The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Okay. You were about to pour me a glass of the good stuff. Now I have a question about the Antique and Junk Poem Shop. How do you think it will look from the outside, say from several miles off? More like the Emerald City, or an old barn or outhouse?
John Berbrich: I see it as more of an intricate barn — old but not yet a ruin. There is no word that describes the shape — it’s not a square & it’s certainly no mere rectangle. I see plenty of angles, outjuttings, fire-escapes, turrets, small towers, lots of weathered wood & even wrought iron. I see tiny windows where only a sparrow might pass through & great big panes of glass letting in plenty of sweet sunshine. It’s old, it’s flexible, it breathes, it looks rickety but it’s not. Nothing fancy, but exquisitely curious. Yet someone else might see the gaudy Emerald City.
William Michaelian: Really, what you’ve described is inevitable — it would have to be, with so many poets dropping in from different cultures and centuries. And yet, ask a dozen strangers about the place, receive a dozen different answers.
John Berbrich: Sort of like a poem. Everyone sees something different in it, & the longer you look the deeper you see. And some people don’t get poetry at all — maybe some poor souls won’t even be able to see the Junk Poem Shop?
William Michaelian: They’ll probably see what they expect to see: a busy street, an empty lot, a rundown neighborhood. Factories, signs, off-ramps.
John Berbrich: Drunks stumbling, drinking out of brown paper bags. Hey, wait a minute — that’s us!
William Michaelian: In the flesh — the proprietors of the Antique and Drunk Poem Shop. Say, you don’t suppose we’re lost, do you?
John Berbrich: How can you be lost if you don’t know where you’re going?
William Michaelian: Good question. Say, I was reading along in Kerouac’s Book of Sketches yesterday, and came upon a spot where he was describing an approaching storm, and then the rain that followed. They’re simple, but these three lines really caught me:
Rain nails kiss
the dance of the shiny
John Berbrich: Beautiful. Sensuous, sensual, visual all at once. 10 syllables. That’s a gem to read over & over.
William Michaelian: Things like that pop up in the book every now and then. A lot of it is pretty ordinary, but once in awhile he gets into a kind of rhythm, even some rhyme. The notebooks were written when he was in his early thirties.
John Berbrich: It’s funny to think that Kerouac was on the football team at Columbia. He started out as a jock, but one w/ an insatiable thirst — for adventure.
William Michaelian: Yeah, you don’t really think of him in those terms. But it’s true. Life is quite a journey. Hell — it’s hard to imagine now, but I was a pretty good basketball player myself. And look at me now: a dilapidated, grizzled caricature — a haunted shadow of a man, propped up by books in a netherworld of my own making. No wonder I’m so happy.
John Berbrich: Hey, bro — gimme five. I played high school football, was a slashing, elusive runner. Hated the discipline though, & hung up my jersey after one year, #29. What was your specialty — point guard, rebounding forward, or defensive demon?
William Michaelian: Outside shooting. In fact, as a kid I did some of my best shooting outside at home on our dirt court, next to our mulberry tree. But I quit so-called team sports after my sophomore year. I played on the junior varsity team when I was a freshman, but was called up to finish the season on varsity. In practice once, I made thirty-seven free throws in a row. A few years ago, when my son and I used to shoot a lot of free throws on his goal by the street, I once hit about 120 in a row. I forget the exact number.
John Berbrich: Wow. I feel good getting one in a row. I never did develop a feel for basketball, but I was pretty good at football & baseball. Surely you have some basketball poems somewhere.
William Michaelian: Nope. Not my own, and not by anyone else. In fact, I have no sports poems whatsoever. Interesting. Do you? I played a lot of baseball too — was a pitcher in little league and junior high, and a good hitter. When I was a freshman, the high school coach wanted me to be his starting third baseman. I should have done it, but I was completely devoted to basketball at the time.
John Berbrich: I once wrote a baseball haiku. I think I remember it:
Crack! — the ball above
From blue sky to grassy green
It eludes the glove.
William Michaelian: I’ll be darned. That’s a good one. It’s really alive. Immediate and personal, from both the spectator’s point of view and the player’s. And of course knowing the sport, I can picture thousands of people in the stadium, united in the moment.
John Berbrich: Thanks. Yeah, it’s pretty vivid. You don’t read a lot of sports poetry but really, when you think about it, it’s a great subject. Plenty of drama & competition. A variety of outdoor venues. Come from behind victories. It’s all there.
William Michaelian: It is. And that’s what’s got me wondering: with all the time and energy I’ve given to sports over the years, especially my younger years, and as much as I enjoyed them, why have I not written a single poem about it? Certainly, I still recall many highlights and lowlights. Your poem alone was enough to stir up memories.
John Berbrich: I sense creative juices stirring. In the late 60’s the prevailing notion among the young was that organized sports were somehow false, as opposed to real stuff like smoking weed, dropping reds, & grooving to the Grateful Dead. Football isn’t Peace & Love. That was why I hated Frisbee — it was the one quasi-sport that hippies allowed themselves to play. It was all very nice cuz no one lost. Very equal. But how much fun is it, really? Anyway, sports developed a bad name among poet-types. Perhaps you were infected?
William Michaelian: Definitely not. I think it’s simply a matter of other things looming larger: the deaths of friends, the trials and tribulations of people I’ve known, war. By the time I was able to express myself poetically, there was so much psychological water under the bridge that my time spent swinging a bat and dribbling a basketball had dwindled in importance. I still love a good athletic contest — the spirit of competition, the excitement, the atmosphere.
John Berbrich: That explains at least part of the popularity of sports bars. You can drink beer in a convivial atmosphere w/ like-minded people & enjoy sport after sport after sport. We attend college hockey up here every year or two. St. Lawrence & Clarkson have good teams. The games are so exciting, the crowds so noisy. The energy from a good game stays w/ me for days, like music from a good concert.
