, which seemed ridiculous to me (though that song rocks fucking hard!). Another quoted the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage” as if the goddamn lyric were anything other than miserable crap.
But what do I know? Nada, really. Sure, I studied poetry and literature and creative writing and read a bit and maybe can claim some special knowledge my undergrad Kurt Cobain worshipers could not, but that’s bullshit. I know nothing much and, really, this is all pretty subjective. So fuck it: Dylan’s likely a genius, just not my brand of genius.
I’ll go ahead and state it for the proverbial record: Dylan deserves the award. What he has done at his best is, as the Swede’s suggest, close to what Homer was doing in his epics. His songs are in a folk tradition (I might argue they are an appropriation of folk traditions, but that would be splitting hairs and somewhat prickish on my part) that is not unlike the oral tradition of African griots and campfire tellers of tales. He’s a revered figure who actually wrote a book of poems and a memoir, so why not call him a writer. That he often uses a guitar (and awful harmonica playing) to express his writing is irrelevant.
But here’s the real reason I’m fine with Dylan winning: next year I want the award to go to either Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or Shane MacGowan. I think they, like Dylan, have employed a style that transcends simple rock lyrics and enters that indescribable realm we call poetry. And now that we’re letting musicians snag the award (and sizeable cash prize), let’s give it to one of these three greats, all of which I think have made better music, lyrics, and (yep) poems than Bob. But that’s just my opinion, of course.
Truth be told, I think the Swede’s are fucking with us Americans a bit. They’ve long said that we’re illiterate buffoons who don’t translate enough, don’t read enough, and are too culturally insulated. This is why no American has won the award since 1993. Until now. The first American to get the honor since Toni Morrison won it 23 years ago is not Don DeLillo or Philip Roth or Thomas Pyncon, but Bob Dylan. None of our so-called serious writers are recognized, just the freewheelin’ folkie. Nice one, Swedes.
After Michelle Obama and Melania Trump
that you work hard for
what you want in life;
that your word is your bond
and you do what you say,
that you treat people with respect
and pass those lessons on
to the next generation
because we want our children—
all children in this nation—to know
that the only limit
to your achievements
is the reach of your dreams
and your willingness to work for them
God bless my parents:
their integrity, compassion, and intelligence
reflects to this day on me
and for my love of family
Belfast Diary Days Seven and Eight
I’m back in Chicago after two uneventful flights home, which are indeed the best kind. I wrote the following during my last day in Belfast but had neither the gumption nor the WIFI to properly post. So here it is, my last entry in the so-called Belfast Diary:
It’s all over as far as I’m concerned. I could go out tonight (“but I haven’t got a stitch to WEAR” – The Smiths (that was for my wife)) but I’m at the end of a long week of excessive food and drink and a deficit of sleep. Tonight is for staying in. Packing. Making tea. Reading one of the many books I will truck to Chicago at the expense of my back. Watching Belfast TV in the room. Maybe venturing out for food at some point, but even that seems like too much bother at the moment.
I tried a version of this last night but was sidetracked slightly. The day began too soon—I got little sleep Friday night. Dragging myself through the city centre to the tour bus that would take me further north was a rotten affair. I wanted to remain in the warm bed of the hotel, but at 8:00 AM there I was sipping tea in Starbucks and waiting for two other people I hardly know to join me on a jaunt to Giant’s Causeway. All that remained of the workshop cohort were Alison and her friend James Arthur, one of the seminar leaders. They arrived together. From their faces I could tell that I was in a state. Puffy-eyed, non-verbal, surly Vince. Oddly, this guy hasn’t been present all week; it’s surely a sign of a good experience if I haven’t acted like an angry prick until now.
The bus ride provides beautiful scenery. I’m feeling slightly better by the first stop. I’m told a swing over to the Bushmills distillery is on the itinerary. The idea of a shot is appealing. And, when we do arrive, I’m happy to have a nip of the golden stuff but the gift shop, replete with whiskey chocolates, knick-knacks, and a surprisingly poor selection of bottles for sale, offers nothing much to see or buy.
Back to the van. A small boy and his, um, discipline averse mother sit across from me. Shrieks and yells assault my eardrums followed by soft-spoken pleas to sit still. When the little miracle throws his bottle of water at me, I take it from my lap (thank the lord the bottle cap was on), look at the small angel and say, “Mine now.” The comment lingers a bit before I manage a smile and hand the potential weapon back to the over-eager tot. His eyes never lose their devilish spark. I’m suddenly frightened. Then annoyed. Then sleepy all over again.
The next stop is the highlight of the tour, the grand Giant’s Causeway. We’re told the science and then the myth (the sleeping Irish giant, Finn MacCool, is wrapped up like a baby to scare the Scottish giant, who thinks “If that’s the baby, the father must be massive!” into tearing up the causeway between the islands on his way out—not a lot of poetry in my rendition but you can look it up for yourself). I decide I prefer the latter. Who among us doesn’t cling to some form of mythology?
The weather is uncooperative. Rain. Wind. Cold. But the sight is incredibly gorgeous. I would love little more than a good picture of this the alleged eighth wonder of the world, but my camera fails to capture the true majesty. And there are so many other people there that I can’t avoid including them in my photos. Before long, my phone dies. This happens to the battery in extreme weather. I decide it’s a good thing—I am too distracted by the need to document the sights to actually see them. So I climb on the slippery rocks and let the weather destroy my umbrella. Yep, the giants bent it to shit.
I walk back up the hill drenched and cold and worried that I am now ill. Remedy is found in The Nook, the pub at the causeway. I order red pepper soup and tea and sit next to the fireplace. Within minutes I’m dry, warm, and full of nurturing broth. Most of the patrons are enjoying a pint. Temptation rears its ugly head, but I resist the call.
We then go to see the coast, which, like everything else in the area, is stunning. Before the trip is over I will see enough goats and sheep frolicking on the sides of grassy hills overlooking the Irish Sea to restore my faith in the quiet beauty of our planet Earth. These creatures remind me that I typically like animals more than people and that I have been lucky to meet some nice individuals on this trip, people who have not at any point made me want to run and hide and seek the company of dogs.
While walking to the bus, a man hears James and I talking about poetry and decides to work up the courage to ask if we are writers. James answers in the affirmative. I don’t. I’m suddenly hearing the voice of my wife (AKA my biggest advocate) and my publisher, both of them telling me that I ought to promote my book. This is an opportunity, damn it. Seize the goddamn moment, Francone. But Lawrence, the man who entered the conversation, is chatting up James, so I’m left to move on from the chance to self-shill.
Thankfully, Lawrence accepts an invitation to join us for dinner. Before the night is through, I make it a point to ask about his literary endeavors. Soon we’re exchanging email addresses and making promises to read each other’s books. But by then I’m genuinely charmed by the guy and happy to have met him for reasons that extend beyond making a few bucks.
