Tag Archives: Fall 2019

At the Last Minute

Estha Weiner
Salmon Poetry ($20)

by Walter Holland

Precision, wit, timing, and agility are important to an actor. The ability to speak “trippingly on the tongue,” making yourself understood in the upper galleries or to groundlings below, to play both tragedy and comedy at the flip of a coin—these are the merits of the Shakespearean performer.

Estha Weiner studied the dramatic arts in England before returning to New York to continue her training. Born in Maine, she grew up in a Jewish household, bearing the brunt of jokes from her parents: “Who do you think you are, Sarah Bernhardt?” But tenacity, talent, and moxie prevailed, although perhaps she encountered criticism regarding her “too-Jewish” looks, as she was daddy’s “dark / little girl.”

However, Weiner watched and listened, honing her theatrical craft as well as her ear for Shakespeare. She studied poetry and literature as well, becoming a teacher at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, England and the City University of New York, among other places—while remaining, of course, an occasional actor.

Written with an easy informality, Weiner’s poems are short and deft, replete with nimble precision, careful line breaks, rhythmic mastery, rhyme-sense, Shakespearean allusions, and, above all, simplicity. These are traits vividly displayed in “Exit, pursued by bear,” that most famous of The Bard’s stage directions from The Winter’s Tale:

When I was paid
to wear a mask,

I lauded authenticity,
off-stage, as well as on,

transparency, the open
book, the open vein: my song.

All the world is still
a stage, though I’m a different player.

It seems the mask works just as well
off-stage as it works on,

taming that unruly shrew
we nick-name honesty.

Here Weiner plays figuratively with one of Shakespeare’s most famous conceits, “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It, but teams this with a reference to The Taming of the Shrew, in which the character Kate attempts to deny her socially defined role or mask, eschewing behavioral expectations and obligations. Kate transgresses both social and gender boundaries and asserts an “honest” and “authentic” self.

These are favored Shakespearean motifs: disguise, mistaken identity, and the clever lie. Weiner suggests that the social “mask” works in real life “off-stage” as it does on. In fact, there is a tinge of feminist sarcasm in Weiner’s final couplet, when she compares “honesty” to an “unruly shrew”—something to be “tamed,” subdued, and discouraged. But Weiner resists reductive thinking and simplistic labeling. Like Shakespeare, she goes for the universal and the individualistic in human nature.

“Who do you think you are” mentions Weiner’s Jewish parents, who tease their daughter about her unrealistic goals and inflated ego, woefully inadequate compared to the Jewish thespian Sarah Bernhardt. Concise, revealing far more than stated, this poem conveys her complete family history:

“You, with the drama,
enough already!” My mother
acted, on stage and off;
my father acted like he wished
he were in the audience. I became
an actor, and missed his last
hours upon the stage
that all the world is,
because I had a second audition
for a show,
which must go on.

Here again, a clever Shakespearean conceit is employed to bittersweet effect. The parents’ roles of active mother and passive father; the daughter’s sense of regret at not having “been there” for her father in his final days; the blinding dedication to a career—all end in the sobering realization that life must go on, that selfishness and ambition are necessary tasks.

Weiner’s poetry is deliciously fun; like that of her poetic mentor, William Mathews, it is droll, unaffected, and erudite. Works such as “In the pool of the jury there are many vowels” with its stanzas “’A, I, E’ make Maine’s / accent haven for lobstahs / and home for Estha,” and “Venom drips / through my neighbors’ Virginia / vowels, as they pronounce / the word ‘Jews’” are priceless. “Fedora,” for her deceased father, is touching and tender. After discovering his beloved hat missing:

In her 50th year,
(his age at the birth of this dark little girl),
she lost it.
She searched madly, constantly,
madly, quietly.

“. . . to the sea again” is a lovely treat, a parting bouquet of emotions. And, in “At 5:45 pm in The Conservatory Garden,” where Weiner tells us, “That dark bird, out / of place amongst the lavenders / and roses, takes / off, with me / tempted to follow,” is when I realized I’ll follow the work of this “madly” accomplished poet anywhere.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

A Shaming, Damning,
Beautiful Moment:
An Interview with Stephen Markley

photo by Michael Amico

by Benjamin Davis

Stephen Markley was writing about opioid addiction and rust-belt voters before the issues hounded the headlines. Those stories came together in his debut novel, Ohio (Simon & Schuster, $16.99), a book that began as a murder mystery and became a large-scale social commentary. Called “a kind of fiction/op-ed hybrid” by The New York Times, Ohio, in its prescience and politics, is a book for the present. I reached out to Markley after attending his reading at Houston’s impressive Brazos Bookstore; in the following interview, we discuss writing about the Midwest, gender in literature, and the question of home.

Benjamin Davis: In his Paris Review interview, Jim Harrison claimed that there’s no such thing as regional literature; either it’s literature on aesthetic grounds or it’s not literature at all. Ohio flags a region from the very title. Can you say more about how the novel nevertheless speaks broadly in this moment?

Stephen Markley: Ok, I don’t want to kick off this interview sounding like a dumbass, but can I admit I don’t know what Jim Harrison is talking about? I literally just do not understand. All I know is that I never go in for lit that feels airless and floating, that tries to be “timeless” but in doing so just comes off as plastic, sterile, and antiquated quickly anyway. Something I adore and admire is when an author makes you feel like you know and understand a place you have never been. Or even better, you have been there, and you can’t believe how much they’re nailing it.

BD: Bill is an activist who has been through a lot. Where did the inspiration for him come from?

SM: I’d say there are two components involved. First, after college I thought I’d dive into politics and/or activism of some kind, and it’s not like I’ve never been involved in those realms since, but I quickly discovered I do not have the temperament for it. It can create this womb around a person, this detachment from the perspectives and experiences of anyone outside the womb, an intellectual cloistering. It’s also extremely frustrating work. You fight like hell your whole life for dignity and justice and all that, and at the end of it your neo-fascist reality show star president walks you off a plank into a pool of sharks to great ratings. This is not to denigrate the people who do that kind of incredible and grueling work, but instead of an engaged and energetic citizenry, we have a model where activism becomes a full-time identity until it breaks your heart and you burn out. You either drink yourself to death or go work on Wall Street and tell yourself Ayn Rand had it right. That’s where I found Bill, attempting the former.

He’s also proven the most controversial character. Some people hate him, can’t even get through his chapter, and some love and/or identify with him. This bookseller in Pennsylvania told me, “I couldn’t understand why everyone hated him. I adored Bill! I dated him in college.” Which made me laugh because it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Then I was talking to my friend Nancy, who was a total lunatic in college and also one of the smartest people in the entire student body, and she said, “Oh, I thought Bill was based on me.” And she’s kind of right in that I’ve always had a fascination with people who give zero fucks what people think of them, who do not care about anyone’s pieties and who have the intellect and precision to back up their bluster. They’re volatile and mesmerizing and nasty in a lot of ways, like the plutonium of human beings. If Nancy somehow gets famous she’ll be canceled after her first thirty-five seconds on Twitter. (I’m mostly just kidding, Nancy’s great.)

BD: What guided your decision to tell this story through point-of-view characters, weaving different experiences together around a single night in a single town?

SM: It’s hard to remember the exact evolution of those decisions. What I can remember is that I always, always, always had those four voices in my head. So much so that by the time I sat down to write the actual words that would make up the book, I’d been living with these characters for quite some time.

BD: Did you at any point feel a pull to write about Chicago, Los Angeles, or other cities you know?

SM: Nah, not really. I mean, I wrote a bit about Chicago in my first book, but I don’t really approach storytelling like Oh, now it’s time to write about L.A. (“Traffic sucks, it’s too sunny, this Bumble date thinks I have way more money than I do, The End”—terrible novel).

BD: It’s worth noting that the book is rural in its focus. I look for Ohio when I travel now, and I see it selling at little bookstores in hip neighborhoods and in wealthy liberal enclaves in cities, yet it is a book about a small town. Thankfully, you avoided writing as one of those “here’s how to understand Trump country” books that are now popular. Still, did you have a readership in mind when writing it?

SM: I take that as a great compliment because the last thing I ever want to do is claim to speak for anyone about anything. I wrote the entire novel and was well into, I think, the fourth draft before Trump was even a gleam in the eye of a thirsty media conglomerate. So I didn’t set out to write about the zeitgeist; I wished upon a monkey’s paw, and the zeitgeist crashed into my book (“Please let me have a successful debut novel, and I don’t care what socio-political circumstances arise to make it thus!”). As for the readership, I’m just glad someone read it besides my mom.

BD: You write about deindustrialization in New Canaan, then note “but nowhere in the Midwest really escaped.” Can you paint in broad terms what aspects of deindustrialization you wanted to cover, what specific elements stay with you that we see across the Midwest?

SM: Keep in mind, by the time I was old enough to be aware of much of anything, the Midwest had already gone through the worst spasms of deindustrialization. I wasn’t born yet when the steel plants in Youngstown started closing, so I grew up in the Walmart-ized version of a once-great industrial region. But I always found an odd beauty to a closed factory sitting abandoned in some weedy, chain-linked lot because it’s impossible not to let it capture your imagination. This place used to make something, and people were friends here, and there were stories here, people met their husbands and wives here, and now it’s gone, and all those stories are confounded ghosts, wandering, and likely no one will write them down or remember them. There’s something heavy about that.

But politically speaking, the most deleterious effect of deindustrialization was capital’s war on organized labor. The main reason capital began the project of offshoring was to break the backs of the unions, and it worked exceedingly well. Now what do you have? A lot of big box stores and Amazon warehouses where the managers are mostly trained in union busting. So not only are you losing the union’s power to negotiate for wages and working conditions, you’re removing the primary political organizer for a community of working people. I don’t think it can be overstated how toxic this is. Putnam’s Bowling Alone touched on this: that de-unionization tracks precisely with economic inequality and, beyond that, the decline of social capital (people’s networks and connections within a community). As wages stagnate and social capital vanishes, what moves in? Opiates, meth, pills, alcoholism, sure, but also political philosophies constructed of grievance that seek to place blame, usually on some convenient Other.

BD: You have said that you started out writing a murder mystery, but realized you had a lot more to say. And indeed, the book takes on a lot more, including political questions. How did you realize you needed to say this “a lot more”?

SM: I’d been writing opinion pieces for a while, so I’d always had a political bent, but my fiction was sort of a separate category—I didn’t necessarily see it as political. This allowed something important to happen, which is that the politics arose organically from the viewpoints of the characters, none of whom precisely shared my particular worldview. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction: when you’re really doing it, you are Really Doing It. You are this other person, and you inhabit their mind and their thinking, and it just makes a certain sense to you because that’s the way this make-believe person sees it, and there’s nothing weird about that. So I set out to write this complex mystery in which you had no idea what the mystery even was until the last twenty or so pages, but then reading the first draft, I got a sense of the rage and sorrow each of these people felt, and how that rage and sorrow was connected to the events of their adult lives, including war, addiction, homophobia, recession, and the other themes the book touches upon.

BD: As a Minnesotan, I can testify to your getting a lot of Midwestern language right, such as the way people start sentences: “Thing was, Bill had a hard time . . .” How important is colloquial language to you?

SM: I love the way people talk—it’s such a specific fingerprint, right? But you can’t really fake it, so I guess I didn’t even notice that I’d started sentences that way. Here’s an even bigger bombshell: I don’t think most writers even know what the fuck they did until they’re on the book tour and people are asking them questions. Then we’re like, “It was very important for me to utilize colloquial language . . .”