William Michaelian: Such things do have a way of displacing the old cobwebs. The mind is filled with new sounds and images, miniature dramas unfolding on the stage or field, and also in the crowd. If it were visible to the naked eye, there must be one heck of an electrical current, or some sort of strange glow produced by so many minds and bodies focused on the same activity.
John Berbrich: Very primitive. Something a little scary about all those minds focused on the same event, like some powerful ancient ritual. And the spectacle does impart a cleansing effect on those present, a purging of something that perhaps needs to be purged. This sounds like one of old Aristotle’s tenets regarding drama. Well, a sports competition is dramatic, at least one worth watching is. How about boxing? — I love boxing, even though I haven’t seen a prizefight in years.
William Michaelian: I haven’t either. I’ve sort of lost interest in boxing. When I was a kid, my father used to talk about the old fighters — he knew all their names, and recalled all the famous big battles. So naturally my brothers and I were enthusiastic about the sport. But it was the same with opera singers. His brother was a violinist with the San Francisco symphony, so when they were growing up classical music and opera were a daily thing. They talked about opera singers with the same relish as they did boxers.
John Berbrich: There was very little talk about opera in our house. Perhaps that explains my ambivalent feelings toward that art form. I can appreciate the immense talent of the practitioners, yet cannot stand the actual bellowing sound of the voices. This is really not a criticism of opera, but rather an indictment of myself, pointing out my own personal inability to appreciate the form. But that Joe Frazier could throw a left hook.
William Michaelian: Which leads me to believe that the tragic life of a philandering, hard-living boxer would make a great opera. And you’re right about Joe. He was one tough dude. Can you imagine what it would be like to be clobbered by him? One punch and I’d be gone — probably dead. If I were lucky.
John Berbrich: One punch would probably kill both of us. I would just lie down until he went away. I recall other bygone boxers, people like Dick Tiger (great name) & Emile Griffith. They were in a lighter weight class, middleweights or something. If I’m not mistaken, Griffith held world titles in two weight classifications simultaneously. He had to gain a few pounds for certain fights & lose a few for others. Pretty impressive.
William Michaelian: Sounds familiar. I don’t know much about them, really, but the names I remember are Max Schmeling, Young Corbett, Jack Sharkey, Max Baer, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, and Tony Zale — and of course Liston and Clay/Ali later on. And Gigli, Bjorling, Caruso, Schipa — oh, wait. Those are tenors.
John Berbrich: Out of those tenors, the only one I remember is Robinson Caruso, the singer who was lost on a remote island for ten or eleven years. Bad puns. Good voice, though. Sang on Fridays, right?
William Michaelian: Right. During the seventh inning stretch for the Metropolitans. I wonder if anyone has ever written opera haiku.
John Berbrich: Well here’s one:
My empty belly
Growls at the well-fed voices
From the opera-hall
Please note that I’m using the word “opera” as containing two syllables rather than three, in order to adhere to the strict haiku syllabic form.
William Michaelian: In other words, you’re saying “opruh.” Okay. I’ll buy that. And it seems you’re making a social statement here. At any rate, the poem isn’t written from a fan’s point of view. Maybe the janitor’s, or the guy who operates the light switches. It might interest you to know that a couple of Verdi’s operas were based on works by Victor Hugo. The opera Ernani was based on his play Hernani, and Rigoletto was based on L’ roi s’amuse, or, in English, The King’s Diversion. That’s quite a poem, by the way. Especially on such short notice. Something tells me you could come up with a haiku for any subject or occasion.
John Berbrich: I’ve read stories about these haiku masters who would hold poetry marathons, writing literally thousands of haiku in a single day. I cannot vouch for the quality of the productions. Actually, the narrator in my opera haiku is supposed to be dumpster-diving behind the grand opera hall. He’s fallen on hard times. And he hears these fat, well trained voices. So yeah, a little social reminder, I guess. Haiku is big on contrast.
William Michaelian: Ah — to that end, I see a colorful butterfly has landed on the back of his coat.
Hard times. Upon my
old coat, rests a butterfly
Fallen from the sky.
William Michaelian: Nice. You’re rolling now. I just realized something. This is a matinee performance.
John Berbrich: And, Willie, you’re the main event. Your assignment is to condense all of the operas of Puccini into a haiku. Ready?
William Michaelian: Well, I don’t know about all his operas. But I’ll give it a whirl. This is from an actual scene in La Bohčme:
They meet on the stairs
Rodolfo, Mimi, and time.
Her hand is frozen.
After that, Rodolfo sings one of the most beautiful arias in operatic history, “Che gelida manina,” which means “your tiny hand is frozen.”
John Berbrich: I’m displaying my ignorance here, but what happened to Mimi’s little hand?
William Michaelian: She worked in the ice cream factory. No. Wait. The real truth of the matter is, Mimi is quite ill. But before she dies, she and Rodolfo easily manage to fall in love. In fact, he sings her his life story as soon as he gets her into his flat, causing her to blink incessantly, and to smile like an oversized doll. Probably too much garlic.
John Berbrich: Boy, Rodolfo really knows how to get down to business. Tell your life story at the top of your lungs. Perhaps Mimi has a hearing problem as well?
William Michaelian: Not until after he sings. Poor girl. But I do think people would be better off if they’d sing in various social situations. Certainly teachers should sing their lessons and lectures to their students, and people in business should sing their presentations. And when husbands and wives come home after a long day’s work, they should sing to each other in the kitchen while they make a hearty supper.
John Berbrich: Sounds like life as a musical comedy. Any ideas for a title? Oh, I have it — people sing their way through life, & they attend the opera to listen to people talk. But, the title?
William Michaelian: Hmm. That’s a tough one. But I kind of like the idea of professionally trained talkers, prized for their tiny lungs and soft voices.
John Berbrich: The joyous & dramatic observing the common & quotidian — & paying for the privilege. Live soap operas of the future.
William Michaelian: You know, I have a feeling that all of this is taking place in a tiny drop of water under a microscope. It’s “The Great Dark” all over again. And who is looking over the shoulder of that observer?