And here’s the thing. When we’re in the pub later—Woodworkers, which I’m fucking sick of, but that’s where the crowd wanted to go—and Alison asks me how I got to be so laid back and personable, I’m surprised by the question. First I suspect this has to do with her being from Canada and perhaps having interacted with less amiable Americans. I confess that I’m actually pretty misanthropic, but that I’ve been sincerely happy to interact with this group all week. This is not normal. James smiles as I say this and I’m suddenly not sure if the question was meant to be ironic. Perhaps I’ve acted like a jerk all week and they’ve all tolerated me. It’s hard to tell—my blood has been 78% Guinness for days so I may not be in full possession of my faculties. If I have actually been nice to these people, it may be a little of Joe Francone coming to life in me. My grandfather could make friends with anyone.
I end the dinner sooner than normal. There’s a soccer game on and the natives are getting pretty damn riled. I spend the night watching movies in the hotel and sleeping. The alarm goes off. I sleep some more. Make tea. Then I’m returning to the city centre to take a tour of West Belfast and the murals, the Peace Wall, and the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. It’s a devastating tour of the all-too recent history of the city and a reminder of the precarious nature of coexistence.
Belfast Diary Days Four and Five and Six
I’ve stopped trying to accurately represent my time in Belfast, as the days are getting mixed up parallel to my intake of alcohol and lack of sleep. Suffice it to say that I’m having fun, enjoying the company of lovely people, and trying my best to stay focused on all things poetry. It’s not hard considering each day has culminated with an event like the one last night at No Alibi’s, the awarding of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry’s First Collection Poetry Prize, which went to Kate Miller. She read a bit from her book, and while I was drawn to much of it, my head was a bit fuzzy from need of rest.
Of course, it’s now afternoon—and I am in a comfortable hotel room (more on that in a bit) with a large bed—but here I go blogging the shit out of things.
I stopped blogging before bed because bedtime has been coming later and later. A trip to a pub called the Sunflower claimed my Wednesday. The Lifeboat series, hosted by the before-mentioned Stephen Connolly, was meeting, so we summer students were ushered away in a complimentary taxi to the Sunflower. The poems were as strong as the whiskey, but a desperate need to urinate drew me away from the upstairs culture to the downstairs where some musicians gathered to play traditional tunes.
Several drinks later, I was pulled into conversation with a local who was more than happy to discuss his love of death metal with me. Glad to learn that good music, be it trad or heavy, is alive in Belfast.
Thursday morning, under slept—I can’t decide if I hate the free scrambled eggs and soda bread I’ve been consuming, but I decide one more dose won’t kill me. I may be wrong about that. I’m starting to miss my Chicago breakfast of egg whites and grapefruit juice. And I’ve not managed to go running, though some calisthenics in my tiny room, and some longish walks, have helped me from putting on too much. The pints of Guinness, however, are not helping.
Our workshop is wonderful. The preternaturally vivacious Emma Must reviews our poems and offers crystal clear feedback. I dread my poem being examined. I’ve grown to hate this poem, though I tend to hate everything I write, even when I arrogantly decide it is good. I read my poem. Then another student reads it. He reads it better. Emma is very nice with her feedback. She is very nice in general. The day before, she had us meet at the Ulster Museum to look at some ekphastic poems (look it up) and try to write one inspired by any of the paintings on display. I am sucked into a conversation with a security guard who, like many residents of Belfast, is keen to chat. I lose some time but am free long enough to find a Francis Bacon painting. I’m not about to write a poem about that, but I love Bacon and dwell before his work a bit.
I also meet Patrick, an apparently important Irish wolf hound whose preserved remains live in the museum.
But I’m lost in my days again.
After the workshop with Emma, we are shipped off in taxis to the Titanic Quarter to look at some artifacts and documents, which include letters from Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNiece, and Patrick Kavanagh. I was unable to take photos (house rules prohibit it) but am happy to report that Yeats’s handwriting is unintelligible.
A cold tram ride later, I’m enduring the flat gags of a tour guide who shows us around the shipyard that birthed the most famous boat to ever hit an iceberg. No “king of the world!” jokes are uttered (I may have made one, actually). The deep recess of the shipyard is impressive, mostly for the ocean gate that has rusted to appear as blistered book leather.
The cabs back are slow coming. 35 minutes of waiting in the cold is trying our collective patience, and some decide to walk while I and a woman named Emily take the cab that finally comes and meet Dean and Stephen and the friendly Allison for a pint at Kelly’s Cellar, allegedly the oldest pub in Belfast. I’m content for the first time that day, warm, removed from the trappings of the Titanic tourist industry (which sells keychain hipflasks in case you need a nip of the brown stuff before unlocking your door), and having a nice pint.
Of course, a few more pints follow at Woodworkers, a newer, sort of polished pub close to the school. And a few whiskies. My promise to get back early and catch up on sleep evaporates.
Which leads us to today.
I break from the free breakfast and get some porridge and immediately feel better about life. Then it’s off to the last seminar, this time with Leonita Flynn. Her most recent book, Profit and Loss, wowed me. Last night, I got her to sign a freshly purchased copy of her second collection, Drives. Somehow I managed not to act like too big a fanboy in her presence.
During the seminar, we read Philip Larkin, Douglas Dunn, and Paul Muldoon, three poets I greatly admire (though I need to read more Larkin, having only knowledge of a dozen or so of his poems). The selection inspires a visit the Oxfam bookshop in search of inexpensive poetry to add to the pile of books I have to somehow get back to Chicago.
Lunch with half the group and then I’m at the B and B that I was told was comparably priced to my dorm room. It is indeed inexpensive, but I decide that I’m too old to pay for a room with a bug on the bed and a shared toilet down the hall. Holiday Inn is nearby, thankfully. I figure the money I saved on food this week will be better spent on a clean room. Call me soft and spoiled, but at my age, a clean room is not a blessing. It’s a goddamn expectation.
Belfast Diary Day Three
The last time I was in New Orleans I spotted a sign in the French Quarter that stated something like: When will our politicians and police keep us safe? This struck me as oddly placed; I stupidly assumed the Quarter was safe or close enough to it for a late night stroll. It is a tourist-heavy part of town, but no spot is really safe in a city like New Orleans. Or in a city like Chicago.
This likely holds true for a city like Belfast.
I am staying in the Queens Quarter, which has been called the safest part of the city. Rumblings about west Belfast suggest a different reality, and indeed when I look at a map of that area I recognize the street names Falls Road and Shankill from years of reading about The Troubles. But I’m fluttering around the university like a moth to a light, and am less than concerned, though I have seen some signs of tension. The first being a piece of graffiti that, for all I know, is out of date. Regardless, its message is halting.