BD: You have a way of reminding us that our actions go home, that what we do is not only informed by where we’re from but also returns there. “What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.” Can you say more about this phrase—“the collective psychosis of nationalism”?

SM: I can’t recall who I stole that phrase from, but I don’t think at this point it’s remotely controversial that nationalism is toxic and that its permutations can defy all attempts at reason. My perspective is that I came from a generation that reached adulthood almost exactly on the day of 9/11 (literally, two of my best friends turned eighteen on 9/12, and I turned eighteen less than a month later). So to slip into Bill’s perspective, here’s what he might say: “And what came of 9/11? A burst of hyper-nationalism not seen in a generation, followed by two catastrophic wars, which are probably going to cost between five and six trillion dollars when it’s all tallied. There are now stories of fathers and sons having gone on the same patrols in Afghanistan. Iraq remains a broken country littered with the bodies of innocent people. And this is to say nothing of disastrous interventions in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, all across North Africa, and you better believe if Donald Trump wants his war in Iran or Venezuela, some not insignificant faction of the American polity will go along with it, and a whole new tragedy will commence. This is to say nothing of the concentration camps rising along the U.S.-Mexico border, which will likely expand in scope well before any future administration manages to shut them down. To call all of this ‘madness’ is an insult to madness. But we go along with it, and some of us love it. Because nationalism is like religion in its power and ability to rally people to just about any half-baked notion you can dream up.”

Again, when I wrote Bill Ashcraft, I didn’t really expect him to be this correct about everything.

BD: There’s a lot of masculinity going on in Ohio. For instance: “Adolescent identity is an odd thing, formed mostly for hypermasculine young men by their chosen extracurricular activity.” And: “his dad shook hands with Mr. Clifton, because he literally could not converse with another man without a firm handshake first (even if it was a neighbor and friend of nearly thirty years).” Why was this important for you to comment on?

SM: You have to keep in mind that those two instances are from the POVs of the two male characters (the female characters, of course, have their own less-than-pleasant experiences with masculinity). Again, because the book was written so long before the MeToo moment, it’s like the zeitgeist crashed into the themes I was working on. Something I keep in mind is what my mom once said to me, “The patriarchy isn’t just bad for women; it’s bad for you too, bucko.” In that it confines men to these dangerous boxes, fuels them with horrific notions and demands, drives them so easily to despair when they have no shot at living up to those demands. Bill probably knows all this, but he’s somewhat helpless to fight against it. Dan intuits some of the absurdities of masculinity, especially because he grew up as someone who was having his masculinity challenged—a bookworm who decided to join the military.

BD: What were your working habits on the book? Did you return to the state frequently, making the book a kind of ethnography? Or was it written by memory from Iowa?

SM: I mostly wrote it while attending the Iowa workshop, but I didn’t really need to research Ohio per se because I was going back home fairly often, as I have been in the years since I moved away. Most of the research revolved around Dan’s experience in the army and Stacey’s doctoral thesis, of which I ended up cutting about 98%.

BD: At one point you take on a story of an Ohio Union colonel who switches, through his experience fighting in the Civil War, from an anti-emancipation Democrat to someone opposed to slavery. “It must be a shaming, damning, beautiful moment to understand such a thing. To have your heart changed.” Do you think a novel can contribute to this? Or, how do you think about the role of the social novel—the “Big American Novel,” as it’s been called.

SM: As smarter people than me have pointed out, the “Big/ Great American Novel” moniker adheres a bit too frequently to white bro authors, so I sorta throw my garlic and crucifixes at that phrase and run away screaming. However, of course I think novels contribute to an inner life and a higher consciousness and an ability to feel empathy and reason and passion in a way almost no other art form can possibly accomplish. I have to believe this or I wouldn’t do it. And from my perspective, I live in the most consequential economic and military empire in the history of human civilization, which is also undergoing a series tectonic shifts—some good and most not so good at all—so that’s pretty interesting.

BD: There’s a lot of talk these days about who can write what and who can read what. I doubt the response to a white man’s attempt to write an indigenous female protagonist would be similar to Louise Erdrich’s blurb on Jim Harrison’s Dalva: “Monumental . . . Bighearted, an unabashedly romantic love story . . . There is no putting aside Dalva.” Can you talk about your approach to writing Stacey and Tina?

SM: I get that question an awful lot, so here’s a chance for me to give my long answer, which will use the equivocating phrase “having said that” twice, and hopefully inspire a media firestorm that will sell more books:

We are in a moment when people from marginalized communities and identities are stepping forward and saying, “Hey, what the fuck? It’s my turn, you fucking bearded white guy.” This, I believe, is unabashedly one of the Good developments I referred to earlier. In terms of the light speed with which society and capitalism has reorganized itself to recognize and celebrate LGBTQ rights, it’s sort of astonishing. If you had told me in high school that someday Verizon would be sponsoring Pride floats, I’d ask what alternate reality you’d flown in from. This is also leading to a proliferation of art and ideas and public figures from corners of the human experience that simply weren’t reaching mainstream audiences before. It’s really fucking awesome, and when I’m staring at the ceiling in the dark of night worrying that our slide into fascism is unstoppable, I remind myself that the most important American politician right now is a Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx promoting the most confrontational vision of social democracy I’ve heard in my lifetime.

Having said that, I believe it is the prerogative of the artist, the writer, the filmmaker to believe totally and fully that nothing is ever, ever, ever off limits. To write with invisible social critics on your shoulder is total doom, and part of the journey and the POINT of creating literature is to imagine yourself into someone else’s shoes, to envision what this stranger’s fears and heartaches and hopes are about, and in the process to let that change your heart, even if just by a little bit. And I seriously don’t care if I’m the last person on that flooding island, clinging to the rocks by my fingernails. I doubt I’ll ever write a novel told solely from the perspective of a straight white man because that is seriously boring, and not even in accord with my own experience of living in the world and the people that matter to me and the building of my own consciousness from the influences of all the non-white, non-male artists, leaders, and visionaries that I have so desperately adored. If tomorrow it becomes unacceptable to write from anything other than your own “lived experience,” and the whole of the publishing world refuses me, I’ll gladly just keep writing and leave the pages in my drawers to be unearthed after the seas rise and civilization collapses and is then again reborn and everyone finally looks around and says, “Oh yeah, I guess we were in this thing together the whole time, weren’t we?”

Having said that, I’m definitely not arrogant enough to believe I can truly ever know what it’s like to go through life as a queer woman in a place hostile to your identity in every way. I’m under no illusion that this is an experience I can in any way own or claim to speak for (like I said, never speak for anyone but your own dumb self). My formula therefore is to write with bravery, but edit with humility. I told the story I had to tell because it was screaming inside of my bones to get out, but when I turned to the editing process I of course sought advice from some of the smartest women in my life, who also had the energy to read and comment on a 500-page novel. Going through the journey of writing Stacey and Tina was something I never treated lightly, and I kept in mind my responsibility to people who’d had those experiences.

BD: “Home is a roving sensation, not a place, and for a large chunk of his life, the feel of that bullet to the chest, that was home.” Is Ohio a kind of homecoming for you? What did writing it teach you about home, place, belonging?

SM: Home is a kind of spirituality. It inhabits you and influences you no matter where you are, who you think you are, or who you think you can become. Watching one’s home suffer degradation, depredation, or tragedy, you realize how fragile it is, how foreclosures, recession, opiates, or any number of exogenous influences can rock it to the core. Thinking about one’s home in this particular historical moment, it all must be framed within the context of displaced peoples, refugees, asylum seekers, and the greatest mass movement of human beings since World War II. Much of that movement is the result of those aforementioned catastrophic wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia but also the early onset effects of our ecological crisis. The UN tells us over 65 million people have been displaced, and given that nothing is being done to arrest climate change, that number could be as high as 250 million by the middle of the century, according to some estimates. In that context, the idea of home is going to take on vastly different dimensions in the human imagination, even for those of us in the comfortable West, because in the midst of unpredictable climatic and political convulsions no one’s home is going to be safe. Not really. So I think the idea of home should remind us not that we’re a part of this cloistered region or that protected enclave but that, again, our individual fate is bound up in the fate of the entire human community, in ways both obvious and subterranean.

BD: What’s next for you?

SM: I’m burning through the first draft of my next book, which is going to be such a clusterfuck to edit, but I’m definitely excited to get back to it every day. It’s that feeling that comes over you, this fugue, where the people in your book are as real and vital to you as anything in your own life. Also, I optioned Ohio to MGM and am hoping to adapt it into a limited series, but until you’re sitting down with the popcorn watching the first episode, you’ve got to keep your expectations with Hollywood in check. It’s just so remarkable to me that I actually made it to a place where I’m writing and living my life and waking up every morning to go play in the sandbox. I don’t want to take even a moment of it for granted.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Every Mask I Tried On

Alina Stefanescu
Brighthorse Books ($16.95)

by Ralph Pennel

In Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that, “All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.” In her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, author Alina Stefanescu does just that by means of critical analysis of the personal through the interpersonal, and by exploration of the self as an articulating component of literary craft, all in order to give shape to the “unshapable.”

In “My Name is Not Rita,” the third story in the first section, the author takes a discerning look at the creative process, especially the manner in which we render representations of ourselves. Immediately, we catch the narrator on the defensive, reclaiming herself against those close to her, those who profess to know her better than she does: her lover, the assistant at the radio station where she works, even the author herself. The lover, it is revealed in the first few lines, is writing a book about the narrator. The assistant at the radio station exclaims the narrator is two people, intimating the person she is on air is stronger than who she is off, that she “came across confident—bluegrass this, bluegrass that—but in the studio [she] looked tired and less full of life.”

It is in these renderings that we find the author struggling with representations of the self, though they resist such narrow definition at every breath. The author, of course, is all these characters (as the narrator was in the lover’s book), and is in conversation with herself about what the creative process reveals about how little we know ourselves—except, perhaps, in a character’s constant refusals of ever being known precisely, toiling on and on in the persistent ambiguity of discovery.

At the very end, the lover has moved to Maine and finally published his book. In the book is a dedication to Rita, whom he claims “inspired all of the characters,” a desire he expressed earlier, saying, “he wanted to spread me out into various characters” and that “you’re too much for one woman.” As the title informs us, however, the narrator’s name is not Rita, asking us to examine the failings of intentionality in process. From here, a blueprint is set for how to navigate the stories that follow.

In the fourth section, “There Was No More Blood than A Period,” Stefanescu takes on the approximations and distortions of language, how we rely on it to keep ourselves from disappearing all together. In “Wind Words,” for example, the narrator, a young girl, is translating the world as defined by her parents’ interpersonal communications, especially the ways they make meanings based on failures. Stefanescu sums up this experience at the bottom of the first page through the narrator’s own method of navigating gaps between the meanings of words; her voice, when attempting to speak her mind, “comes up just a tad shy of a somersault and no one but me is spinning.” How easily we take meaning for granted, that what we are attempting to communicate will be understood as we meant it to be.

The wind slips itself around the way we allude, the way we infer, the way we inflect. As it turns out, all words are wind words, “the way the wind rambles through all the words regardless,” even words as tightly wound as “knots.” All are porous. All mere reflections. All have room to squeeze more meaning through and from. But, as the mother of the narrator assures us near story’s end, “It’s okay when the boat rocks . . . It’s okay, we are at anchor.” No amount of wind will blow us so far off track that we will be lost to vast horizons, we will find common ground in a common language.