John Berbrich: The guy behind the guy behind Mark Twain. I don’t know his name.
William Michaelian: Well, I suppose names aren’t important. But can you tell me what he looks like?
John Berbrich: He has this long droopy mustache, a prominent nose, & wild wispy hair.
William Michaelian: Interesting. Wild and wispy hair. Is he old, young, or in between? Better check his teeth.
John Berbrich: Yeah, he’s got some. I think he just tried to bite me.
William Michaelian: Ah. Another clue. By any chance, is he dressed like a steamboat captain?
John Berbrich: I’ve never actually seen a steamboat captain. How do they dress?
William Michaelian: They wear the wind in their hair and keep a bullfrog in their breast pocket.
John Berbrich: Well, this fellow’s got the hair. In the breast pocket, it’s either a bullfrog or a derringer. Hard to be sure.
William Michaelian: Let’s hope it’s a bullfrog. Do you think he knows that he, too, is being observed?
John Berbrich: Well, he should, if he’s been reading this conversation.
William Michaelian: That would certainly show patience on his part. Unless he’s about to abandon this part of his experiment. It’s all rather confusing, isn’t it.
John Berbrich: To tell the truth, I’m totally lost.
William Michaelian: Yeah, me too. But I love bullfrogs. Especially in the opera. Basso profundo. In fact, I suspect more than one singer in operatic history has actually kept a bullfrog hidden in his costume to handle the really hard parts.
John Berbrich: You know, this has me thinking about a whole new type of orchestra. There’s the bullfrog section over there, the songbirds on the other side. All played by professionals, of course. A small section of baying dogs & some guy way in the back w/ a loon. Imagine a spooky loon soloist.
William Michaelian: A loon wouldn’t be easy to play — even to hold properly. I’m sure there would be only a few accomplished loonists in the world. Also, imagine being a conductor, and trying to keep the crickets in line.
John Berbrich: Unexpected things would happen, that’s for sure. Imagine some kid taking band in school & coming home w/ a box full of crickets or a coyote for afternoon practice. The poor
William Michaelian: Yeah, and they would be equally upset when their daughter brought home a jackass — a real one instead of a boyfriend. Other good instruments: the rattlesnake, the woodpecker, and the owl.
John Berbrich: Have you ever heard a bobolink? It makes the weirdest sound ever. That’ll be my instrument.
William Michaelian: Haven’t heard one, but I know you’ll be up to the challenge. Hey — I wonder how these instruments would work in a marching band.
John Berbrich: Well, you’d need some whomping steady boom-boom percussion. Could 10-million woodpeckers do it? I’d hate to have to train 10-million woodpeckers.
William Michaelian: First of all, are there that many woodpeckers. Second, what about the wood? A woodpecker is useless, musically speaking, without wood to peck. And how much wood could a woodpeck peck if a woodpeck could peck wood?
John Berbrich: Thanks, Willie — I hadn’t heard that one in years. We have a few woodpeckers around here, although I don’t think I could gather together more than six at a time. So you’re right again — there goes the marching band. A good idea though, meritorious. Imagine playing the whale. You’d need a huge auditorium & maybe special ear adapters. The bass is so low you can’t hear it.
William Michaelian: In that case, we’ll have to call our group the Atlantis Symphony Orca — I mean orchestra. Which makes me wonder — wouldn’t playing an octopus be a lot like playing the bagpipes?
John Berbrich: Maybe after drinking a lot of Scotch.
William Michaelian: Well, Scotch is good for what ales you. But maybe we should be thinking in terms of easier instruments, or at least those that can be played on dry ground. You know, like the porcupine. They’d be great for hitting sharps.
John Berbrich: I get the point, Willie. How about a flounder for the flats?
William Michaelian: Of course. It would be only natural. But how about a tortilla flat? Maybe Steinbeck was onto something there.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but what kind of animal is a tortilla?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. But it must be a master of disguise. In fact, I’ve thought the same thing about tumbleweeds. They could be animals too.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but what kind of music could you make w/ a tumbleweed?
William Michaelian: Well, if you don’t mnd bleeding a little and getting a few scratches, a tumbleweed is darned good wind instrument.
John Berbrich: Well, sounds like your kind of instrument. You Western fellers are used to that sort of thing. Back East here, I ain’t never seen a tumbleweed.
William Michaelian: Too bad. It’s odd, but they never seem to blow that far. I think they get snagged in the Rockies. In Denver, I know, there are usually a bunch sold at auctions in the fall. But way out West here, when they’re still young and angry and mean, I’ve seen ’em take over whole parking lots on hot summer nights. Sometimes they won’t let you into your car.
John Berbrich: Ah, Villie — always mit the jokes. I suppose the tumbleweeds are protected by the DEC?
William Michaelian: You mean the Department of Exaggerated Concerns?
John Berbrich: I knew you’d come up w/ a plausible acronym. Indeed, the Department of Exaggerated Concerns is big now, receiving lots of government funding. Everything’s an emergency.
William Michaelian: Right. And meanwhile, the DGC, or Department of Genuine Concerns, operates out of a cardboard box and is ignored by the media.
John Berbrich: Why does everything seem backwards these days?
William Michaelian: Personally, I think it’s because not enough people know how to grow tomatoes.
John Berbrich: There might be something to that. You poke seeds in the ground, right?
William Michaelian: That’s a good way to start. Just think — in all these thousands of years, no one has figured out a way to bypass that simple act. Although with some plants, making cuttings is the best way to go. My father and I started many a vineyard that way — with thousands of hand-trimmed dormant sticks that contain about five buds, three buds below the ground, two above.
John Berbrich: And then what? You “stick” it in the ground?
William Michaelian: Yep. But first you buckle your shoe. Then you shut the door. After that, you pick up the sticks. Then you lay them straight. And then you repeat the process, until someone with a shovel comes along.