During my first night here, I witnessed a woman, clad in a tight red dress and balancing on dangerous looking heels, walk out of a church and endure some cryptic comments from a car full of young men. “She shags who she wants!” was all I could make out. One of my party suggested this had to do with the denomination of the church she had exited. The old hatreds never really go away, I suppose.
I thought about all of this as I fell asleep last night. Oddly, these thoughts led to the best night of sleep I’ve had in this tiny room. I was refreshed in the morning and ready for breakfast and a solitary walk down Malone. (Did I mention that I am delighted to be staying on a street that shares its name with a Beckett character?)
Today’s workshops offered a lot to consider. I’m sure I’ll look over every poem I write with a more careful consideration of the balance between abstract and concrete language. I’ve long tried to do this, but this morning’s examination of diction made me cringe at the thought of my poems and how so many rely on “poetic” rather than precise language.
Before my one-on-one feedback session with Paul Maddern, I joined some of my cohort in a trip to No Alibis Bookstore. I was warned about the poetry section being well stocked. And indeed a 20-minute perusal caused me to sacrifice a little money in the name of Louis MacNeice.
The one-on-one goes well. Maddern is generously complimentary and reassuring, and when it comes time to drop the hammer he does it softly enough so as to preserve some of my fragile ego. I leave the room with a very good idea of what to do with my poem. He suggested I make it a sonnet, as the raw material and half the rhymes are there. Why the hell didn't I think of that?
But I haven't yet written about last night. I’m a bit off in my recounting of the days, so forgive me. I ought to mention that I accompanied a pleasant, very smart guy named Dean, one of the others in the workshop, and a young poet here in Belfast named Stephen Connolly to a pub for dinner and a quick pint. I, along with all of us in this workshop, am scheduled to read some of my poems later in the evening. I’m hungry and in need of courage.
The food is very good—a vegetarian version of bangers and mash. I talk to another young poet, Padraig, about the goddamn genius of Medbh McGuckian, who is not on campus much these days. My quick pint turns to two before I leave the pub with barely enough time to make it to the campus. The room I am to read in is the same one where Ciaran Carson, Sinead Morrissey, Paul Maddern, and Leonita Flynn read the night before. The fact that I am going to read there strikes me as an unearned honor.
A few classmates go first. They nail it. I am called sooner than expected. I read an old poem that utilizes a lot of anaphora and some appropriated lines from Cesar Vallejo and Donald Justice. It is in keeping with the seminars from earlier in the day, so I feel it's an appropriate choice. I follow it with a love poem to my wife, though much of the poem is about how I act without her at home and how so much of that time is pleasant and quiet. I’m not sure if people get that. It’s okay if they don’t. I like the poem. It suggests that I'm comfortable alone but not total unless she is with me. This is very much how I feel on this trip (comfortable enough but incomplete), so it seems like the perfect poem for me to read. If only she were here to hear me read it, I think. I close with a poem by Mark Strand because I think it’s nice to read something that is important to me. Anyway, two of my poems are enough.
We all are a bit exhilarated and freaked out by reading in front of relative strangers and established poets, so we, of course, return to the pub. I allow another pint of Guinness and some whiskey to fall down my throat. Considering the booze and the late hour in which I went to bed, it’s a miracle I’m chipper today.
Belfast Diary Day Two
I can sleep no longer. Sounds like the start of a poem. A bad one.
I’m already thinking in poems in preparation for today’s workshops. I get up, stretch a bit, do some burpees and push-ups in my dorm room, and experience the rush of showering in a confined space. Breakfast is included in my stay, so I head over to the student cafeteria and eat a very big meal of scrambled eggs, soda bread, potato bread, tea, juice, and—what the hell?—a banana. I figure I should conserve my cash so I load up on the “free” breakfast.
Stuffed, I waddle down Malone to the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre meeting room to see what my hero, Ciaran Carson, has to say about haikus. He has a lot to say, and he asks us to write one after first putting together a flute from three pieces and playing a little tune. I’m less inspired by the playing than terrified at quickly writing a mere three line poem that one of my idols will potentially tear apart. And I hate writing in forms these days, so the five/seven/five syllabic beat seems a chore. But what did I come here for if not such chores?
In five minutes I come up with:
Assemble the flute
three inanimate pieces
fourth piece brings his breath
I’m fairly happy with it, and, to my delight, Carson responds well, though first admitting that “inanimate” is too abstract for haiku, yet he says it should stay as it is important for what this is trying to do. I am advised to cut one word, “his” in last line, which would fuck up the form, but who cares? Most of the haikus the class comes up with are longer or shorter, and all of them are pruned until they are as sparse as can be.
Lunch break. To my surprise lunch is provided as well. There are vegetarian sandwiches that are really very tasty and fruit and some sweets that I, in a display of pure willpower, ignore. And endless tea and coffee. I’m so happy to be saving money on food that I blow seven pounds on some books I find in the little shop across the street: the Oxford World Classics edition of Ulysses (as if I needed another copy) and a slim book of poems by Peter Sirr. I only get Ulysses for the cool cover:
Back in the meeting room, I prepare for the long workshop scheduled from 1-5. Four hours. Twelve poems. Intense. Many of the poems are better than mine. They seem polished where I submitted near-there work that is a bit hairy. My thought was that I’d get useful feedback to use for future revision, whereas I’m fairly happy with many of the other poems in my arsenal. Indeed, the feedback on my work was varied: the opening lines syntactically weird, the mix of images fascinating and confusing. I’m happy with the comments and again remember that my tendency is to disorient readers with inside jokes and references. Need to consider whether or not this bothers me.
We’re all exhausted by 5:25 when the workshop is done. I head back to the dorm, drop off my gear and make tea. The last event of the evening, a reading from the staff poets, starts in ninety minutes. I’d normally consider blowing it off but three of the people reading are people whose work I admire. All of them nail it, but I’m afflicted with a cough that I suppress to the point where tears form in my eyes. How rude to be hacking in the back row while the poets frown.
We wrap at 9:18. I decide to be a good boy and not go to the pub. I’m writing now before bed and regretting my decision.
Belfast Diary Day One
Flight to Newark is oddly smooth—on time, quick boarding, easy take off and landing, an only mildly unpleasant fat man next to me who coughs a bit, but I’m staying positive the entire time.
Would that I could say likewise for Newark’s airport. Sure, the place is crammed with glitzy food and iPads, not to mention the coveted duty free shops, but my gate gets changed and my flight gets delayed. I up end reading 117 pages of Frank Conroy’s memoir Stop-Time before I realize that I am simply not enjoying the book. My plan becomes to give it until I reach Belfast and then, if things don’t improve, pitch it. Maybe I can find a used bookshop that will take it in trade.