In the final section, “Not Without Some Pain,” the author reflects on the art of art in the story “The Romanian Part”—how we are art’s meaning’s messengers, and how, “What we see becomes the thing we can’t see past.” But what happens if what we can’t see past is the mask itself? “The Romanian Part” is smartly broken up into different sections with titles like “Her Best Romanian Child” and “The Kitchen Saudade,” in order to show the author’s intersecting identities as Romanian, American, mother, wife, author, subject and object, vehicle and mode. The perfect way to illustrate how, “What we make of a thing is the story of us. . . . If I weren’t dying of every symptom I google, I might find time to save this story.” Identity is fluid, layered, and complex, a myriad of masks we don’t even see until we remove them for the next, each story a thread in the fabric of the visage.

Alina Stefanescu’s debut collection of stories is a triumph of highest order, at times both “monstrous” and “terrifying” in its honesty. Every Mask I Tried On is a collection each of us must try on for ourselves in order to see more clearly the scaffoldings of our own invented artifices.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Two Roads Diverged:
Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley

“In the other room wild women are dancing as Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.”
- Jack Kerouac, letter to John Clellon Holmes May 27, 1956

by Jonah Raskin

They both cast long literary shadows across American letters in the second half of the twentieth-century. Jack Kerouac was mostly a novelist though he also wrote poetry. Robert Creeley was mostly a poet though he wrote fiction, and a huge body of essays and reviews that ranged over nearly all of modern literature, from Samuel’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature to Ezra Pound’s poetry and William Burroughs’s fiction.

Few writers compressed their own experiences at the typewriter as succinctly as Kerouac, and then made them available to wanna-be authors in a kind of ten-step program, except that he offered 28-steps in no particular order of importance. Beginning in early boyhood, Kerouac thought of himself as a writer and threw himself into the world of books. Ironically, even after Creeley wrote and then published books in the 1940s, he was reluctant to describe himself as a writer. As a young man, he was also wary of books and book culture, though that had changed by the time that he met Kerouac in 1956.

Who influenced whom is a matter of debate, though literary historian Steven Watson insists in The Birth of the Beat Generation that Kerouac helped “free” Creeley “from the imposition of plot.” Curiously, on his 1976 list of literary “heroes,” Creeley offered more than a dozen writers, including H.D., Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, and Ted Berrigan, but not Jack Kerouac. Many different writers helped to free Creeley from his New England Puritanism.

Contemporary writers might learn from both Creeley and Kerouac—who came from opposite sides of New England—how challenging it is to pinpoint influences and how difficult it can be to resist the temptations of ego and competition. Creeley and Kerouac both might have identified with the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” who observes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler.” They each carved out their own roads that others have followed over the last 50 years and helped enshrine their reputations.

On his “List of Essentials” for “Belief & Technique of Modern Prose,” Jack Kerouac urged writers to be “submissive to everything, open, listening.” He did that the night when he and Creeley attended a “big 40-people party” in San Francisco in the spring of 1956, when they both consumed a great deal of alcohol. Drinking linked them, though it also divided them. Kerouac would pass out. Creeley became belligerent, though neither one caused trouble at this event; instead, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky stole the show when they took off their clothes and stood naked in the crowd.

Kerouac described Orlovsky as a “mad young Russian Kafkean saint with wild hair.” By comparison, Creeley seemed rather tame, though the patch over his left eye lent him a certain mystique. “Distinguished Buddhists,” including Alan Watts, chatted with “drinks in their hands,” Kerouac wrote, while “wild women” danced with one another in another room.

Kerouac added a brief sentence about himself and his newfound companion that hinted at submerged personal histories: “Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.” Creeley was, indeed, from the town of Acton, about 15 miles south of Lowell, the city where Kerouac was born and raised and where he attended high school. Creeley was born in 1926, four years after Kerouac. In the spring of 1956, when he and Kerouac attended parties, poetry readings, and raucous events, Creeley turned 30. Kerouac was an older brother Creeley never had; Creeley briefly replaced the brother Kerouac lost.

When he wrote the word “beat,” Kerouac meant it to work as a noun and a verb. Lowell was his beat, and he and Creeley were beating drums and behaving like two beat characters in the midst of a brief bromance. On another occasion, also in the spring of 1956, which took place at the Cellar in San Francisco, Kerouac wrote, “I walk in there with Creeley and we drum and beat.”

Years later, Creeley would remember that he and Kerouac attended a party in 1956 where they were “banging on upended pots and pans” and were “keeping the beat.” In San Francisco, they exemplified the spontaneous, improvisational spirit of “beat,” though Creeley was not part of the Beat inner circle that included Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

In Kerouac’s company, Creeley became, albeit briefly, a part of “the Beat scene,” as the incipient Beats called it. In the spring of 1956 there wasn’t yet a “Beat Generation,” and there wasn’t yet a “Black Mountain School of Poets,” either, though Creeley had taught writing at Black Mountain College, which was imploding in 1956 while the Beats were coalescing and ascending. “The seedbed” for the “new culture” was “the San Francisco ‘Renaissance,’ the Beats,” Martin Duberman observed in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, though as he also noted, just a few years earlier, Black Mountain, San Francisco, and New York all contributed to the movement “to break the hold of previously accepted models of behavior and art.”

Two of Kerouac’s biographers, Tom Clark and Gerald Nicosia, both argue that Creeley and Kerouac were cut from the same regional cloth, though neither Clark nor Nicosia looked closely at the communities and the families that shaped them and from which they emerged. Clark interviewed the poet from Acton at length for his biography of the writer from Lowell. He wrote that “Kerouac and Creeley had much in common—both were northeast Massachusetts natives with French Canadian blood—but the main bond between them was that they were intense, engaged drinkers.”

In fact, Creeley’s ancestors were English while Kerouac’s were French-Canadian. Creeley thought of himself as Puritan while Kerouac regarded himself as Franco-American. Clark quotes Creeley as saying, “I always felt very at home with Jack.”

By the time that Clark wrote his Kerouac biography, Jack was already dead. The two volumes of Kerouac’s letters, which offer his story of the coming together and drifting apart from Creeley, were not yet in print, nor were Creeley’s letters. In his biography Memory Babe, Nicosia echoes Clark and emphasizes the bonds that alcohol created. He also wrote that Kerouac and Creeley were both “sad” and imbued with a streak of “wildness,” though in the spring of 1956 Creeley was wilder than Kerouac—wild enough to be arrested and go to jail, which Kerouac mentions twice in his letters.

Nicosia also quotes Creeley as saying that he and Kerouac both “shared the ‘New England apprehension’ that big city people were out to ‘run a number on them.’” That might have been true for Creeley, who preferred small towns and medium-sized cities, but Kerouac thrived in New York and Mexico City. Soon after he met Creeley, he realized that Acton was, culturally speaking, a long way from Lowell.

“Damn . . . his New England,” Kerouac would write. Soon after Creeley read Kerouac’s novel Doctor Sax, which is set in Lowell, he remembered the city he knew as a boy. ”I used to go to Lowell once a year to buy a suit,” he told Kerouac in a letter and added, “You were the kids I never saw!” Creeley was the boy in the suit; Kerouac the kid in denim.

In his very fine book The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Michael Davidson complains that Beat writing “has been valued for extraliterary qualities.” Indeed, books about the Beats often indulge in Beat trivia and avoid discussion of the form, style, and language of Beat novels and poetry, though for Beat fans there is no such thing as trivia. For the most part, Davidson adheres to literary topics. Occasionally, he veers away from them and discusses “the Eisenhower doldrums” and “contemporary American life.”

In fact, distinctions between the literary and the “extraliterary” break down with the Beats and Black Mountain, as Martin Duberman makes clear in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Duberman goes back and forth from books to marriages, children, personal relationships, and the social fabric at Black Mountain College, which informed both the teaching and the writing.

“The competition for the few women was rough,” Duberman writes; “There was a hierarchy in the community.” Like the world of the Beats, the world of Black Mountain was dominated by men. Denise Levertov was one of the few women at the college and in the pages of Black Mountain Review, which Kerouac referred to as “BMR.” There was also a pecking order when Beats and Black Mountain writers, including Kerouac and Creeley, got together, with rivalries and name calling on both sides. Robert Duncan resented what he saw as Ginsberg’s arrogance; Gregory Corso targeted what he felt was the Black Mountain literary mafia.

Creeley knew about Kerouac before Kerouac knew about Creeley; he admired Kerouac’s work and was eager to publish it in BMR. Kerouac, who was rarely published between 1951 and 1956, was delighted, and offered Creeley and Duncan a small part of his story, “October in the Railroad Earth”—which would be published in 1960 in Lonesome Traveler, a collection of prose pieces, under a slightly different title, “The Railroad Earth.” There it ran to 46 pages in a 183-page paperback.

Creeley and Kerouac were an odd couple, indeed, as their letters to one another attest, and as Kerouac’s letters to his friends corroborate. Yes, they came from the same part of Massachusetts and belonged to the same generation, but Kerouac was working class and Catholic with a deeply ingrained sense of suffering, redemption, and resurrection. Creeley was Protestant and middle class and eager to leave his background and to venture into uncharted waters that would take him to the sensual, the body, and to a view of human beings that went far beyond the New England Puritanism of his ancestors.

Creeley and Kerouac would both come to realize the social and economic divisions between them. Creeley came to see Kerouac as The Other, while Kerouac would regard Creeley as a kind of square who didn’t dig jazz as he did.

Kerouac’s father was a printer. His mother worked in a shoe factory. Creeley’s father, who died when Robert was four, had been a doctor. His mother worked as a nurse to support the family. Kerouac’s parents came from French-speaking Canada. Like Creeley, he suffered an early emotional loss: the death of his older brother, whom he would write about in the novel, Visions of Gerard. Visions counted greatly for Kerouac, along with the blues, haikus, and myths. Creeley was more domestic and everyday, akin to Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, while Kerouac turned to Melville, Dostoevsky, Jack London, and Thomas Wolfe. Surprisingly, Creeley wrote a long enthusiastic essay about Walt Whitman’s poetry in which he quoted Dickinson, John Ashbery, and Gregory Corso, and argued that Whitman’s late poems were magisterial.

Creeley and Kerouac lived through and were shaped by the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the nuclear age that was born in 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kerouac had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but had found himself unsuited for military life. He was honorably discharged with a diagnosis of “schizoid personality,” which he seemed to accept. In lieu of military duty, Creeley joined the American Field Service and spent two years, 1944-1945, in Asia.

More so than Kerouac, Creeley had a keen sense of the shifts in the zeitgeist and an ability to summarize them. “The forties were a hostile time for the writers,” he explained in his introduction to The New Writing in the USA (1967). “The colleges and universities were dominant…poems were equivalent to cars.” Kerouac had a similar perspective on the post World War II era, though he looked at prisons and hospitals, not at colleges and universities, to take the pulse of the nation. “The Beat characters after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouse, or were shamed into silent conformity,” he wrote in his 1957 essay “About the Beat Generation.”

Creeley and Kerouac had both enrolled at Ivy League colleges—Creeley at Harvard, where he studied with F.O. Matthiessen and adopted some of his intellectual rigor before dropping out; Kerouac enrolled at Columbia, where he played football briefly and later mythologized his athleticism. At the New School, he took Alfred Kazin’s class on the American novel and asked Kazin to help him find a publisher for his work. He didn’t want to teach Melville, as Kazin did, but be Melville. “I’ve invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike breathless swift spontaneous,” he told Kazin in 1954.