John Berbrich: And that would be you? And what if I’m barefoot, as is my wont? That blows the whole deal — nothing to buckle.
William Michaelian: Certainly you must own a pair of shoes. Just keep them with you, at the ready. Maybe dangle them around your neck. Unless, like me, that place is taken by an albatross.
John Berbrich: You’re a regular walking zoo, w/ a monkey on your back, crow’s feet, & an albatross around your neck. But this is distracting. I need to plant my morning glories this weekend, all different colors.
William Michaelian: Really? I love morning glories. But around here we’re always trying to get rid of them. They climb all over everything and choke the rhododendrons. I guess they’re the wild variety.
John Berbrich: We have thousands of wild white morning glories growing behind the house on the slope that leads down to the swamp. I plant the colorful ones that I get from seed packets, but I love to see those wild ones too, singing in the morning breeze.
William Michaelian: They are indeed a splendid sight. But I didn’t know you have a swamp. Is it just a bit of the river that gets stranded?
John Berbrich: Not really. As I’ve said, we’re in a valley. Obviously the river runs along the bottom. The hills have been constructed by geological forces into several tiers, so water drains down from one level to the next. At the base of the slope behind our house — & the slope’s a drop of maybe 30 or 40 feet — you’ll find quite a few acres of lowland. Some of the runoff from the higher hills makes it to the river, but some of it ends up here, creating the swamp. And inviting beaver. There’s a dirt, mud, & grass path you can walk along, supplemented by the occasional graying plank, to get out to the river. Lots of frogs; they sang their little hearts out last night.
William Michaelian: One of my favorite sounds. That’s quite a layout you’ve described. Prehistoric. I love those patches of earth that defy development, and that carry on their ancient business.
John Berbrich: Yes. Toads, frogs, woodchucks, herons, geese, ducks — different sorts of woodpeckers, hawks, songbirds. Deer use the path, too. Once in a while a bear is spotted but I’ve never seen one alive — only dead ones, shot. And the coyotes at night, a chilling sound. You’re right — something beautiful about wild places carrying on their ancient business right under the noses of man, creeping through the brush under the moonlight while inside someone sits on a couch clicking a remote. Watching the Nature Channel.
William Michaelian: One strange, comical species watching dozens of other species. It’s so easy to take for granted — there are the elephants marching across the screen, the kangaroos, the birds, the insects, “the burrowers, flitters, buzzers, crawlers, loafers, sleepers — tribes worth knowing,” as our dear old pal Uncle Archie used to say — and then you walk outside and zap! — you get stung by the real thing flying eighty miles an hour. Or you idle through a game park, and suddenly a rhinoceros tips over your vehicle and your refrigerator seems oh, so far away.
John Berbrich: Nice image. Reminds me of Thoreau, exploring his own region so thoroughly. What is nearby & common is every bit as miraculous as any hypothetical plant-thing sprouting on the far side of Neptune.
William Michaelian: Absolutely. What’s sad is the opposite assumption — that what is near is ordinary, and therefore unworthy of attention. And yet what’s near to us is far to someone else.
John Berbrich: And exotic. Of course, there is always the allure of novelty. Still, many wonders are always close to hand. Poetry often explores the strangeness of the ordinary.
William Michaelian: By seeing it anew. Everything is strange when seen for the first time. But somehow familiar too.
John Berbrich: Like this conversation — strange yet familiar. Seeing the world anew.
William Michaelian: I love it. By the way, our youngest son gave me a nice birthday present the other day — The New Spoon River, by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m just getting into it.
John Berbrich: I do have that one but haven’t read it. What do you think thus far?
William Michaelian: I think it’s pretty darned good. It was published in 1924, nine years after the first Spoon River, and in this one Masters seems more bitter. He also addresses the modernization that’s creeping in. Here’s a sample:
Ibbetson the Plumber
I failed as a painter of meadows and hills
About Spoon River:
For they hated art, and believed in work;
And hated beauty and treasured use;
And they left a soul in pain alone,
But hunted a man who was happy.
And the end of it was they starved me out.
So I set to work to drain Spoon River
Of all its deadly refuse,
With pipes and sewers and porcelain tubs
And the boon of running water:
But, oh, Spoon River, where is the plumber
To make you clean of ignorance,
And cruelty, and the money lust,
That colors its yellow bacterial plots
With pulpit spewed morality?
And who can mend the sewers of hate
That keep you sick, Spoon River?
John Berbrich: Wow. “Pulpit spewed morality.” That’s some heavy stuff. I think you’ve got the right word there: bitter.
William Michaelian: And there are more than 300 of these eloquent, mournful, accusing poems. As with the previous book, they vary in potency, but even the weaker poems contribute something to the overall effect.
John Berbrich: I’m surprised that the second book is so good. For some reason I figured that Masters had said what needed to be said in the original. I distrusted the “sequel.” But if “Ibbetson” is any indication, the book is worth a careful reading.
William Michaelian: That’s what I think. I seem to recall reading somewhere that this book wasn’t nearly as good. Or maybe that it wasn’t as popular. The first Spoon River was so well received. But then after that, there were a lot of changes in the world, including the war. I guess Masters felt more needed to be addressed. Willis Barnstone, who wrote the introduction for the little paperback editon I have, says that while there is some unevenness in quality, he thinks the best poems in the second book are better than the best poems in the first book.
John Berbrich: Ah, well now I’ll have to add it to the list. Once we get the Junk Poem Shop up & running, Masters can be in charge of the cemetery.
William Michaelian: Say, that’s a cheerful thought. And if he wants, he can call himself Webster Ford, since that’s the pen name he used when he published the first Spoon River.
John Berbrich: Well, I didn’t know that. That’s a real American name, Webster Ford. Sure, he can use that name as he tends the graves. Sounds like a used dictionary salesman.
William Michaelian: It does — or a crossing somewhere along Webster Creek. Anyway, it seems old Edgar was a successful lawyer back in 1915, and was afraid all hell would break loose when people read his less than flattering epitaphs.