I’ve brought copies of my book with me because… I’m not sure. To give to people I met? To force into the hands of my heroes? To sell? To sell to bookshops? To place in bookshops in the hope that someone in Northern Ireland will take a shine to my opus and spread the word? I envision international recognition and invitations to lecture. I am sleep deprived and delusional.
A man—seventies, rotund, thatch of hair protruding from his nose, Ulster accent—strikes up a conversation, mostly about the delayed flight but soon we’re onto the Brexit, which he is all for, and then to Trump. I tell him that I hope that human garbage fire doesn’t dupe too significant a chunk of my fellow Americans. I can tell Trump and Brexit will dominate many conversations I have this week.
The flight is a surprisingly fast five plus hours. I watch The Big Short and read more of Conroy (it doesn’t get much better) and sleep for two hours. Somewhere in there I eat a slice of tomato and some small rye bread pieces contained in the vegetarian meal I am served, which has what appear to be chicken nuggets. The stewardess assures me my meal is vegan and that the nuggets are pure breaded soy. I decide not to find out if she’s a liar.
The airport is dingy and rather deserted save for the bulk of my fellow passengers queuing up in customs. My customs official is without a doubt the nicest I have ever met during any of my experiences with international travel. He waves me in with a smile and cracks something in an English too accented for me to comprehend, but I am certain whatever he said was pleasant. A few feet (meters?) further and I’m asking a man sitting behind a desk where I might catch a train or bus to Queen’s University. He gives me excellent directions and tells me to enjoy my dollars in the UK, as they will get me further than before the Brexit vote. He’s very disappointed with the results and chats me up about this—and, indeed, Trump and Clinton—for damn near ten minutes. I’m sleepy and confused but in a great mood and happy to talk to this man. These are alien feelings. I normally despise all forms of small talk with strangers, but the guy is personable and more than willing to draw me a map of how to get where I’m going. Small talk is the least I can offer in return.
One 45-minute bus ride and 7.50 pounds later, I’m in the Europa Bus Centre and out on Greet Victoria Street walking south to find the university. And I walk. And keep walking. I’ve a heavy backpack and a heavier bag with me. It’s drizzling, gloomy, dark, dirty. It’s exciting and scary and what the fuck am I doing here? I flew alone to Belfast to spend a week at a poetry workshop? I’ll likely be the oldest in the class, maybe older than some of the instructors. I’m staying in a dorm. I’m off my goddamn rocker.
A quick stop at a café for tea. Women flutter around me speaking Spanish. They set up a keyboard and some amplifiers. I’m thinking the thing to do would be to stay and watch whatever is about to happen. Surely that would be the cool, romantic traveler thing to do. I opt to get on with my walk.
Eventually I find the university. It’s very big. And the dorm is further down the road. My bags begin to feel oppressive. A few blocks further and no sign of my destination. And, really, few street signs. I have to maintain faith that I’m on the correct street. Suddenly my friendly airport employee seems sinister.
Soon I see a church and decide to ask someone for guidance. (God?) A nice older gentleman tells me I’m close, just a few more blocks, and offers to give me a ride. I give the requisite polite refusal and then get in his car. I’m fucking tired.
The man is friendly and in no way the serial killer I might have imagined had I been in my right mind. It occurs to me that I have just, for the first time, hitchhiked. And I did it in a foreign country. This looks to be a week of firsts.
The room is small but sufficient for my needs. I unpack, charge the gadgets, and test the comfort of the bed.
Then I’m out to meet my fellow poets, a phrase that sounds pretentious and silly even as I type it. But I recall what a friend once said, that the longer I am ashamed of wanting to be something, the longer I will not be it. I demure at the title of “poet” but that is what I am, at least for the week I am enrolled in this workshop. And, to my delight, none of the other poets are pretentious. So different than I remember from my last gathering of poets. And I am, in fact, not the oldest one here—a few of the participants are older by decades. This is reassuring.
We eat and drink—me, two pints of Guinness and fish and chips—and chat a bit about where we’re from. Some have come from nearby; others, like me, from quite far. Australia and Canada, to be specific. This is also reassuring. I’d hate to be the only idiot who crossed an ocean to do this.
After dinner—generously paid for the Poetry Centre—we tour the campus and go out to the pub where I drink two whiskies and talk to people about Trump some more. They’ve plenty of questions. Thank god for whiskey.
My Kinda Something
I hear that people are fleeing my city, pulling up stakes and pitching their tents in the suburbs, shoving off and relocating out west. To be sure, there are many reasons to leave Chicago. I can think of so many that a solid number is hard to settle on. Well into the double digits. Likely triple digits. But here am I abut to spend another year of my life in this goddamn city of crime, political corruption, and crumbling infrastructure. Aside from my job, my wife, my family, and my level of familiarity, what’s keeping me here?
I suppose I ought to review some of the better things Chicago has to offer. This will be a list of things inspired by one of those Buzzfeed style Best of Chicago bullshit pieces. I use this form of clickbait as my model because this is what the Internet tells me I ought to value about my city. And while the Internet is often wrong, I’m willing to give it a chance today. So go ahead, Internet, convince me.
The weather sucks but at least we don’t have to deal with hurricanes and earthquakes.
(Yes, but we do have to endure long, crappy winters and short, humid summers. As far as damage and lives lost, we likely have it better, though the length of the less than devastating weather can be akin to the Chinese water torture. Hardly as immediately impacting, but so unrelenting as to be damn near intolerable.)
The rent is not as bad as New York’s or San Francisco’s.
(Of course the rent is still higher than one will pay to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. And the weather is warmer over there.)
There’s culture aplenty.
(As is the case in many other cities, not to mention most of my free time is spent reading books or accessing entertainment on the Internet, so there’s less weight to this claim in the year 2016. So long as I have my library and access to wifi, I’ll likely be well stocked in the culture and entertainment department. Of course, I did just last week go to a small theater to see a play, which I probably couldn’t have seen in Las Cruces, but was the play sufficiently dazzling? Sure. Did it nourish me in a way that a movie on Netflix wouldn’t? A bit. Is that reason enough to stay in Chicago? Not sure.)
(In the year 2016, one can find a decent café in many smaller, more affordable, less rude, less crime soaked towns.)
(I am less enthusiastic about pizza than I used to be. In fact, the last tine I ate pizza, it gave me heartburn. I think I’m getting to the age where I shouldn’t be eating pizza. It never seems as good as I imagine it will be. And I can always have a Lou Malnati’s shipped to wherever I end up.)
The lake is beautiful.
Unlike other cities, like New York, the lakefront belongs to the people.