Creeley and Kerouac both married early and were divorced by the time they met in 1956. Kerouac had a daughter, though he refused to accept her as his child or help support her. By 1956, Creeley had two sons and a daughter who had grown up with him and their mother, Ann MacKinnon—Creeley’s first wife— and who traveled with their parents. Creeley could be as myopic as Kerouac about women. In 1956, after a divorce from MacKinnon, he wrote to a friend to say he had a new wife, though he didn’t mention her name until the friend inquired. Only then did he say her name was Bobbie.

Like Kerouac, Creeley was often on the road and not just in the U.S—he went as far as Southeast Asia, and to France and Mallorca, where he founded Divers Press—and then to Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he edited BMR, which often included work by students and members of the faculty. By 1956, Creeley had a book of short stories to his name and four books of poetry, all under the imprint of small presses, while major publishing houses put Kerouac’s fiction into print. Still, as Ginsberg noted in February 1955, “you’re legendary already without having published.”

Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1950), introduced the concept of “Beat,” along with a cast of Beat characters and the theme of the road, though not the style that would come to define his work. In 1955, New World Writing #7 published his fiction piece “Jazz of the Beat Generation” under the name Jean-Louis; it was widely read and served as a kind of teaser for On the Road, which came out two years later from Viking. A note from the publisher that accompanied “Jazz of the Beat Generation” read, “This selection is from a novel-in-progress, THE BEAT GENERATION. Jean-Louis is the pseudonym of a young American writer of French-Canadian parentage.”

In The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Davidson makes two significant claims: that Creeley had much in common with the Beats; and that male bonding was Kerouac’s main theme. What Davidson doesn’t point out is that real human beings— Kerouac himself, along with Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, and others— inspired Kerouac’s fictional characters.

Art and life blend and bleed into one another in the Legend of Dulouz, the series of fourteen interconnected novels that begins chronologically with Visions of Gerard and ends with Satori in Paris, and that cover the life of the protagonist who goes by a variety of names, including “Smith” and “Paradise.” When Kerouac writes, “I first met Dean,” he was drawing on his own personal experience and simultaneously creating a fictitious persona.

As Creeley noted in an essay published by Le Roi Jones and Diane di Prima in their Beat inflected journal Yugen, the “I” and the “self,” rather than the “we” and the “they” were “a mark of the new poetry” of the 1950s. He added, “And that’s a good thing.” No American poets and novelist in the second half of the twentieth-century perfected the use of the “I” and were more versatile when writing about “the self” than the Beats, though Saul Bellow also used the first person pronoun to great effect in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).

When Creeley wrote “Jack’s Blues,” he was thinking about Kerouac and mimicking Kerouac. He began the poem, “I’m going to roll up a monkey”—with monkey as code for marijuana cigarette. The 16-line poem in four stanzas borrows from Beat idioms and reflects some of Kerouac’s marijuana experiences, but the lines and the stanza are too neat and tidy on the page to be Kerouac.

In the untitled poem that begins “If there is such a thing as fact/it is possessed by happy Jack Kerouac,” Creeley wrote about Kerouac, but “Happy Jack Kerouac” is a misnomer. Creeley wanted Kerouac to be happier than he was. As Kerouac noted, Creeley certainly needed to get out from under his own sadness.

If Kerouac’s novels are about male bonding, as Davidson writes, they’re also about the displeasures and dissolutions of male bonding, which mirror the disintegration of the author’s real life friendships. With Creeley and Kerouac the bonding was almost instantaneous, while the break-up was quicker than with Kerouac and Neal Cassady, for example, who went their separate ways, and prefigured the ending of On the Road, where Sal Paradise leaves Dean Moriarty behind and rides in a Cadillac to Carnegie Hall to hear Duke Ellington perform.

Creeley found the ending of the On the Road especially powerful. “The fade off on Neal is very moving,” he wrote. “He just stands there as one moves out—it hurts to read it.” Curiously, Kerouac never described his bonding, and its opposite, with Creeley, not in The Dharma Bums (1958) or in Desolation Angels (1965), the two books that cover the mid-1950s. Kerouac already had enough male bonding to last a lifetime when he met Creeley in the spring of 1956, that unique moment of cultural ferment that provided the backdrop to the strange time they shared and that had a far more lasting impact on Creeley than on Kerouac.

After Kerouac separated from Creeley, he moved to the East Coast, witnessed the publication of On the Road (1957), leapt into the writing and the publication of The Dharma Bums (1958) and then the recording and the release of three LPs, one with Steve Allen on the piano and another with Zoot Sims and Al Cohen on saxophones that was called Blues and Haikus (1959). Kerouac was eager to let go of the time he spent with Creeley, though he would dredge up unhappy memories and share them with friends, including Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen. To Snyder he wrote, “I don't prize him like I do you because he starts fights.” He added, “I’m afraid of him.” To Whalen, he exclaimed, “damned Creeley got me smoking again in Marin in 1956. Damn him and his beard and his New England.” He was good at blaming others and not taking responsibility for his own actions and habits.

In the early 1960s, when Creeley invited Kerouac to visit, Jack begged off. In 1962, Creeley wrote from Albuquerque, New Mexico to say, “I wish you could get here.” Kerouac replied politely a month later, “Certainly I would love to see you, but I havent [sic] any way of stopping off at Albuquerque.” He added, “I’m expected in Paris by my old buddy Burroughs.” Creeley sent Kerouac invitations on other occasions and Kerouac found reasons not to accept them. For a time, he was worried that Creeley thought that he had sold out, which wasn’t a far-fetched conclusion. Creeley had written to say, “I like you being famous. You make money, you hear.” Kerouac wrote to Whalen to say, apropos Creeley, “I thought he thought I was ‘commercial.’” Commercial success and fame was forbidden in both Beat and Black Mountain circles, though Ginsberg would go on to enjoy both.

Not surprisingly, Kerouac set condition for meeting Creeley. “If we go driving let me do the driving,” he insisted, though he added, “I don’t even drive, myself.” Kerouac also distanced himself from Creeley’s work, and from Creeley’s identity as a writer. He told Donald Allen, who edited The New American Poetry and included work by Kerouac and Creeley, that Creeley was a “very strange writer.” On the subject of Creeley’s seventh book of poetry, For Love, Kerouac noted, “there’s not enough swing in it.”

Kerouac never offered Creeley criticism of his work in any letter he wrote and sent, nor did he say anything negative to Creeley about their time together in 1956. In his letters to Kerouac, Creeley only offered glowing remarks about Big Sur, which he described as “a completely articulate, human and beautiful thing,” and about On the Road as “a beautiful solid & completely heart-open thing.”

Why Creeley and Kerouac never reunited again after their time together in 1956 is a mystery, though clues abound. From the beginning there was a sense that a lasting friendship between them was not to be. Ginsberg arranged for the initial rendezvous, which occurred at “The Place,” a bohemian bar in North Beach that was managed by two Black Mountain College alumni, Knute Stiles and Leo Krikorian.

Kerouac arrived before Creeley arrived and took a seat at the back of the room, eager to meet the author that Duncan told him had “written a thousand pages in which the only apparent physical action was a neon sign over the storefront flashing on and off.” That was an exaggeration, though the story impressed Creeley, who entered The Place with Ed and Helena Dorn not knowing what Kerouac looked like. Ginsberg hadn't bothered to describe him. Creeley and the Dorns “waited, peering about to try to figure out which one of the others was Kerouac.”

Creeley kept looking at a man who was “sitting up against the back wall . . . seeming alone, sort of musing,” though he didn’t approach him. Shyness stared at shyness. When Ginsberg arrived, he asked Creeley if he had seen Jack. “No,” Creeley said. “There he is,” Ginsberg replied and pointed to the musing man at the back of the room. Ginsberg added, “He’s sittin’ right over there.” Kerouac had been drinking and was “comatose.” Later, at the apartment Kerouac shared with the writer and petty criminal Al Sublette, “Jack passed out on a bed,” Creeley remembered. When Creeley woke Kerouac, he stared at Creeley who felt, he said, ”like a didactic idiot.” Creeley noted that there was “little conversation that night, unhappily.”

In San Francisco that spring, Kerouac and Creeley had limited time for conversation; they were often in a crowd, surrounded by noise and music. “Weird things going on around here,” Kerouac wrote and added, “Allen Ginsberg is famous in San Francisco.” It was seven months after Ginsberg performed parts of Howl at the 6 Gallery, where Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure also read. McClure read some of his own work and some of Creeley’s poems. Kenneth Rexroth served as the lively MC.

The evening belonged largely to Ginsberg not to Kerouac, who had ambivalent feelings about Ginsberg’s newfound glory and fame. When Ginsberg introduced Kerouac to people they would ask, “Who’s this?” Kerouac told John Clellon Holmes that Ginsberg was “a great saint concealed in a veneer of daemonism.” [sic] Aside from the Place and the Cellar, (and cafes and parks, where Ginsberg read from Howl), the main gathering space for the poets was the home of Kenneth and Marthe Rexroth, where Creeley fell in love instantly with Marthe.

Kerouac broke the news about them to John Clellon Holmes and also to Snyder, explaining that Kenneth blamed him, Kerouac, for his “domestic troubles.” Ginsberg also wrote Snyder to say that Kenneth was “flipping out,” “threatening” to commit suicide and predicting that Marthe would take her own life. Kenneth remembered the death of Natalie Jackson, a young woman from New Jersey, who was part of the Beat inner circle in San Francisco. In December 1955, Rexroth told Ginsberg, “He’s not going to make a Natalie of my wife.” According to Kerouac, Creeley read his work “nervously before a disapproving audience of women because Kenneth Rexroth’s wife is going to run away with him somewhere.”

Even before Creeley arrived in San Francisco and began his relationship with Marthe, there was bitterness on Rexroth’s part about BMR and its editor. Rexroth had been a contributing editor to BMR. He resigned to protest what he regarded as “attacks” on Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke. Creeley didn’t apologize. He also published Michael Rumaker’s negative review of Howl, which contained comments about Kerouac that could be construed as snide; Black Mountain faculty members were not all of one mind about the Beats in the mid-1950s.

Creeley genuinely cared for Marthe and she genuinely cared for him. Briefly, they considered marriage and a new life together in New Mexico. Aside from her bed, which she shared with Creeley while Rexroth was out of town, Marthe gave Creeley a typewriter. He hire himself out as a typist and also typed a stencil of Ginsberg’s Howl, which was then used to make mimeographed copies of the poem that the poet used at readings until Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in the Pocket Poets series.

In New Mexico, in the summer and fall of 1956, Creeley looked back at his relationship with Marthe. “It’s god knows lonely, and I hate the failure of it,” he wrote to Kerouac, who served as a kind of confidant whether he wanted to or not. Creeley noted wistfully that he and Marthe “very nearly married.” He added, “It was very great no matter” and ended the letter, as he so often did, “My love to you.” He sent love to almost everyone with whom he corresponded, including William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. Kerouac would sign his letters with more than a dozen different names, including John Kerouac, John, Jack, Jacky, Jaqui, Jaqui Keracky, St. Jean Lavesque, Zagg and Zaggo. It's no wonder that in his introduction to Book of Dreams, Creeley wrote insightfully that Kerouac was “the many in one,” and that “the ‘Jack’ I found in this book was not a consistent or necessarily integrated presence.” His up close, intimate time with Kerouac helped him reach those conclusions.

After Kerouac and Creeley caroused in San Francisco—after the brawling and the parties and the ruckus with Rexroth—they migrated to Mill Valley in Marin County. In May 1956, Creeley had the rare opportunity to watch Kerouac at work as a writer. Years later, he related his impressions to Nicosia, who included Creeley’s comments in his biography Memory Babe, published 14 years after Kerouac’s death.