John Berbrich: I see. I’ve often wondered about that. How would you feel if you had published a popular book under a nom de plume? Wouldn’t you just be dying to tell everyone it was you who had written it?
William Michaelian: No doubt. But even worse would be telling people, and them not believing you.
John Berbrich: Yeah. It would be a great gaffe to write a book under a pen name & then put your own photo on the back. Wonder if that’s ever been done?
William Michaelian: Maybe at the end of a long, successful career, when the author finally decided to say, “Guess what — it was really me.” Before that, though, he was using a composite, something like that picture on the Betty Crocker cookbooks. An artistic blend of famous authors that made him look familiar and generic at the same time.
John Berbrich: Yeah, that would work. One of those 4-D hologram photos, one that looks a little different from every angle. Here the famous author is bald; here he’s sporting a droopy mustache. He’s male, female, gorgeous, hideous, dreamy, a monster. Depends on who’s looking, & where they stand.
William Michaelian: Hey — I think you just described the doorman at the Antique and Junk Poem Shop!
John Berbrich: Yeah, & he could double as the bouncer.
William Michaelian: Oh? Are you expecting trouble?
John Berbrich: Are you kidding? A bunch of dead, drunken poets & their many admirers? I surely expect things to get out of hand at least once a fortnight.
William Michaelian: Debauchery, scuffles, heated discussions and debates, shouting matches — I guess you’re right.
John Berbrich: Fueled by hard-hitting homebrew, don’t forget. The jazz band plays on the roof. Brautigan’s caught a big one in the stream. If we let in novelists, I expect the most trouble from Ernest Hemingway & Norman Mailer, who’s actually not quite dead yet. Hemingway will probably spend his time w/ Brautigan down at the stream until Mailer drops in. Then the fisticuffs will start.
William Michaelian: Always something to prove, that boy. “You think you’re more of a man just because you’re not quite dead yet? All right — put ’em up.”
John Berbrich: This could give new meaning to the term Poetry Slam.
William Michaelian: In fact, it could easily lead to tag-team readings.
John Berbrich: Yes, or the so-called handicap match, where two or three minor poets gang up on T.S. Eliot. Eliot usually knocks the stuffing out of his opponents w/ his Hollow Man submission hold.
William Michaelian: True. But no one is more deceptive, more dangerous, than Basho, the haiku wrestler, who can paralyze you with a single word.
John Berbrich: You’re right, Basho is a dangerous fellow. But pound for pound, you’ve got to admit that Ezra’s a rough customer too.
William Michaelian: I canto deny that. He’s strong enough to thoreau most anyone to the floor.
John Berbrich: Yet I’m not sure Ezra’s a match for wilde-man Oscar.
William Michaelian: Are you being earnest? It’s important, you know. Hold it! Time out! Our old pal, somber Edgar, has something else to say:
Oh, little town by the river,
Little town of little hopes,
I am your son, in spite of myself,
Though not related to you.
But here is my fate; the tablet of bronze
On the house I was born in there in Spoon River
Brings pilgrims from over the country;
While my very grave by Emerson’s,
Since I lived and died in Boston,
Evokes from the passer-by such things
As: “Lincoln Reeth! Lincoln Reeth—
Who in the devil was he?”
John Berbrich: Nice & gray. I love those old country names. Lincoln Reeth. When I lived in Mud Lake, a real straw & mud country town, they had a plaque listing all the locals who had died in the world wars. One of the names was Homer Needle. Man, you can just see that guy, out by his plow, overalls, pipe, horse, polka-dot wife in the kitchen. Seriously weathered. Except he was killed. I think it was WWI, but I’m not sure. Sad.
William Michaelian: Indeed. And think of what old Homer knew about survival and the elements compared to today’s average suburban Joe. Then again, think of poor Homer trying to survive in the present times. Speaking of names, a good last name I came across about fifteen years ago is Oxenhandler.
John Berbrich: That is a good one. A couple years ago we had this fellow running for St. Lawrence County Sheriff named Robert Outhouse, I swear it’s true.
William Michaelian: What a classic. Glassblower is another one I remember. Of course, that’s no different, really, than Baker, or Shoemaker. Just not as common.
John Berbrich: Ah yes, occupations. I like Glassblower. Of course there’s Hunter, Fisher, even Farmer. And Gardner. Hard to figure where a name like King comes from. A wannabe?
William Michaelian: Yeah, probably someone tired of being a Carpenter, Taylor, or Smith. Or an out-of-work Mason. Wouldn’t it be interesting if people had to change their names to reflect their occupations? Thomas Programmer. Michael Clerk. Jennifer Librarian. Abraham Crook.
John Berbrich: Johnny Examiner, that'’s me!
William Michaelian: Hey, that sounds pretty impressive. Just think if you were a magician — then your name could be Prestidigitator. “Paging Mr. Prestidigitator. Paging Mr. Prestidigitator. Mr. Prestidigitator? Phone call for you, sir.”
John Berbrich: “Thank you, Brenda Secretary.”
William Michaelian: Or Ignatius Bellboy. Hillary Mender. Austin Lifeguard. Priscilla Tickettaker. Uh-oh. I just thought of something. A lot of people have two or three jobs. What about them?
John Berbrich: Simple. Hyphenated names. Joe Paperboy-Burgerflipper-Janitor. Has a ring to it. The big problem — what if you change jobs?
William Michaelian: Well, obviously, we would need an entirely new government department, with thousands of satellite offices., kind of like the DMV. There would be lines of people filling out forms and paying fees in order to prove they really are who they are.
John Berbrich: As usual, there’s a real system to this madness, Willie. It’s a great opportunity for the gobernment to squeeze a little more cash out of consumers — oops, I almost called them citizens. And it really empowers people — at least that’s what the ads will say.
William Michaelian: Yeah, kind of like that Army ad that’s directed at parents, where they say, “You made them strong. We’ll make them Army strong.” — as opposed, I guess, to Army maimed or Army dead. Hey — here’s another good Masters poem I found:
The Poncey Children
Here we are, five of us,
Children of William and Janis Poncey.