(Sure, there are parks and bike trails and beaches along most of Lake Michigan, but the bike trail is a cutthroat path of would-be Lance Armstrongs with little regard for anyone’s safety. The last time I rode my bike along the path I ended up in a shouting match with some spandexed douchebag who refused to offer the courteous declaration “on your left” before he passed me, resulting in a near accident. It was enough to keep me off the lakefront path for some time.)
Chicago has art house movie theaters, like the Music Box.
(The Music Box... so historic. So beautiful. So drafty. Such uncomfortable seats. Such a crappy sound system. I’ll wait for the next moving epic by whatever Korean auteur is currently enchanting the critics to come out on DVD.)
Farmers markets are so much fun and such a great source of organic food.
(Sure, but there’s a more direct route to organic food: farms. And on a farm one doesn’t have to mingle with lululemon clad urbanites badgering the farmers about the exact number of carotenoids in their crop of kale.)
Outdoor summer street festivals!
(Unlike 98% of my fellow Chicagoans, I despise street festivals. I prefer indoor drinking and dislike food served in paper boats.)
We have a thriving indie music scene.
(As I enter my middle forties, I find myself less inclined to hang out with twenty-three year old hispters. Anyway, I’m still listening to music from the 1980s and early 90s because I like it, not to up my cred.)
The Cubs! The Hawks!
(I’m glad the Cubs are on fire and happy the Hawks have won the cup so often, but I couldn’t get it up to watch a Bulls game in the days of Michael Jordan, so it’s not likely I’ll hop on either of these bandwagons anytime soon.)
The Annual Air and Water Show.
(Never once went to see it, have only endured the whizz of the planes and the excitement of people so agog about this vulgar use of military technology.)
Second City and Improv.
(Okay, I’m a bit of a comedy nerd, so yes this is enticing, but I haven’t gone to Second City in a number of years. Might be that I’m getting on and this attraction, like so many others, is wasted on a homebody like me.)
There are a lot of amazing restaurants in Chicago.
(This might be the one thing that keeps me here. The food is pretty great, and not just the before-mentioned pizza. I could get behind this, though I seem just as happy cooking at home with my wife and some music playing and a few whiskies. Plus, I never have to wait for a table.)
Chicago is home to some of the best architecture one will find in any American city.
(Very true. This is the town of Frank Lloyd Wright. We gave Mies van der Rohe a home. Adler, Sullivan... lots of great names and buildings associated with Chicago. But again, is this enough of a reason to stay? It might be a better reason to leave and come back to visit family. I remember coming home after a two-week visit to Europe. I was stunned by how beautiful the city is. Maybe the skyline would impress me more if I weren’t around it so often.)
Goose Island and Lagunitas breweries.
(Craft beer has definitely taken over Chicago, which makes me happy, though I tend to stick to Guinness, Samuel Smith, and Anchor Steam. And I’m fairly sure good beer is available all over the country. And I drink more whiskey these days.)
The Art Institute of Chicago
(Okay, this might keep me here forever. I need to see my favorite painting by Ivan Albright on a regular basis lest I lose my shit. And the Chagall windows and Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat tend to center me. Reproductions will not suffice.)
Chicago is home to Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival.
(I haven't been to Lollapalooza since its inception in 1991. I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime event. I had no idea it would become an institution. I haven’t felt the need to ever go to another Lollapalooza since then. And I have never been able to get to the Pitchfork festival, as I often find it hard to endure their music reviews.)
Chicago Style Hot Dogs
(I’m a vegetarian.)
(I have some fondness for this park, even though it took me five years to visit it. This seems fair, considering construction of the park was four years late, making “Millennium Park” a bit of a misnomer. Still, while the bean is cool and the fountain is nice (despite the stick of children’s feet) I’ve little reason to come to this park save for when family is in from out of town.)
(There is never any reason to go to Navy Pier, except if one is seeing a play at the Shakespeare Theater, which I hope will one day relocate to a part of the city not so beset with tourists, chotskies, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.)
(Yes, the CTA does make it possible to get around without a car, and I do believe that any city worth a damn ought to have some form of public transportation, but years of riding the trains have changed me. I will spare any readers my stories of the El, but suffice it say that this is the place to view an accurate cross-section of Chicago’s citizens, all of them. Which is say that one will likely become a bit of a misanthrope if they ride the trains long enough.)
Chicago has less traffic than L.A.
(I call bullshit. L.A. may be a sprawling hellhole, but we have infinitely more construction than any other city, or so it seems. And that ongoing construction causes plenty of traffic jams. For proof, just drive south on Lake Shore Drive and try exiting onto I-55 in less than forty minutes.)
During the summer months, there are fireworks.
There are great bars like The Old Town Ale House that stay open until 4 AM.
(The Old Town Ale House is a fantastic bar, one of my favorites in the city along with both Red Lions, Delilah’s, Rose’s, Cunneen’s, and a dozen other watering holes I could mention. But I’m less of a barfly these days, more a home drinker, as I may have mentioned previously. Still, I like to think that, should the need arise, I can plop myself down on a stool at one of these taverns and nurse a few until the wee small hours.)
Chicago is the home of the blues.
(Which is significant, though it’s weird to see a blues show when the only black people in the club are on stage. If anything, Chicago is the city that gave people the blues, meaning it segregated black people to the extent that a music describing their plight was inevitable. And we are still the most segregated major city in the country, the result being systemized oppression, crime, distrust, racism, anger, concentrated unemployment and under education. Way to go, Chi.)
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each with their own cool identity.
(And much of those identities are ethnic, which is great. I love that I can get Thai food, Mexican food, Indian food, Italian food, Polish food that is affordable and authentic (as far as I know), but some of the cost of that diversity is the before-mentioned segregation, or at the very least a sort of distrust and xenophobia that doesn’t always make one feel at home in their own city. But that’s just it: Chicago is a lot of different communities crowded together under one umbrella. We don’t always trust each other. So when someone says they are from Chicago, I automatically ask them which part of the city is theirs, as being a Chicagoan means you have a specific reality based on your zip code.)
So these are some of the reasons the Internet has offered in an effort, whether it knows it or not, to get me to stay in Chicago. But the Internet need not bother. I’m likely not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. I can’t shake Chicago. The damn place has its claws deeply inserted. I talk about how much I hate this goddamn city, and though much of what I wrote above is meant to elicit a dry smile, I am serious—the city is a nightmare. But also a lovely dream, one I had most of my suburban life, one I cultivated with bus rides downtown or trips north to buy records and see punk shows and sit in cafés and read all day and chain smoke. I can’t ever stop being that kid who was so excited to be among the noise of the city, to find a home in the organized chaos, to be not merely familiar with it but entrenched. And it happened—I’m a Chicagoan whether I like it or not. I turn 45 today. I’m feeling stuck. I don’t know how to escape. I don’t know that I really want to.