Kerouac had the “ability,” Creeley remembered, “to translate immediate sensation into immediately actual language.” Drawing on his interviews, Nicosia explained that Creeley observed Kerouac “not figuring out how to get it down in writing but virtually writing it in his head, so that the actual putting down of words on paper was but a mechanical extension of the process. Often he’d grab his notebook and do just that.”

Still, Kerouac’s techniques were mostly not “mechanical” but rather organic and fluid—sometimes surrealistic and dream-like, as Creeley would explain years later in his Introduction to Kerouac’s Book of Dreams in which he recalled the time he spent with Jack in Mill Valley and at a farewell party for Snyder, who was going to Japan. In that Introduction, Creeley wrote that Kerouac loved “the muffling, displacing edge between consciousness, as it’s called, and the dream-filled sleep one leaves to come back to it.” He did know Jack.

There was something unfinished about the relationship between Kerouac and Creeley in large part because Kerouac never communicated his feelings. “Submissive to everything, open, listening,” he advised writers but didn’t follow though, much as he didn’t live up to his suggestion, “Try not to get drunk outside yr [sic] own house.”

Ginsberg scolded Kerouac on more than one occasion, and had opportunities for communication denied Creeley. After he attended the Vancouver Poetry Festival in 1963—along with Creeley, Levertov, Olson, and Duncan— he wrote to Kerouac, who avoided the event, to say, “You put me under a spell for years.” Under that spell, he explained, he was unable to express to Kerouac his hurt feelings. Now in 1963, he finally said that he didn’t like it that Kerouac called him repeatedly “a hairy loss,” though he also admitted that the comment helped to dislodge him from “his high head.” Ginsberg added, “You coulda saved me faster by calling me tender heart, honey.”

Kerouac rarely if ever called any of his friends “tender heart, honey.” His own sense of loss, especially the loss and the pain associated with the death of his older brother Gerard, impacted his relationships in adulthood with Ginsberg, Cassady, Snyder, and Creeley. Having lost Gerard, he was wary of intimacy and loss. Still, he expressed his pain in novels and poetry such as Mexico City Blues. In the “241st Chorus,” the next to the last in the book, Kerouac wrote, “Charlie Parker, forgive me . . . / Charley Parker, pray for me— / Pray for me and everybody.” In that poem, Kerouac refers to Catholicism, turns Parker into a jazz saint, and begs for absolution.

Like Kerouac, Creeley wrote poems for his culture heroes, among them D. H. Lawrence. Creeley’s meditation on the English novelist and poet, titled “Poem for D.H. Lawrence,” is as much about himself as it is about Lawrence. It derives much of its force from the image of “the figure by the window,” which is repeated five times, along with the phrase “In the beginning,” which provides an echo of Genesis and lends the poem a Biblical solemnity.

The spirit, rather than the letter, of Christianity informs both Creeley’s meditation on Lawrence and Kerouac’s ode to Parker, though Buddhism also lies behind Kerouac’s work. Indeed, it’s “Nirvana” he wanted.

Kerouac and Creeley will always be linked with one another, if only because they’re both in Donald Allen’s 1960 landmark anthology, The New American Poetry, though they were also uncomfortable with the kind of geographical designations and discrimination that inform the book.

Creeley spoke for himself and for Kerouac in his review of the “San Francisco Scene” for Evergreen Review—which included work by Duncan, Rumaker, Rexroth, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. There was “a danger in promoting geographical relationships,” Creeley noted; “They are rarely significant, and add somewhat specious labels to writers who have troubles enough.” Troubles and joys touched both Kerouac and Creeley. They both transcended geographical boundaries, even as they remained in separate worlds, neither willing to take the other’s road, though they occupied the same time and the same place in the spring of 1956.


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Charters, Ann. Ed., with an introduction and commentary by. Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac, 1940-1956. New York: Viking, 1995.

Charters, Ann, Ed. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Viking: New York, 1995.

Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.

Hyde, Lewis. Ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1984.

Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove, 1959.

Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveler. New York: Grove, 1960.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac: New York: Grove, 1983.

Morgan, Bill. Ed. Deliberate Prose, Allen Ginsberg Selected Essays 1952-1995. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Morgan, Bill & David Stanford. Eds. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. New York: Viking, 2010.

Morgan, Bill, ed. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009.

Rosset, Barney and Donald Allen. Evergreen Review, vol. 1, no. 2. New York: Grove, 1957.

Smith, Rod, and Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris. The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: University of California, 2014.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

A Body of Work: The Tour

by Don Cummings

Good thing I came down with the flu. My shepherd into the publishing world, Lisa, and her husband, Vito, came to Los Angeles for a visit. We were on our way to Cambria, a small town four hours’ drive north, and we stopped in Buellton at Industrial Eats for lunch. As we were finishing up, I knew something terrible was happening at a cellular level; by the time we arrived at our Airbnb, I was an unhealthy disaster. The disease lasted three weeks.

But I lost weight—tons of it. So instead of having to get on our new elliptical machine in the garage, I just had to get better. And I did. Ready for my book launch, my cheekbones cut back into existence, I could show off my bio-bag without too much embarrassment. I learned, however, how quickly weight can return, especially when eating at overly-rich restaurants and drinking a bit too much to deaden the anxiety of having to talk to too many people. I also learned it’s never a good idea to be over fifty on your first book tour—even if you still have a little hair on your head.

I wrote a memoir about my penis, the part of my body that was suffering from Peyronie’s disease, entitled Bent But Not Broken; my aim was to discover my emotional relationship with my body, my husband, and some of mankind. I was sort of happy to go on the road to read out loud. Memories from when I was young, thin, and handsome reminded me that it was a joy to parade in front of people. But now? Why on earth was I leaving the house when unwanted pounds can boomerang back so quickly? Writers are introverts, and by brutal will I had become one just like the rest of them; happy to be peacefully sitting at my desk in sloppy drawstring pants, I loved not being looked at by anyone.

It took a while for me to get here. Jayne, a writer I knew when I used to be an actor and had a side job in a production office as an accountant, was once a performer, and was ten years older than me. She mostly ate raw vegetables at her desk to keep her figure. I was young enough to eat enormous plates of enchiladas and still come out the other side attractive, so being a writer like Jayne, especially one in the middle of middle age, looked like torture. I could never survive on carrots. But I was sure that if I were ever to become a full-time writer, I would still be someone you would want to look at—I did not believe growing round and unappealing could ever happen to me. Ah, youth. Even worse, there was no way of guessing that I would end up with a condition that would hack away at my lovely penis, and thereby my self-esteem. Good thing the future can’t tell you what’s in store for you.

With my memoir I was happy to help the world, “one penis at a time,” but I did want to look good doing it. Ten years ago, I had a reading of one of my plays presented at the Public Theater in New York City, and the lineup included Meryl Streep. It came off well and my play was optioned for Broadway. I was being ogled by the entire commercial and not-for-profit theater community of that noisy city, and though I felt insecure, I also felt safe beneath my powder blue, not-too-tight DKNY shirt and my black chinos. All I could think of after that night when things were rollercoaster-ing along was, “At least I looked good.” And I did, though it was probably the last time I looked good in public. Three years later, I stained the shirt with tomato sauce too strong for any stain remover, but no matter, I was too fat to wear it anyway, so I threw it out. And the play that was optioned—well, let me know if you ever see it playing anywhere.

Maybe it should be considered a triumph to appear in public as one continues to look worse and worse. My Great Aunt Rose appeared at my Great Aunt Helen’s eightieth birthday party in a peach pants suit hugging every curved bit of her—but somehow, she was able to hide the lump of her colostomy bag. Perhaps it was there and we just couldn’t see it because our eyes were watering from the liters of cologne she had dowsed herself in so no one could smell her effluent. We’ll never know. But she was defiant while vulnerable: Aunt Helen told her not to wear that outfit, and yet she persisted. I have no one warning me about bad peach pants, but I don’t need outside help to put on the sartorial breaks. I know my body should be hidden, so in shame I drape my sagging, bent corpulence.

Perhaps it’s from the wine. Or the pork chops. The sitting. The aging. Of course, it’s caused by all of these and more. Drinking makes me puffy. Pork chops make me want more pork chops. Sitting hunches my back. And aging, well, as Philip Roth warned, “It’s not a battle, it’s a massacre.”

I still can’t live on carrots. I’m only half a drunk. I have to sit to write because standing makes me want to organize drawers, and I’d rather procrastinate in a more relaxed manner. And aging, I simply can’t help it much. I wanted to help others, publicly if necessary, by informing them about Peyronie’s disease—to make sure they get to a urologist to treat their penises as soon as possible, and to teach them how to deal with the psychological torment of diminishing sexual function—but like the event at the Public Theater, I wanted the safety of looking good while doing it.

No such luck. My neck was sagging at the Los Angeles launch party at Skylight Books. In New York, the venue was so hot I had to strip off my outer layer and present my material in a gut-hugging T-shirt the color of earthworms in spring puddles, showing the world just how thick I am. In Minneapolis, in a subterranean bar, it was cold and dark so I was luckily hidden under long sleeve denim, but certainly not anything special to look at. I wore a black T-shirt under my button-down, so when I had to strip down—because it got hot in there, too, under the lights—I wasn’t as disgusting to behold as I had been in New York, but old men in black T-shirts look like old men in black T-shirts.

Back in California now, I have an event coming up in Santa Barbara, and I am starving myself. Have you ever been to Santa Barbara? All the people there hike twenty miles every day when they’re not surfing, and everyone is wealthy—at least everyone who will be at my event will be—and the rich tend not to be obese. And these books only net me between two and four dollars per unit! I can’t make enough money to save up for a fat farm. I could beg my wealthy cousin, who is flying in on her private jet for the event, but she would just wisely tell me to do what she does in order to look so good: train for marathons.

I just can’t. I hate running. It makes me nauseous and hungry. They say that every author now has to be their own brand, that we are in business for ourselves, that we must market not only our work but our personas. This is the failed actor’s nightmare. Happy to forget all my lines, I left the stage and screen long ago so I would no longer have to be watched as I bloat, wheeze, and drip into senescence. But hams will be hams, just in new cans. Fate insists upon it. Oink.

Can’t I just finish my next book and have my agent pull up to the side of my house so I can toss the manuscript over the wall for her to whisk it off to New York without anyone seeing me? I mean, should writers really be watched? And knowing that we will be looked at, doesn’t this, perhaps, change how we write? The presentation of the less-than-perfect-decaying-self demands some kind of self-deprecation. Knowing this, perhaps our work suffers. It can be forced into a kind of Nora Ephron style, the hating of the neck and all that.

Or maybe Ms. Ephron was simply presenting the absolute truth of writers from antiquity to the present, and her tone is the tone of writers for all time. We all really do hate our necks. But let’s forget that vengeful part of the body. Wasn’t this all about my penis anyway? Such a relief. At least that’s something we don’t have to look at it in public—for the most part.

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Practice Dying

Rachel Stolzman Gullo
Bink Books ($13.95)

by Andrew Draper

In the late 1980s, a young boy from the Upper West Side walks into the 92nd Street Y and meets the Dalai Lama, setting in motion a lifelong spiritual journey. Twenty years later, a young woman browsing the stacks of the Strand has a “meet cute” with an expatriate chef from India, who is taking a year to work in NYC for reasons that are initially hidden from her, and from the reader. These two encounters instigate the plot of Rachel Stolzman Gullo’s latest novel, Practice Dying, and they illustrate the way various forces (religious, political, cultural, economic) intersect, bringing people into collisions or convergences that shape their lives. The novel gets its momentum from people moving from their centers, with all their confusions and contradictions, but its depth is found in the awareness that our movements are shaped by forces larger than ourselves. It’s a delicate balance, but Gullo finds it, and with it the pleasures of a story where the characters have meaningful choices within a matrix of connectedness.