All of us are nameless, for none of us lived a day:
Three of us died in an hour,
One in two hours, one in five.
And all of our little stones are alike,
And contain nothing but dates and the parentage;
And in a circle carved at the top
A passion flower bent upon its broken stalk.
Why does the old maid Zetta Tucker
Come here so often, and kneel before our stones,
And look and look?
John Berbrich: Man, that poem has atmosphere. Tragedy often contains much more literary power than happiness. Is it because we perceive that happiness is fleeting while death lasts forever? The thought of those five nameless stones gives me chills. Kids never had any chance at all. And Zetta Tucker — it sounds as though she’s missed out on a lot too, & she knows it. The poem certainly maintains the gray small-town ambiance that Masters prefers.
William Michaelian: And so beautifully. It’s a heartbreaker, all right. It’s tempting to spend the next hour imagining Zetta Tucker’s story — much more so, interestingly enough, than that of William and Janis Poncey. All because of where Masters chose to shine his light.
John Berbrich: Do you get the idea that Zetta had a thing for William?
William Michaelian: It’s certainly a possibility. Or maybe she felt that because she never married, she too lived an incomplete life, like the Poncey children. Or maybe it’s both.
John Berbrich: Perhaps if someone else had written the poem, you could advance the theory that Zetta was a witch & had terminated the pregnancies magically — as a payback for some imagined slight. She & Janis were both being courted by young William, & Janis won. Revenge.
William Michaelian: Hey, not bad. But you’re right, it doesn’t sound like Masters. I was just thinking. I chose the poem at random. But in some instances, mysteries like these are explained by one or more of the cemetery “neighbors.” Granted, it usually has to do with some lecherous banker or politician. Still, maybe I’ll read my way to the answer.
John Berbrich: I see. Like ten poems later someone reveals that he was the lover of so-&-so, who was actually the illegitimate daughter of the mayor, who had been adopted as a child, but who looked an awful lot like Joe the Fisherman, except Joe had fair hair & the mayor’s hair was as black as coal. You keep your eyes open.
William Michaelian: Thanks. I’ll do that. But in the meantime, here’s a case in point — a pair of poems that proves old Edgar Lee also had a sense of humor:
Here I lie, rotted down from two hundred pounds of flesh
To less than a pound of mud.
After eating four hundred steers,
And two thousand loaves of bread,
And drinking five thousand gallons of whisky.
What for? To give me strength to blat,
So that I could buy beef and bread and whisky,
Mrs. Frank Blatt
Where would my mother and my sisters have been buried,
Not to speak of myself,
If I had not married Frank Blatt. . . .
I the stenographer, fat and a little old?
And at what board would my mother and sisters
If I had not captured him and he had not taken them in,
There to that household of the full larder,
And the mortgaged roof?
Here we are then, lying around Frank Blatt,
We the Blatts, and my mother and sisters the Wallups!
Passing from corn and beef
To the bread which whoso eats, lives forever!
John Berbrich: You think that’s funny? Poor Frank Blatt, I say. But I guess he was asking for it, hooking up w/ that fat Wallup stenographer. Masters does have an amazing talent for filling in background; he provides history & context in an unobtrusive manner. The reader can feel those years — long or short — of each person’s life, feel the essence of their time here. And the Wallup family — I guess the father died or took off. And then there’s all those old maid sisters. Reading these poems is a little like entering a maze; when you go through a door, you can see other doors here & there, & through those, other doors & other doors. Each picture of a life provides glimpses of several others. Quite an achievement when you think about it.
William Michaelian: It really is. Say, what’s happening in BoneWorld these days? I know you must be about ready to send out another Yawp. But is there any other excitement? New chapbooks, for instance? Oddball writers passing through the area?
John Berbrich: We’re working feverishly on the June Yawp. Obviously, the staff is behind schedule. Chapbooks? We have like five due out before Labor Day. Eccentric characters? Well, you’re still here. Tell me about your poetry books. When are they coming out?
William Michaelian: Ah, yes — the books. Winter Poems and Another Song I Know will be out in a few days. And I’m pleased to say that in the short time since we made the announcement online, Cosmopsis Books has already received several orders. Pretty exciting. So — you have that many chapbooks in the hopper? Sounds like you must be receiving some pretty good material.
John Berbrich: Yes, & I’m still turning down others. Plenty of people make chapbook proposals & we simply don’t have time for them all. I suppose we could accommodate everyone if we weren’t publishing a magazine, but we are, a grim truth. On the personal side, Scintillating Publications in Vermont is coming out w/ a poetry chapbook of mine sometime this summer.
William Michaelian: Really? That’s great news. Put me down for a copy. What’s it called?
John Berbrich: I don’t have a name for it yet. Any ideas?
William Michaelian: Yes. Why don’t why go out for a nice long leisurely dinner and a few drinks and talk about it. I assume you do have it narrowed down to twenty or thirty possibilities. Are the contents set? Or do you still have to sit down and write the poems? If so, then we’ll really have some fun.
John Berbrich: Well, the poems are written, but I haven’t selected the lucky ones yet. Lots to do, as you can see. Maybe the book will come out next summer.
William Michaelian: Every summer, the publisher says, “Well, have you decided which poems yet?” and you say, “No, but almost.” Finally, at the dawn of yet another century, you finish the selection process, only to find that the publisher has just died unexpectedly at the age of a 127. Meanwhile,Vermont is no longer even on the map. Upstate New York is a desert, the Great Lakes have gone dry, and a menacing wind rattles the bones.
John Berbrich: That would actually be a pretty good introduction to a collection of poetry. Sort of a humorous excuse for a late edition. Can I use it if I need it?
William Michaelian: Of course. I just hope I live long enough to read it.
John Berbrich: Oh, come on. Now you’ve got me feeling guilty. I’ll get right on it, I swear.