Recollections of the Aspidistra II: Matt Dillon Edition
It was a Sunday. I know this for certain because the boss was gone for most of the day, having spent it at the Wellington watching football and drinking beer. He did return in the middle of the shift, slightly drunk and full of anger. Some barfly had gotten into a debate with him about whether or not the Marines had a buck private rank. The boss got so furious recounting the argument that he decided he had to return to the bar to finish telling off the barfly. We knew we’d not see him for the rest of the day.
It was busy, which is why I probably didn’t see him. Instead I noticed a blonde woman who seemed to be doing a fine job navigating the stacks of books, though Travis decided to see if she needed help. I wished him luck, but she was fairly indifferent to his offer of assistance, as she would be to any other offer.
“Nice shot,” I said.
“Aw, she’s probably here with some good looking guy.”
And that's when Matt Dillon put his arm around her.
I always liked Matt Dillon but Travis, a big fan of the film The Outsiders, was particularly excited. After discussing which of us should help Dillon, Travis said I could. He wasn’t sure talking to him would be a good idea after having approached the blonde.
I asked Dillon if I could help him find anything.
“Do you have any Conrad?” he asked in a whisper. I showed him our selection. We stood awkwardly for a bit and I told him that I’d be nearby if he needed further assistance. He nodded and turned away from me.
I felt like an utter fool.
Five minutes later, Dillon and his blonde friend left. Before they did, Travis said, “See ya later, Dallas.” Dillon looked confused and, wordlessly, exited the Aspidistra.
Today is April 1st, the day when people trick their friends in the name of silly tradition. As fond as I am of tomfoolery, I’m feeling too old for that sort of thing. Life lately has been chock full of bad jokes. No need to add to it all.
Instead, I choose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen) by looking over some of his columns and maybe finally working up the nerve to read The Third Policeman. That is, after I finish celebrating the anniversary of the Aspidistra Bookshop. I don’t know in what year the store opened (early 70s, I believe), but I always remember the date: April Fool’s Day. Perfect.
It might be foolish for anyone to open a bookstore in the year 2016, but if I ever decided to do such a thing (and I have thought about it), I’d probably choose this day to start the venture. Why not? It worked well enough for my old boss, though the place had more than its share of ups and downs. A fool’s errand, indeed.
I spend a considerable part of my book romanticizing the time I worked at the Aspidistra, and while I’m not in the mood to go into all that again, I can’t help recalling the simple joy of standing among all those books and engaging in conversations both literary and loutish. It has been my ambition to make my writing reflect this combination: equal parts eloquence and vulgar. I can suffer fools gladly, but I have no patience for pomposity, and bookstores are often ground zero for the pompous. The thing I loved so much about the Aspidistra was the possibility of discussing Nietzsche and somehow working him into a dick joke.
Though the long dead Aspidistra was, as I often state, my favorite bookstore in Chicago, and though a good number of others have similarly gone the way of all flesh, there are still some good shops around town if one is willing to look. And, of course, there are plenty of other bookstores across the globe thriving and somehow surviving. Here’s a quick ode to a few of them and a few curses to some others.
Selected Works (Chicago)
Run by my friend Keith, a former Aspidistra employee from before my time, the store is perhaps most known for Hodge the bookstore cat who lounges among the stacks. When Hodge was young, he used to pounce from the top of a stepladder. Once, he wouldn’t let go of my coat sleeve, threatening to take my fingers along with it if I wasn’t careful. Quite a character, figuratively and now literally: read about his secret life by buying this book.
Aside from the feline attraction, there are always good books here, including a fabulous poetry section. Over the course of three visits, I snagged Poetry My Arse by Brendan Kennelly, a signed copy of Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. One day I will liberate the store of some of its Yeats biographies and criticism.
Bookman’s Corner (Chicago)
A good friend of the Aspidistra, John has always been a welcomed sight, especially at 1:00 AM after I’ve walked from the Loop to Lakeview and am in need of a rest. John closes his store at 7:00 PM, but that doesn’t stop him from working into the wee small hours, though you’d have to know him at last a little to get him to open the doors at 1:00 AM. And you have to have a hunter’s constitution to find the many gems that lurk below the mess. Here’s only a mere suggestion of the mayhem that is the store window.
people have asked me why John doesn’t get organized. I usually say that doing so would ruin the charm of the place. It’s chaotic, sure, but I like to think that keeps out a certain breed of prissy customer spoiled by Barnes and Nobel. The adventurous bibliophile willing to sort through the bedlam will be rewarded with some great books at the lowest prices in town. It’s not the sort of store you go to with a specific title in mind. No, you should go to Bookman’s Corner with the intention of finding something special, something you maybe didn’t know you were looking for.
Of course, who in the book business can afford to turn away potential customers? Somehow, John survives, god bless him.
Unabridged Books (Chicago)
The first in a long line of local stores that don’t stock my book, I nevertheless can’t help but send this institution some love. I like to pop in and browse the sale books, of which there are plenty, but I almost always leave with something more in hand and several dollars short of when I arrived. I can’t help it-- I’m a sucker for any store that organizes books by publisher, and though Unabridged no longer has a shelf reserved for Dalkey Archive Press titles, I don’t hold it against them. They do stock lots of books from Open Letter and New York Review Books, two of the better independent publishing houses around, and there’s plenty of quality poetry, not to mention a helpful staff, as opposed to…
Book Cellar (Chicago)
A wine shop and café posing as a bookstore. The appeal of this place is in the edibles, since I almost always leave without a book but with a nice espresso in my belly. Perhaps due to lack of space, the selection is limited. Twice I’ve asked the clerks to order a book and twice have been told that they can’t help me. The books were both in print and available directly from the publisher, so I still don’t understand why they refused my requests, but I’m mostly sour because, despite claiming to support local writers, they have not answered my emails regarding promoting my little opus. I could overlook all of that (no bookstore answers my emails), but I can’t remember a single positive experience at the checkout counter. Rather, the sad stereotype of sullen, pretentious book clerk is alive and well at ye olde Book Cellar, making my decision to instead visit the nearby Red Lion for a pint or three an easy one.
Seminary Co-op/57th Street Books (Chicago)
Before it moved from the basement of a beautiful building on the University of Chicago campus to a hideous structure one block away, the Seminary Co-op was the undisputed best store for new books. Aside from the charm of the underground dwelling, the selection was, and is, unrivaled. Still, recent visits to the snazzier new location have been a bummer, not helped by a thoughtless clerk who tried to blame my debit card for her point of sale system’s failure. I complained via email, which-- whaddya know!-- was answered by the store manager. I appreciated the response but avoided the place for two years, preferring their sister store on 57th Street. When I finally returned, only a few months ago, I was awed by the number of books they were selling that I absolutely had to own. Amazon is great and all, but there’s nothing like a physical bookstore, even if it is as ugly as this one.