Practice Dying is about a pair of twins: David and Jamila. The first chapter is narrated by Jamila, just turning thirty, who works at a center for pregnant and parenting teens. With the next chapter, we transition to the point of view of David, who separated from the family somewhat dramatically as a teenager when he became a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and a disciple of the Dalai Lama. As Jamila has a crisis of alienation, precipitated by a brief but passionate relationship with Salam, the chef, David is having his own crisis: sent away by the Dalai Lama to study in Tibet, he has arrived in Sichuan only to ignore his leader’s instructions, derailed by a desire for connection with a man who will not connect with him. The chapters continue to alternate the point of view. For the first third, whatever happens in New York City belongs to Jamila, and whatever happens in Tibet belongs to David. Once the twins are reunited and their lives begin to overlap, there are times when we see events that center around David from Jamila’s perspective and vice versa. It’s a structure that marries the predictable and the unpredictable nicely.

Gullo builds a story that explores the challenges of cultivating a life of wholeness when the only materials at hand, those we inherit from this world, are inevitably incomplete. This might mean trying to forge romantic and sexual intimacy with another person when our understanding of them is always partial, marked by fault lines and gaps. It might mean trying to follow a religious path, in which both the self and the tradition shaping it are subject to revised understandings. It’s fitting, then, that the novel is structured as a braid of two distinct but related narratives that are incomplete by themselves but together form a satisfying whole.

As Gullo has fictionalized him in Practice Dying, the Dalai Lama leads one to new places without any overbearing direction or coercive strong-arming. This seems to be true of Gullo as a writer as well. In both Practice Dying and her earlier novel, The Sign for Drowning, Gullo strives to communicate in a way that is never obscure but also free from tedious over-explanation; she is always opening up possibilities for understanding rather than closing them off. Clarity is paramount. In The Sign for Drowning, the narrator muses, “How do you tame or whittle or lure one memory into telling the truth? Show me how to look at a child without seeing another child, or its mother, or the place where she came from.” These words would make an equally good mission statement for Practice Dying, a novel that strives to see each person for who they are and the worlds they carry with them.

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Time For Bed

Wendy Rawlings
Louisiana State University Press ($24.95)

by Hugh Sheehy

For many readers, the title of Wendy Rawlings’s new story collection will conjure contradictory sensations. Time for Bed calls to mind the dark and impenetrable wall at the end of a child’s day as well as the start of the brief reprieve parents have once the little ones are down for the night. It signals the relief of putting off one’s responsibilities until tomorrow as much as the sometimes-overlooked importance of scheduling in one’s circadian rhythms. It reminds us that we spend about a third of life in a state sufficiently deathlike, that sleeping is an activity that can be done only through surrender, and that in dreaming we live second, secondary lives only a little less unknown to us than to those intimates we deign, from time to time, to tell about them.

It is appropriate then that the stories in this collection offer such a rich study in powerful contradictions. Grief brings with it the pleasures of remembering, and it is heightened by the pleasure of connecting with others who grieve. A sense of repulsion can be a helpful companion to lust. Eating is most satisfying when the hunger that drives it hurts. The best laughter is slightly horrified. And so on.

These are themes often located in the territory of lyrical fiction. As everybody knows, “lyrical fiction” is a way of saying “fiction written in poetic sentences”; as we don’t say often enough, it also means a kind of writing aimed at creating the effect of resonance or longing. Rawlings has been established now as a lyrical writer for some time. Her previous books Come Back Irish and The Agnostics evince a devotion to the clear image and the sharp line, and they evoke a profound regard for the poignancy of living and dying. Reading these books, it can be tempting to associate Rawlings with the larger project of lyrical realism.

In Time for Bed, however, Rawlings moves in a new direction even as she relies on her considerable strengths as a crafter of sentences and images and moments. She does this by writing in comic, satiric, and even absurdist modes, which are kinds of writing that work through the production of dissonant effects. The result of this formal experimentation—of mixing the lyrical with the dissonant—is the creation of uncanny or ambiguous textures that feel true to the experience of living in 21st-century America.

At their best, these volatile cocktails deliver stories that recall the fiction of Anton Chekhov. In “Restraint,” a young law student gives herself to her passionate desire for a Vietnam veteran “older than her father,” a desire she acknowledges “is not simple”; her lust for his aged yet virile body is rooted in his identity and history as a killer. At one point, she fantasizes about him murdering her and disposing of the evidence. Later, the protagonist observes—both ironically and soberly—that “her labia are swelling over a relic.” From a lesser writer, these details would give way to gimmickry, and the story would devolve into an obnoxious exercise in erotic rubbernecking. For Rawlings, though, these features turn up and slip away in the wave of overwhelming love that carries these characters to the story’s closing pages, which manage to be beautiful, hilarious, ironic, and tragic.

Rawlings’s ability to mix the lyrical with the comic and satirical serves her exceptionally well when she writes about love and desire, and she’s able to explore the ways they simultaneously cause pleasure and pain at a variety of levels. In “Tics,” narrated from the point of view of a young woman who’s having an affair with her seventeen-year-old stepbrother, the agony of romantic experience plays out entirely in the narrator’s conflicted voice:

After we eat, we make love in the shower, where he soaps my shoulders and breasts and between my legs. “You have a nice body,” he says, as if this is a fact he’s simply reporting. No man has ever told me I have a nice body. The sex has turned me inside out, sex with a seventeen-year-old more tender and honest than sex with men my own age or even men much older. The man I dated most recently, a classical composer, was too caught up in his work to pay much attention to me. I realize Glen can give me his attention because his only responsibility is high school, which he hates.

In the collection’s most ambitious stories, Rawlings takes on absurdist conceits, raising difficult formal and aesthetic questions as she works to deliver the satisfactions readers expect from short stories. In these instances, the endings function less like conventional resolutions than like punchlines that provoke a reader to think. “BodSwapTM with Moses” posits a world where overweight white Americans rent the fitter bodies of people of color from poorer parts of the world. There are obvious risks here, and the destabilizing results of Rawlings’s frank narration are as incisive as they are surprisingly sweet. In “Again,” a young woman literally reenters her mother’s womb, not for any of the trite reasons the dime-store psychoanalyst in each of us reaches for automatically, but rather because she hopes to salve her boomer parents’ disappointments about the way their lives have turned out. In the end, her well-intended gesture simply manifests what younger readers will recognize as their everyday anxiety.

Fiction, and especially the short story, can respond to the feelings of distortion and emptiness that haunt so much of modern life. What can fiction tell us about an America where a significant chunk of the population has grown hateful and disgruntled despite enjoying the most luxurious standards of living the world has seen? How can we write or speak about beauty in a culture that often delights in its own absurdity and ugliness? I am not sure we can hope to do better than Naomi, the devastated and disoriented protagonist of “Coffins for Kids!,” who travels to the NRA headquarters after a mass shooter kills her third-grader and finds that her tragic story only reinforces the beliefs of the gun-lovers she meets. But maybe that is asking too much from art. In modern parlance, the phrase “preaching to the choir” suggests that attempts to communicate are futile, but the easy cynicism of this figure of speech disregards the temporal dimension of religious practice: The choir needs to hear the preacher (a truth not lost, incidentally, on those who fund and run the robust messaging apparatuses of American conservatism).

At any rate, the short story continues to supply companionship for the reader who seeks it. One would be well-rewarded to accept what Rawlings offers with Time for Bed.

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Mark Mayer
Bloomsbury Publishing ($26)

by Nick Hilbourn

The short stories in Mark Mayer’s Aerialists are epicenters of rituals and patterns. Characters ruggedly assemble themselves in the space of his stories, appropriating whatever matter is around to fill themselves out. In “The Wilderness Act,” for example, a lonely bachelor seeks to draw a lover back to his house through a weekly ritual that seems more akin to the consecration of a religious space: “He stacked firewood on a few sheets of newspaper by the stove and vacuumed the living room carpet till it stood tall; he cooked a soup or a curry, something aromatic, as if she would find her way by smell.” The lover never returns, but he doesn’t stop performing the ritual. The act of performing it is what matters the most. The meaning behind it is secondary.

This is something Mayer struggles with: how much should the writer compel his universe to convey clear and coherent meaning? “I try to remind myself it’s never my job,” he noted in an interview with The Paris Review, “to summarize or conceptualize experiences, neither my characters’ nor my readers’. If I feel like I really understand what an event means for them, then I’m probably not living it deeply, since it’s not like I go around fully understanding what the events of my life mean.” His stories have an earthy fullness to them as if they sprout in the moment they’re read: an ecosystem of narratives that don’t fit into the spaces carved out for them on the page. Yet, there is something beautiful and heartbreaking about the strange shapes they form. Mayer, who speaks without guile about craft discussion, admits “I start with whatever I’ve got, scrap materials . . . No stage of writing comes easily to me, and nothing that worked once necessarily works twice, so I’ll start with whatever I have.”

The stories in Mayer’s collection awkwardly brush up against each other, but no matter the content, they share a contempt for ending. In “Strongwoman,” Rico, a young son of divorce who has expressed exasperation with the hidden argot of relationships, watches in dismay an indecipherable exchange between his mother and an ex-lover/friend: “I could hear my mom, at the opposite edge of the house, cackling on her own phone . . . I let go and lay back on my bed and stared between my stupid stars. ‘I told you!’ my mom was roaring. ‘Too many is too many!’ I listened hard, but I couldn’t tell what she was laughing about.” The act of “letting go” is the conclusion Mayer’s characters come to, but the one thing they are unable to do. Instead, they create spaces where the antagonists of time and change do not exist. Rituals, patterns, and fantastical spaces and languages allow some control over the uncontrollable by briefly incapsulating it and reinterpreting it; letting go is not an issue when the world is contained within a static, insular frame. In “Solidarity Forever,” for example, mathematics becomes a higher form of understanding the everyday. A young boy draws geometric patterns to imprison the circumstances of his life so he can explain them and interpret them, while his uncle sits in the basement reducing world events to mathematical formulas. At the end of the story, both characters stand by the window of a seventh-story apartment, admitting failure but refusing change. The uncle implores his nephew to have children, to continue a pattern that will promise answers they both know are not coming.

In the title story, a young man on the verge of heading to the Navy helps a blind widow piece the town together using aerial photos. With the photos, time and change momentarily halt for him, but this illusion eventually falters, and time breaks through. There is no clean acceptance of this. Many characters, like Corbin, are reluctant to proceed at the end of the story: “‘Corbin, we gotta move it,’ [Mom]’s shouting. I stood right here with the garden hose . . . I wrapped it around my arm and held on as tight as I could . . . And when I couldn’t float up—when I just stood there, beating my heart, my feet stuck to wherever there was to lose—I still squeezed rubber in my fists. ‘Please,’ Mom’s shouting, ‘let’s go.’” Heartbreak comes with the bitter realization that rituals, despite their impotence, are the only item they can keep. The narrative becomes secondary to the religious will of its characters, which continues after the story’s denouement. As a result, Mayer’s stories layer over each other like palimpsests. Hope becomes an end in-itself and characters suspect what Michael Parsons realizes near the conclusion of “The Ringmaster”: that they are “small things in a world too vast to occupy.” Because occupation implies stasis and stasis is a kind of death, they look to an imagined future just out of reach.