William Michaelian: Good. Hey — a couple of days ago, I found a neat little hardbound copy of Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn’s Haiku Harvest, Series IV. It’s the volume Behn completed after Beilenson’s death. What a delight. Here are a couple of poems. The first is by Masahide, the second is by Issa:
Since my house
burned down, I now own
a better view
of the rising moon
You fleas seem to find
the night as long
as I do.
Are you lonely, too?
John Berbrich: Excellent! Always look to the best. What edition do you have? I have the original 1962 Peter Pauper edition of Series IV. I have Cherry-Blossoms, Series III, from 1960, & the first volume, simply called Japanese Haiku, published in 1955. I guess they didn’t know they were going to do more. Beautiful little books, all of them. Delight is the word.
William Michaelian: I was lucky — I found the Peter Pauper edition. I love it. I like the way they used all capital letters, in a typeface that suggests the ancient Chinese pictographs — I believe you said they were called kanji in Japanese.
John Berbrich: Exactly. And in Japan it was traditional to accompany a haiku w/ a woodcut, suggested in the book by the Japanese designs found on every page. By the way, Basho’s “hat” poem, which you once said you wanted to read, can be found on page two. I have another translation of it somewhere that I prefer. But still....There’s a beauty achieved in real haiku that I’ve seldom encountered elsewhere. It’s all so real & delicate & fragile that it can coax you to experience joy & grief simultaneously.
William Michaelian: When I’m home again later — I’m at my mother’s house now — I’ll be sure to read the hat poem. So far, I’ve just been jumping around. I also like Harry Behn’s introduction, the spirit behind it. I included the whole thing on my And I Quote page. The end is nice, and says a lot:
“In doing this job reverently in Peter’s stead, I am grateful for the pleasant company of his friends, Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and other of those old Haijin who spoke with such beautiful, evocative simplicity.
“This should have been Peter Beilenson’s book. He had just come to Basho’s joyous shout about bringing a snowball in by the fire, when he died.”
John Berbrich: It’s interesting that Behn was chosen to finish up the translations, since, by his own admission, he hardly knows a word of Japanese. He did maintain the spirit of Beilenson’s translations, I think.
William Michaelian: I wondered about that myself. But I think if you take the time he did, and have the right ear and sensibility . . . oh — you mentioned the hat poem:
My dear pilgrim hat,
to view the plum trees!
For me, this one doesn't quite cut it. Would it be much trouble for you to find that other translation? Here’s another poem I like, this one anonymous:
In this town
where I was born,
tonight my only friends
are the crickets.
John Berbrich: That one sounds like it might have been written by Issa. As for the “hat” haiku, I simply cannot find it. I’ve gone through a couple of my collections to no avail. It’s possible I read it long ago in a book I took out of the library. Sorry. Here’s one from the Series I collection, by Basho:
Perfumes her wings
Over the orchid.
William Michaelian: Ah. Lovely. A fleeting moment miraculously preserved, yet not imprisoned. In lieu of our missing hat, here’s one I wrote a few months ago:
the beating of wings,
spring is the hat
John Berbrich: Ah. You’re not wearing a hat. That reminds me of a haiku I memorized years ago. I don’t recall the author.
There a beggar goes
Heaven and earth he’s wearing
For his summer clothes.
William Michaelian: Nice. The poverty-beggar theme is woven throughout Series IV — and, I suspect, the previous three books. Well. Of course. Peter Pauper.
John Berbrich: Good observation. And they charged only one dollar for these lovely little books back then. Affordable to paupers & thus ensuring the company didn’t make any profit.
William Michaelian: No doubt a carefully thought out plan. Basho and the boys would have been proud. Tell me — is much known about the various poets in Series IV?
John Berbrich: Well, the standard big four poets seem to be well represented. They would be Basho, (17th century), Buson (18th century), Issa (turning of the 19th century), & Shiki (late 19th century). Of the others, I know that Joso & Kikaku were disciples of Basho. In fact, you may recall a story I believe I told you many pages ago, my son. It concerns Basho walking w/ a young pupil. The boy sees a darting dragonfly & writes a quick haiku:
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!
But Basho corrected the pupil, saying:
Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!
Basho’s point is that poetry is constructive, not destructive. That young pupil was Kikaku.
William Michaelian: Whose poems, I see, are sprinkled throughout the book. What a difference Basho made with the pepper pods and dragonflies. Uh-oh. I just thought of something ridiculous. Can you imagine the old haiku masters wearing sunglasses? Or using a telephone? There must be a lesson here.
John Berbrich: Ridiculous, indeed! For some reason, that image of a haiku master wearing shades & talking into a cell phone reminds me of something I read recently that I wanted to share w/ you. I believe we’ve talked a bit about Edmund Wilson. He was a very influential writer & critic from roughly World War One to 1970. Anyway, I’m reading a 750-page volume of his letters. In this one dated May 27th 1942, he writes to a friend Maxwell Geismer about a visit from T.S. Eliot. Here’s the entire letter: “Dear Max: I can give you my impressions of Eliot better in conversation when I see you. He is, as you say, full of contradictions, which are quite obvious when you meet him. His opinions when he writes them always seem judicious and specific, but his personality is really rather incoherent, and that is what his poetry comes out of. But I felt about him that he was probably the most highly refined and attuned and chiseled human being that I had ever met and couldn’t help being rather awed by him. I gave him bootleg gin — he is so shy that you have to drink with him to talk to him — and we both got into bad condition. The next morning he had an awful hangover and said his joints creaked, and I felt as if I had wantonly broken some rare and exquisite vase. I have felt guilty about it ever since.”
William Michaelian: What a classic letter — descriptive, with great entertainment value. And I love the idea of an incoherent personality. Really this is the kind of thing I imagine being written on bleary-eyed mornings at the Junk Poem Shop, after a night of trying to get Basho to speak into a cell phone. “But who are they?” “Spirits, Matsuo. Spirits.”