It might be worth moving to Hyde Park just to be close to this the most scholarly of used bookshops, though that would also mean rubbing shoulders with University of Chicago students. I think I’ll opt for the occasional visit to the only Powell’s left in Chicago. The Lincoln Park location closed recently, followed by the one on Halsted and Roosevelt, but I’m happy that they have focused their efforts at this one location, which boasts the best bathroom in the city to read erudite graffiti and good old puns like: “Talk nerdy to me.”
I do love this place, though it’s a bit overwhelming. I spent three hours driving from Seattle to Portland just to shop there for one hour before immediately driving back to Seattle. I barely scratched the surface of what the store has to offer, but it was worth it. I can even recall what I bought: Shemalier by Medbh McGuckian and The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov. I plan to go back someday, but as I’ve spent a few months paring down my library, I may need to put more time between myself and Powell’s City of Books. To quote Takeshi Miikae in Hostel: “You could spend all your money in there.”
The Strand (New York)
Famous as a booklover’s paradise, but to me the miles of books are not enough to give the place the dose of charm necessary to make it more than an indoor sidewalk sale with some expensive first editions. But I did love being there and will obviously go back if I’m ever again in NYC, right after a slice of pizza. One must maintain their priorities.
Shakespeare and Co. (Paris)
Not the Shakespeare and Co. that published the first editions of Ulysses, this current incarnation has retained the name of the legendary shop of the Lost Generation and modeled itself as hostel for anyone brave enough to sleep in its ruinous upstairs. Maybe I was too old a man when I inspected the digs, but they seemed unsatisfactory. Thankfully I’d secured an apartment for my brief stay in the city of lights, though the idea of sleeping in a bookstore sounded up the alley of a younger, bohemian Vincent Francone. The one currently in middle age is less inclined to such forms of roughing it and will spring for a room with a clean bed.
As for the shop itself-- coasting on its name, if you ask me. They have the requisite selection of current literary bigwigs like Jonathan Franzen, and some lesser-known new books from FSG, New Directions, and other fine English language presses, but there was a lot to be desired. I blame my overblown expectations. I was bound to be disappointed.
I will say that the employees were the only rude people I encountered in Paris, and they had British accents. Vive la France!
City Lights Books (San Francisco)
You’d think the famous poetry room that takes up the upper floor of City Lights would have a lot more poetry, but maybe my inability to find what I was looking for (Bedouin of the London Evening by Rosemary Tonks, Selected Poems of R. S. Thomas, anything by Paul Durcan) may have more to do with my taste in literature. There was plenty of Beat poetry (of course) and some great collections of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Elizabeth Bishop, and C. K. Williams, but I have all that at home. Why did I fly 2,130 miles? Which brings me to…
Francone Library (Chicago)
Though I recently scaled back, reducing eighteen overstuffed bookcases to twelve, the home library remains the best place to find a good book. Lots of poetry, so much of it Irish, and many fantastic books from Latin America, Russia, and Eastern Europe, not to mention a healthy stock of canonized works and the best collection of feminist writing outside of a university library-- this is the spot for a damned good read. The chairs are comfortable, there’s plenty of tea and whiskey on hand, and the proprietor never treats me rudely.
Recollections of the Aspidistra
I walked into the Aspidistra Bookshop intent on selling some books. I was a broke college student and had come to the sudden realization that food and cigarettes were more important than hardback copies of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels. I was wrong, though at that time I was wrong about most things.
The doors were scheduled to open at 12:30 but as of 12:48 the place was still closed. I cursed the employees of the store and considered lugging the books a few blocks to the next overcrowded bookshop but was too winded to move. Besides, I’d made it into a battle and was not going to let some collection of dust breathing booksellers win.
When the young, bespectacled blonde kid finally arrived to open the doors a few minutes shy of 1:00, I was in a foul mood. I followed him into the store and waited for him to turn on the lights and overhead fans before informing him that I had books to sell.
“Book buying hours are from one to five,” he said. He hadn’t once looked at me directly. I couldn’t figure out if he didn't regard me as worthy of his attention or was embarrassed by his tardiness. It was very close to the one o’clock hour, but I decided not to alert him of this as time, at least in this place, had ceased its tyrannical rule.
The buyer arrived eventually, looking like one of the men who lived down the street in the transient hotel. He wore a shirt that barely concealed his beer gut and hair that may have been washed at one point in his life. He needed a shave and spoke in a voice that sounded distinctly Chicagoan with long vowels and local color adorned with a roughness that could only have come from years of hard living. He sure looked like a man who enjoyed his liquor. He barked an order for coffee before condescending to appraise my lot of books. I was confident that my selections would fetch a good price but was, of course, wrong. I was too scared of this man to argue and accepted the meager offering, leaving with my tail between my legs.
Two months later I was on the lookout for a cheap copy of Heart of Darkness for a Modern British Literature class I was barely attending. The bookstores near my college campus failed to stock the book, which made me question the validity of their existence. I decided to trot over to the Aspidistra to see if they could help. How hard could it be to find a copy of Conrad's most famous tale? This was Chicago after all, not Effingham.
Of course they had a copy. They had a large stock, albeit loosely organized. The labyrinth of double-stocked shelves and stacks of books teetering precariously from floor to ceiling was enough to overwhelm anyone accustomed to the mediocre used shops of Lincoln avenue, as well as the majority of book shoppers who believed that all stores should model themselves after Barnes & Noble.
I found several copies of Conrad to choose from, each with a different cover and a different price. I also found books I'd never seen and names I had never heard: Italo Calvino, Robert Musil, Günter Grass, Kathy Acker, Martin Amis, John Fante, J. L. Borges. And that was just the fiction section.
I soon made the Aspidistra a regular stop, trying as often as I could to actually buy something. Unfortunately I browsed more than I bought, which generated a genuinely guilty feeling. After all, merchants like you to actually buy something from them. When I couldn’t buy anything (money was always tight in those days) I hung out and tried to fit in. Eventually I got hired. Spend enough time anywhere and you become a fixture.
The Aspidistra was founded in the 1970s by a man who, by the time I came aboard, had his share of bullshit and was not about to take anymore. After some relocations, the store was settled for good (and bad) on Clark street just north of Wrightwood across from what was once voted the city's busiest McDonald's.
If there was an obstacle in my boss's life it was surely his poor people skills. Why a man who felt such disdain for humanity would ever want to open a business that served the public is beyond me, but then I remind myself that it was the store and those who patronized it that made him into the misanthrope that I knew. Perhaps the man he was in 1972 was more an even-tempered individual? Not according to people who knew him then.