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A Conversation between
Michelle Lewis and Jeffrey Morgan

After twenty-five years of publishing its print journal, Conduit Books & Ephemera launched a book publishing division in 2018. It did so with two book prizes for poetry: the Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize, judged by Bob Hicok, and the Minds On Fire Open Book Prize, judged by Conduit’s editorial board. In the following piece, the authors of the winning books, Michelle Lewis (for Animul/Flame, $16) and Jeffrey Morgan (for The Last Note Becomes Its Listener, $16), interview each other about the unique experiences that shaped their books and the challenges of translating inexpressible moments into language.

Michelle Lewis: Hi Jeff. First, a belated congratulations on winning the Minds On Fire Open Book Prize. I am thrilled about The Last Note Becomes Its Listener. It has given me enormous pleasure to read, and it has made me aware that you are a careful and immensely competent poem-maker. It is also a book that dives headlong into a certain kind of beauty (such a difficult word for a poet) that I am always chasing. I am so pleased to be your press-mate; it enhances my profile, among other things.

Jeffrey Morgan: Hi Michelle. Congratulations to you for an amazing book and for winning the Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize. Bob Hicok is a poetry hero of mine, so knowing he chose Animul/Flame predisposed me to an affection for it, which reading it only enhanced. The opacity that rewards, the traveling and returning, the running away and towards; I was transfixed and read it straight through quickly the first time. Like most good books, subsequently reading it again more slowly revealed myriad pleasures and intricacies of language, loss, and mystery.

ML: I appreciate the kind words. As for The Last Note Becomes Its Listener, as the title puts forth, this book is very much like a note resolving, and I realized as I was reading it that there is an integration being fought for within these poems. There are many opposing forces at play—illness and remedy, brother and brother, calmness and chaos, player and listener, among others. There is also a sense that the book is sipping from the well of the surreal, which occurs to me has been described as a “machine for integration” for how it places diverse elements in concert. We’ve talked a little offline about voice and tone in our work and it’s no accident that tone, a poetic concept that derives from music, is one of the driving forces of these poems as the poet struggles to find harmony among inimical elements. As that struggle becomes apparent to the reader, there is a surge of both joy and disquiet. I wonder if you could tell me what your musical heritage is and what dualisms you felt you were balancing in this book?

JM: Thanks for your thoughtful question. My brother and I grew up playing music. I play the cello and my brother is a violinist. Our mother is a violist and started us on instruments when we were both four. I learned to play music before I could read it (and before I could read anything, really), and I think that has informed my relationship to sound in poetry. The music of language is very important to me, but I also find that the kind of taut, dense syntax that I often enjoy in other people’s verse is not something I practice. I like to write in long lines and long phrasings, and I sort of shy away from pre-determined meters and syllabic compression.

In terms of the book’s dualisms, as you say, there’s the notion that I’m writing about my disabled brother coming to live with us (my wife, our daughter, and me), but, no, I’m really writing about myself. When my brother got encephalitis at eleven, he almost died. After he recovered, he was not the same person. Prior to that, we were remarkably similar, even from a physical perspective—to this day people often ask us if we’re twins, despite the fact that I’m almost seven years older. Music saved my brother because it was one of the only parts of his brain that wasn’t especially affected by his illness, brain scarring, and subsequent epilepsy. Being a violinist is a fundamental part of his identity. It’s also perhaps the only way we relate to each other that is more or less the same as it has always been. All the other dualisms that you mention (and certainly more) stem from there.

The other aspect of this worth mentioning is that my brother has very little short-term memory. If you’ve ever seen Christopher Nolan’s Memento, my brother is a bit like that. He’s often unable to access short-term memories due to scarring on his hippocampus. However, through repetition (as with music) he can turn short-term memory into long-term memory and access it. It’s an interesting situation to say the least, and some of the fundamental obsessions of a writer, memory and identity, are daily practical questions in our household.

ML: What a fascinating backstory to this book and to what informs your daily life, Jeff. Your poetic line and its relationship to music gives me the opportunity to mention how much I admire the formal aspects of your work: the phrasing, the avoidance of compression. The beginning of one of the “Translation” poems, for example, begins with a complex sentence structure, heavy with clauses:

What I love about St. Sebastian is not the colander

the arrows made of his body,

or how he is always shown riddled and tied

to a column, which I should be able to identify

as Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian—

possibly the most pedantic and predictable question

on any art history exam. No. What I love about St. Sebastian . . .

It’s very Shakespearean, and I don’t want to start up that comparison (will an alarm sound), but I keep thinking of the tautology of Polonius’ speeches, for example, and how they are knowing and witty and push seemingly too far on a concept and how that is an important part of his expression. I guess I mention that because as you allude to, that can be wanting in more disciplined forms.

On another note, I have some understanding of what it takes to have a person who has significant challenges in the family and I know that part of that experience is living simultaneously with the ridiculous and the heartbreaking. I see so much of this in your work. The speaker has an acute knowledge that he is a speck on a spinning rock, a natural defense mechanism to pain and chaos, and joins forces with the reader in the wonder of that. It makes so much sense that you would come by this quality honestly. I’m thinking of how these poems grapple with meaning in real time—is that tree a poplar or not (an interjection in one of your poems)? It creates the sense of a joint venture. It is very communal, very inside. For instance, when the speaker observes a breeze that “moves the glistening mane of a willow like jewels around the neck of a woman nodding off,” the joy of that metaphor is in its being stretched. It’s wise and cagey and knowing. I see the affinity with Hicok immediately, a poet that is similarly self-aware, whose poems address ordinary life but end up inevitably touching the sky.

JM: I’m very interested in voice in poetry. I think that accounts for the long lines and my resisting of compression in The Last Note Becomes Its Listener—I’m a long-winded guy. Of course, the voice is more stylized and philosophical than my own. I like the notion of soliloquy that you imply; I think that’s often what I’m trying to do when I write.

In terms of Animul/Flame, it strikes me that the book is at times almost an epistolary, one side of a conversation about loss that is sometimes direct address, sometimes not. There’s a quality of eavesdropping that I love because what’s true about good poems is their ability to precisely describe the unknowable. I’m wondering what you can tell me about the opacity and the rewards of the speaker’s shifting conversation. How did writing this book reveal itself to you, and how did you manage to make such a fractured thing cohere so well? I’m a bit in awe of the balance this book achieves.

ML: I’m glad you found there was an internal coherence to the book. You bring up some things that I struggled with a lot—like why Rivulet poems were alongside the Animul poems, for instance, and what some poems in the chronology had to do with the others. I knew intuitively what the connective tissue was, but to make those teeth sort of interlock for the reader meant doing some difficult work, some of which was external and some internal. Sometimes it meant making some clear assertions about those connections that were uncomfortable to make. Prior to this book, I had been giving myself a lot of linguistic escape hatches so I didn’t have to commit to a single truth—you could see it in my metaphors, even, which would often have two vehicles for one tenor. With some help and anguish, I got to a point where the opacity you mention was not obscurity—I can defend any line in the book, for example, which is significant for me.

Thinking of the book as an epistolary where sometimes there is someone on the other end and sometimes not seems like a very lovely way to think about the poems. It strikes me that returning over and over to that form of address was one way of plugging one of those escape hatches—something real must be expressed if you’re going to the lengths to put pen to paper and address some other.

It’s interesting you mention this sort of tensile strength that holds a book together and how to negotiate that balance—how much can that connective tissue be stretched until it feels light and airy enough to fit one’s sensibility but doesn’t shatter into pieces? It feels very related to the tension I sense in how you balance dualities in The Last Note Becomes Its Listener.

JM: I wonder if you might also talk about voice in your own work. The speaker in Animul/Flame has a self-awareness, almost as if trying to piece together a telling. In the title poem, you write:

I was Flame, a fig wasp hunched in her own
sky. Sunrise tasted of red gums and spittle.

I stood at the bars of night, kneed
the floor, thought that would dismantle it.

Like the recitation of a lot of good stories, there is a tension between trying to make the thing cohere and trying to relay its wildness. The good ones don’t quite obey the storyteller. The pronoun “it” weighs heavy there, perhaps a placeholder for what is not quite knowable or expressible that exists at the center of this story. How do you see the speaker and the speaking in this book, particularly in terms of what is ultimately inexpressible?

ML: I like “piece together a telling”—that summarizes the book accurately to me! The “I” has a journey in this book. I enjoyed playing with the idea of who the “I” is and what the “I’s” identity is, and then questioning that. The “I” is often labeled with being Flame, for example, and there are many characteristics about a flame you can choose from: it’s changeable, susceptible to currents, extinguishable, easily lost or subsumed. But I like to think that there is a reclaiming of the connotations of this label for this “I.” Things like persistence, of being a source, etc. Also, the “I” has truths that change, and I love that about poetry—that it allows the poet to make assertions and commit to them in the isolated moment of the poem.

The idea about speaking the inexpressible is something I was thinking about recently because I just took the Myers-Briggs personality test and found I was an INTJ. It was a little surprising that this is not the type associated with the poet/philosopher career path until I realized that is a fundamental misunderstanding of poetry making—that it is someone engaged in dreamily watching a butterfly. It is much more mathematical than that. The poet is dealing with formal concerns, the intersection of meter, lineation, tone—a lot of data; it’s perfect for data-brain. Anyway, to your point, one of the traits of that the INTJ is that they have trouble explaining concepts to people because they feel like if you can’t brain-meld with me on this concept, forget it, I can’t explain it to you in language. So they shut down, sometimes making communication difficult. That really struck me as a characteristic of mine, and I think that’s what writing poetry can be for me and probably many poets. It’s the result of a desire to zap a current through that complex, fraught, difficult stuff to create a more effective route to expression, one with different rules that will get your closer than the old rules can. Non-poetry readers find this kind of poetry confusing, whereas readers of contemporary poetry sink into it and get a flush of understanding.

In fact, I suspect one of the techniques you’re using to this end in your book is the “Translation” poems. There are thirteen poems titled “Translation.” In them, the poet serves as a type of portal to the ineffable or the misunderstood, or as a broker between the terrestrial world and a world beyond that. But some poems are the inverse, as well, where the poem can be a decoder ring for overwhelming, languageless moments. I love that this “translation” moves fluidly across this sort of blood-brain barrier. It provides such gorgeous, existential moments. What was your intention for these poems? What indicated to you that a poem was destined to be a “Translation” poem?

JM: Hmm, I don’t know what the Myers-Briggs personality test would have to say about a person who didn’t even know there were thirteen of the “Translation” poems in his book, but that’s me apparently. It now makes me think of them in a “thirteen ways of looking” sort of way. Despite my ignorance, I do actually have a theory/methodology for what became a “Translation.” I think of them as me retelling a memory through the lens of that memory’s questionable veracity (because all memory is sketchier than we like to admit), while at the same time acknowledging the memory’s importance in contributing to self-identity. In other words, the “Translation” poems are me puzzling through how I think about complicated aspects of memory and identity. Often they involve/star my brother, but they are not about him as I see it. Rather, they are about me trying to figure out a little bit of who I am. “Translation” as a title was something that came to me as a shorthand for all these things. Within the “Translation” poems I was also able to provide a narrative spine for the book as they function more or less chronologically (with some asides in there for good measure).