John Berbrich: “But are they friendly spirits?” This reminds me of when we lived out in Amish country. They’d come over to the house occasionally to have us make a phone call for them. This one Amish woman had never used a telephone — she must have been 35 years old — & I insisted that she talk on it after I had dialed the number for her. She looked so awkward, like a child playing an unfamiliar musical instrument. Anyway, I found a letter in which Wilson mentions William Saroyan. It’s addressed to John Dos Passos & dated January 11th, 1935. Wilson writes, in part: “I’ve just read William Saroyan’s book and was surprised, after what I had heard about it, that it should be so good. He has a curious kind of rarefied poetry, very precisely expressed, quite different from anybody else; though there is a certain amount of second-hand Hemingway and Anderson, I think he is good. Have you read him?” The book he is talking about is The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.
William Michaelian: Second-hand Hemingway? Oh, well. I guess a guy can’t be right all the time. Someday, when you get around to reading the book, you’ll see how ridiculous that statement is. So. What about this book? What’s it called? Who published it and when did it come out? I like reading letters.
John Berbrich: The book is called Edmund Wilson: Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972. It was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1977, five years after Wilson’s death. I have the first edition hardcover. Wilson attended Princeton w/ F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are many letters to Fitzgerald, as well as E.E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Allen Tate, John F. Kennedy, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vladimir Nabokov, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder, Louise Bogan, James Joyce.You get the idea. The contents are for the most part
William Michaelian: Sounds like they would be. That’s an impressive bunch. Meanwhile, I was just reading about a magazine called Blast, which debuted in 1914 as “A Review of the Great English Vortex.” Apparently vorticism was a word coined by Ezra Pound. Here’s part of the accompanying manifesto:
We stand for the Reality of the Present — not for the sentimental Future, or the sacripant Past.
We want to leave Nature and men alone.
The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously.
WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY — their stupidity, animalism and dreams.
We believe in no perfectibility except our own.
Intrinsic beauty is in the Interpreter and Seer, not in the object or content.
WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel its crude energy flowing through us . . . .
John Berbrich: These guys should have hooked up w/ the Surrealists. Sounds as though they want to experience life, not think about it. Sort of a Zen thing. Wilson does mention Blast in a letter written in 1918, when he was serving in the military in France. He is talking about reading Wyndham Lewis, the editor of Blast, & says “nothing could induce me to attempt a novel by him.” I have a few words here written by Pound that were published in Blast. Here’s a bit:
“Blast does not attempt to reconcile the homo canis with himself. Of course the homo canis will follow us. It is the nature of the homo canis to follow. They growl but they follow. They have even followed things in black surtouts with their collars buttoned behind.”
William Michaelian: And years later, in 1956, Lewis said, “Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did or said at a certain time.” And I guess that time didn’t really last that long. Then again, there was the war. I don’t know. The manifesto is one thing, but to me, comments like Pound’s are less than inspiring. I guess you had to be there.
John Berbrich: We’ve got to remember that these guys were excitable young men when Blast was first published, as Pound & Lewis were both like 29 years old. Wilson himself was only 19 at the time. Think of it — John Steinbeck was a 12-year-old living in California. I wonder what he read early in the morning by the warm glow of the oil lamp.
William Michaelian: I don’t know. But it probably included Mark Twain and Bret Harte. A few months back, I picked up a neat old copy of Selected Stories of Bret Harte at the Friends of the Library book sale. I haven’t read the book yet, but there are some great story titles, such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “Miggles,” “The Right Eye of the Commander,” “A Lonely Ride,” and “Brown of Calaveras.” A world far different than Blast, that’s for sure. Here’s the opening paragraph of “The Luck of Roaring Camp”:
There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement. The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but “Tuttle’s grocery” had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room. The whole camp was collected before a rude cabin on the outer edge of the clearing. Conversation was carried on in a low tone, but the name of a woman was frequently repeated. It was a name familiar enough in the camp—“Cherokee Sal.”
John Berbrich: Makes me want to find out more. Harte is a writer I’ve totally avoided, possibly due to his name.
William Michaelian: I do the same thing. I think it’s something we all do. In the introduction, there’s a quote by Mark Twain: “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive.” Another person I just read about is Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son. I didn’t know he even had a son. Julian was born in 1846. In his memoirs, he remembers walking hand in hand with Emerson and looking for arrowheads with Thoreau. Melville, he said, was “the strangest being that ever came into our circle.” He also remembers Emerson telling his father that he couldn’t read any of his work, though he liked to talk to him, and that it was the reverse for his father, who said he only enjoyed Emerson on the page. Hmm. Kanaka Ralph and French Nathaniel. Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it.
John Berbrich: Well, I do like the name Julian Hawthorne. I love reading memoirs of that kind, written by people on the fringe of a group of famous folk. Not that you necessarily can believe everything that’s said, but I suppose most of it is accurate enough. Either way, it is pleasant to imagine a different style of living, a slower pace of life, a world of mono-tasking. The sun was just as bright & the trees were just as green.
William Michaelian: Which brings me to my next question: have you ever ridden a horse?
John Berbrich: Uh, the few occasions I did ride a horse always ended unsatisfactorily, although I was never actually thrown off the beast. Why do you ask?
William Michaelian: Well, to be completely open, honest, and above-board, I thought it might be a funny way to end the page. You know me, always the joker. Still, I figured you had to have ridden a horse somewhere along the line. I myself have ridden a horse exactly once, when I was a kid and our family and Uncle Archie’s family were staying in a cabin that belonged to one of Archie’s friends at Lake Tahoe. Twelve people in one cabin. Anyway, we went out riding one day. The horse I rode was named Willie. The horses walked in a line along a trail that was about a foot deep and full of finely powdered dust. They knew the way. Nothing could have convinced them to turn, or to speed up, or to stop, until the entire circuit had been made. But it was quite a feeling to be way up there on top of that beast. It was a good-sized creature. So. Let’s move on, shall we?