By the 1990’s my employer was such a curmudgeon that kicking people out of his store was a regular event. Any reason, anytime, anybody was subject to insult and removal. It cost him a good many customers but it also made those who managed not to get tossed feel a sense of acceptance they might not have found anywhere else.
This behavior escalated to the point where it became necessary to hire some help. His one time partner, The Possum, was always a presence right up to the end, even after he got fired. One thing I learned quickly was that you were not a true employee until you had been fired and re-hired.
I have the distinction of having never been fired from the store, and I’m not sure if this makes me less of an Aspidistra veteran.
The Possum was silent and enigmatic. He would sit behind the counter, hiding behind his long beard and thick glasses. He was known for his almost Buddhist practice of non-intervention in the store and its customers. He was there to buy and sell books, and that was all. A pigeon once flew into the store, and while anyone else might have done something to try and shoo the pest away, Possum sat and watched it fly in and roam around before getting lost behind one of the stacks. When the boss came back, Possum informed him that they had an unwanted visitor. “I saw him fly right in here.”
“Well, did you try and get him out?” asked The Boss. The query was met with silence from the bearded wonder.
The pigeon hid inside the store for a few days before I saw the feathers and bones of the bird inside the science room, picked clean by the hungry vermin that lived in the nether regions of the Aspidistra. Like the city itself, there were some parts you just didn’t want to go into.
“My god! It’s like the eco system in here!” exclaimed Travis, my bespectacled coworker.
One thing I learned from my days at the Aspidistra: book dealers are among the biggest assholes on the planet. They paraded into the store and tried harder than anyone to barter down the price, even though they knew better than to haggle. They asked to see the rare books and bitched about their condition. “You call this mint?” You'd think they would have been sympathetic to the barrage of annoyance we got from the public, but no, they went out of their way to be jerks. It was almost as if they felt that putting up with the same bullshit entitled them to dole it out tenfold.
I met the worst one on a lousy, rainy night. My coworkers were at a book sale and I was left behind to man the fort. It was the first time I was ever allowed to work alone and also the day I was issued a key. I had already been the recipient of numerous crank calls from a disgruntled customer who had tried earlier to pay with Canadian money. The Boss told him we only took American currency and then to get lost. I caught the tail end of this encounter as my shift began and then, long after the boss was gone, the man decided to call and ask me exactly what we had against Canadian money.
“Well, we do live in the United States.”
He hung up.
An hour later the phone rang. “Do you take English pound notes?”
Sigh. “No we don’t.”
Laughter on his end, then, CLICK!
A few minutes later: Ring!
“Do you take Italian francs?”
“There’s no such thing. You're thinking of France.”
“Shit.” He hung up and never called back.
Then the book dealer came in. He asked to see the rare books. He examined our copy of Dada and Surrealist Art. “$400, are you sure about that price?”
“Hell, I’ve got one in better shape at my store and I only want $300 for
“Good for you,” I said aware that I was getting a little lippy with the guy.
He wanted to look at the Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali. It also was priced $400. He didn't think it was worth it and opted to take some books from the main art section. I wanted to ask him where his store was so I could make a note to never go there, but he offered the information up himself.
“If you’re ever in Ann Arbor come see what a real bookstore looks like,” he said and handed me his card with his tax ID number. It couldn’t be much of a store if all he thought to buy was a bunch of art books that could be found in any second rate shop.
When my coworkers showed up later I told them all about the asshole dealer. They immediately knew who I was talking about. “You should’ve told him to get lost,” The Boss said much too late. That was his advice to me on many matters. He’d watch my behavior with a difficult customer and decide that I had been too nice. “You should’ve told him to beat it.”
The Boss didn’t think much of me until the day we discussed Faulkner. One of the perks of working at the store was that I got a twenty percent discount on all books. I stocked my library with a lot of Bukowski and Hemingway when I first started working there, two writers The Boss had no use for. He considered Bukowski to be a bad writer of no interest, which always made me laugh since he was quite good at living the Bukowski lifestyle. I suppose living that life might make reading about it seem mundane.
Hemingway he really disliked. He had read a lot of his books and decided they were terrible. The Old Man and the Sea was so bad it made him want to retch. A Farewell to Arms? “Awful.” The Sun Also Rises? “The worst of the lot.” The only good thing he ever said about Hemingway was: “He sure knew how to aim a rifle.”
One day I decided to give Faulkner a chance. I bought a copy of The Sound and the Fury. “Ah, trying to class up your library a little,” he said.
A few weeks later, I finished The Sound and the Fury and it hit me that The Boss was right: this is what writing is all about. After that The Boss and I became tighter. Even The Possum started to talk to me, a small miracle. To these men what mattered most was your literary taste, and Faulkner was at the top of both of their lists. According to The Boss the best novels of the 20th century are The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! (he’s not wrong). The finest novel in the English language is Moby-Dick. The finest novelist writing at that time was Martin Amis. He thought Money and London Fields were as good as contemporary fiction got. He thought Camille Paglia was Martin Amis in drag.
According to The Boss:
The Adventures of Augie March is a rotten book with a brilliant first page.
T.S. Eliot managed two good poems and Four Quartets is intolerable.
Anyone who dislikes The Man Without Qualities isn’t worth speaking to.
“Let be be finale of seem” is the best line of poetry written in the 20th century.
Virginia Woolf was a genius and James Joyce can go to hell.
Except for history and non-fiction, if it wasn’t written by Woolf, Melville, Shakespeare, or Faulkner, it isn’t worth looking at.
The surrealist painters were wonderful because they took all that haystack and water lily crap and said: “Shove it up your ass.”
“What the hell do I care what some Dutchman thinks a sunflower looks like?!”
My other job at the time was as a postal shipper/cash register jockey at Mail Boxes, Etc. I was fired from that position after mouthing off to a customer. I blame the Aspidistra. I was changed by the place to the extent that I have become a less tolerant person. I find it hard to suffer fools gladly, though I often have had to do exactly that (there’s no other way to function in society or keep a steady job). Learning to smile while the irritants of the world go about their irritating way has taken a lot of training. I am a product of my environment, one that was populated by short-tempered drinkers, loudmouths, socially awkward bookworms, and schemers, all lovely people in their way. I am a product of dust and clutter, half-eaten food, empty beer bottles, rats, failing ambition, and (of course) books, all sprawled under a dangerously leaking roof. I am a product of drunk-talk, book-talk, shit-talking, trash-talking. I am a product of Mozart and Thelonious Monk on cassette sounding like angels through cheap speakers. I am a product of cigarette smoke and back breaking toil, sloth and entitlement, dizzying egotism and self-loathing. I am a product of auto-didacticism and the certainty that my reading of Yeats is stronger than yours. I am a product of wavering faith in my ability to write a goddamn sentence and the manic rise from doubt that comes after I scribble semi-coherent poetry.