All of this reminds me that I want to ask about your “first book process.” First books are this thing that people always talk about in poetryland. Did you think of Animul/Flame in terms of it being a first book, or does that sort of thinking not enter into it? And as a follow up question, do you think of your poetry writing to come differently in the wake of this publication milestone? Do you have the urge to keep writing as you always have, or do you feel the urge to do something “different”? I’m very interested in these questions as I struggle with versions of them myself.

ML: I’m so glad to hear that about the “Translation” poems (you have an undiagnosed triskaidekamania!) and to now read those poems with this in mind. There is something so freeing about this idea of course correcting a memory—Emerson says, “Poets are liberating gods,” and these feel liberating. I can see that wonderful uncertainty, the recalibration, and the digressions that open up to questions. You write, “Thank goodness // for the very dark beers // that pour like night, smell of coal smoke // and once inside us smolder, the process // like a fire in reverse.” Thank goodness indeed!

To your question, at the point of writing Animul/Flame (I had no indication this would be a first book, nor that any of these poems would be published—this has all been a crazy dream for me), I very much felt I was disconnected—also released—from any kind of literary establishment or community; it was sort of like I was putting in the time, why not do it my way, I have nothing to lose. I let go of some of the old workshops saws I was steeped in for decades, stop wondering who might read these poems and what they would think. Then it materialized, and it certainly wasn’t a book until it was—slowly at first, and then all at once, I suppose. Then it had a life of its own. I have recently completed a new book that digs into some topics of class and family that feels similarly dangerous but in a different way, and it’s actually lyric prose with research woven in, so I guess, yes, I did have the urge to do something poetically different! The desire to leave the Animul/Flame characters behind at least in the forms they were in was very powerful.

Tell me about this in terms of your struggle, as you mention. I will say that I read Crying Shame, which came out from BlazeVox in 2011, with delight. That book has this most recent book’s DNA for sure. It also feels very much to me like The Last Note Becomes Its Listener took some of the pulp of Crying Shame and just wrung it out. The Last Note Becomes Its Listener is a very realized version of Crying Shame, I might argue. I can only admire and hope for a publishing trajectory like this, though I don’t know if that’s how you feel about it, especially in terms of what you are doing now.

JM: I’m sort of happily “project-less” at the moment. Both Crying Shame and The Last Note Becomes Its Listener just came from writing a lot of poems before understanding there was a direction. I’m generally more interested in writing a poem than writing a book of poetry, at least for a time. I do like writing personae poems. They can be a little risky in terms of subjectivity, who gets to speak for whom, etc., but I write them anyway, and there’s more or less a pile of them sitting around at this point. What’s recently been hard for me is getting out of writing “Translations” as a mode/process. I had the same problem with continuing to write letter poems after Crying Shame was published. I’m not sure why I should stop, but it feels like time to do something else. Probably it doesn’t matter. The poetry changes but the obsessions stay the same.

Your new manuscript sounds really interesting. Lyric prose with research, issues of class, etc. That sounds like it might be sympathetic with work by Mark Nowak, Brenda Coultas, C.S. Giscombe, and Alice Notley—four of my favorite writers. I’d love to hear more about that if you wouldn’t mind expounding a bit.

ML: Yes, you’re on my wavelength there, but I need to dive in to C.S. Giscombe, so thanks for that. The form for Spare, this new book, came in part from reading Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine; C.D. Wright was also a huge influence. It’s something I’m very excited about; it attempts to explore issues surrounding class and marginalized populations, as I mentioned, and struggles with personal/social accountability through the prism of my own slice of the world. There are formally diverse sections that layer and create a momentum that I hope works to speak to these complex themes in a way straight language that we have at our disposal cannot, to sort of bring it back to our initial discussion. I’m licking the envelope to send it to you right now—kidding! I know we have to wrap, but were there particular writers hanging over your shoulder when you wrote your book, or are there now, maybe more so now that you are not mono focused on a book project?

JM: Please, send me the manuscript! I would love to read it. Hmm, how to answer the anxiety of influence question. I think the honest answer to this question and the answer I want to give are slightly different, so I’m struggling with that. I’ll go with the truth. I’m currently most influenced/delighted by writers who have a persuasive voice in their work. Bob Hicok (who wisely chose your book for publication), Alice Notley, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Erica Hunt, and John Ashbery all come immediately to mind. But also, if I’m being honest, I tend to fall in love with individual poems. At the moment, my favorite John Ashbery poem is “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” It’s a silly poem that is also profound. I want to write poems like that, but if that’s not possible I just want to write poems.

ML: I want that for you and for the rest of us who can read them, Jeff! What a perfect way to end our conversation. I’m so pleased to have had the chance to learn more about your book and life. Congratulations again on this well-deserved prize.

JM: Congratulations to you too, Michelle. Animul/Flame is a fantastic debut! It’s such a pleasure to be your press-mate.

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Mea Roma:
A Meditative Sampling
from M. Valerius Martialis

M. Valerius Martialis
translated by Art Beck
Shearsman Books ($17)

by Paul Vangelisti

In a recent essay on translation, “The Latin Epigram: Brevity, Levity and Grief,” Art Beck suggests that what defines the Roman masters of the epigram is their remarkable blending of the aphoristic and the elegiac. He insists that the more ample range of feeling found in the shorter Latin poems is what sets them apart from the noteworthy English tradition of the 18th century epigram.

In Beck’s new Martial compilation, Mea Roma, this critical understanding of Roman elegiac verse couldn’t be more in evidence. The translator’s selection, as Beck writes in the preface to Mea Roma, “becomes in itself an aesthetic of translation,” presenting some 140 poems, of varying lengths (from two to twenty lines), out of a canon of nearly 1,500 short poems. Beck presents his selection bilingually—a vital feature of the book—to serve as a starting point for a reader unacquainted with this remarkably quirky classic, or who has been only marginally exposed to some of Martial’s more notorious verses.

What immediately comes across from Beck’s renderings of Martial is the subtlety with which the Latin poet employs everyday speech. These epigrams are so much more than displays of an acerbic, sometimes obscene wit, as all too often has been the portrayal of Martial. Let’s consider a few of the translations to underline the remarkable effect Martial is able to glean from the quotidian, as well as the sensitivity and vigor of Beck’s English versions.

It might be interesting to look at the elegies on the death of the child Martial calls Erotion, a six-year-old slave girl, for whom the poet composes three very different versions of his lament. I quote the three in their entirety to emphasize the sensitivity and profound caring found in the poet’s approach, qualities that for some readers might be rather unexpected. The first, “Book V, 34,” is a graceful and poignant farewell meant to accompany Erotion’s little shade to the underworld, commending her to his deceased parents, the “old guardians” of his own childhood:

Father Fronto, mother Flaccilla, protect this child
who was my lips’ delight. Don’t let the darkness
and the snapping mouths of Tartarus’ monstrous
hound panic Erotion’s shivering little shade.
She almost survived her sixth chilly winter.
She lived just that many days too few.
Let her play and work her mischief on you, old
guardians, and chatter away and garble my name.
Soft grass gently cover these gentle bones. Please,
earth, rest as lightly on her as she scampered over you.

The second version is a much less conventional farewell, bound up with the social context of the poet’s time, wherein one of Martial’s friends questions the poet’s grief. However beautiful and ingratiating a child Erotion might have been, she was, after all, according to the conventional wisdom of the time, just “a little house slave.” When a friend reminds him of Erotion’s station in life, Martial’s grief gives way to anger and the poet can’t avoid taking up, with memorable irony, the cruelty and hypocrisy of his comfortable friend’s remarks. One of the longest poems in Mea Roma, “Book V, 37”—where Martial shows his debt to the Latin satirists, from Horace through Juvenal—follows on the heels of the first elegy:

A child with a voice as sweet as the fabled swan’s,
gentler than a Galician lamb, delicate as a Lake Lucrine
oyster shell. Who you wouldn’t trade for Red Sea pearls
or polished Indian ivory. A lily shimmering in new snow.
Her hair glowed like golden Baetic fleece, like German
curls, like a hazel dormouse. A girl whose soft breath
was as fragrant as damask roses, or Attic honey
fresh from the comb, or amber warmed in the hand.
Next to her, peacocks were crude, tiny squirrels
unlovable and the Phoenix nothing much.

Now Erotion lies still warm in the grave. The bitter
edict of brutal fate took her before even completing her
sixth winter. Our love and delight, my merry playmate.
And Paetus, my friend, forbids me to weep, beats his
own breast and tousles his hair: “Aren’t you ashamed
to lose it over the death of a little house slave,” he says.
“I buried my wife—but I got on with my life. And she
was a socialite from the old nobility, proud and wealthy
in her own right.” Who can set a braver example than our
Paetus? He collects twenty million and gets on with his life.

The third version of the elegy is also included in the translator’s selection for Mea Roma, and comes from “Book X, 61” some ten years after the two earlier compositions. Scholars have it that this poem is from one of the last books of the Epigrams that Martial composed before leaving Rome and returning to his native Spain to live out his last years. More condensed, though no less moving and refined a lament, “Book X, 61” reads like an epitaph on a child’s gravestone, addressed to whomever comes into possession of this plot of land after the poet has moved away:

Here rests Erotion’s hurried shade, robbed
of life by fate and her sixth winter. Whoever
owns this little plot after me, make an offering
to her small ghost each year. Then, may your
household endure, safe and untroubled.
Let this stone be the only sorrow on your land.

It might be useful to quote one more poem from these later books, “Book X, 63,” appearing right after the above in Mea Roma. Like the third Erotion elegy, it too uses the conceit of a gravestone inscription, as both of these late epigrams point to the form’s probable origins in Greek poetry as tombstone epitaphs. Here Martial is at his witty and scabrous best, undercutting any sentimentality for the aged matron. The poet leaves us with a bittersweet admiration for the lady, not only for her advanced years, but for what she has seen and endured with a quite remarkable vigor and dignity. Just when the reader is full of good feeling and somewhat complacent in the poet’s praise for this fine example of everyday Roman virtue, Martial twists the sentiment in his conclusion—making, in the simplest, colloquial terms, his elderly subject all the more sympathetic:

This gravestone you’re reading may be small,
traveler, but cedes nothing to any mausoleum or
pyramid. I attended not one, but two Saecular
Games, sixty four years apart, and never lost a step
until my dying day. Juno gave me five boys and as
many girls, and every one of their hands
closed my eyes. My marriage was a glory to
behold, and I was faithful to just that one prick.

It goes without saying that any contemporary English reader’s knowledge of Martial is dependent on the translator’s skill. In the above, for instance, Beck uses what, in his introduction, he terms an “invisible footnote” to clarify an apparent inconsistency for the contemporary reader. The problem is that the Secular Games were supposed to be at least a century apart and, if so, Martial’s persona would be making our Roman matron’s declarations quite laughable. However, Beck tells us that Claudius held special Games in 47 C.E. to celebrate the eight-hundredth anniversary of Rome’s founding, making it sixty four years after Augustus’ 17 B.C.E. Games, and certainly in line with the character of his persona. Thus, Beck creates his “invisible” note by rendering the lines: "I attended not one, but two Saecular / Games, sixty four years apart…"

Work as outstanding as Art Beck’s in Mea Roma, as well as his choice of epigrams, reveals the Latin classic not only in a new light, but with the full range of values that characterize the original. Beck’s is a poet’s translation, and a great one at that, demonstrating the work of a contemporary speaker of American English who has come to live with the canon of a Roman poet from the first century C.E. Art Beck has not only discovered contemporary poetic equivalences for Martial’s verse, but has achieved, in Mea Roma, that rare distinction of speaking through Martial, creating new American poems that give life to a 2,000-year-old imagination.

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