Interview with Larry Sawyer
I remember being nearly grabbed and flung out the door. Once I found out why I was being included in some invincible circle of guys now entering an old VW van I was less excited. Oh, you guys are going to a poetry reading. I do remember liking the fact that I was now being handed a beer and liking the music as the conversation started and the van sped off. I was instantly subsumed by a conversation about girls and the dramas that ensued after any interaction with them, buying a new pair of silver Doc Martins, and vintage jazz records. It seemed there was a conversation about whether anyone could really be compared to Miles Davis on the trumpet. No one seemed to mind that we were listening to The Misfits but talking about Miles Davis. In these conversations, Eli always held court. An 18-year-old Jewish guy who vaguely resembled a young Allen Ginsberg, Eli wore a pair of vintage horn-rimmed glasses with futuristic clear plastic frames, and although he looked somewhat punk, his speech patterns and knowledge of jazz cast him as more of a self-styled Beat. Everyone paused when Eli offered a comment about jazz trumpet. “Clifford Brown, just picked up another album yesterday. Has to be checked out, man. Has to be. I mean, that’s necessary. This guy has a complexity that is like geometric or something. I mean, Miles, he casts a spell but don’t forget about Clifford Brown. Kaleidoscopic.” Everyone in the van seemed to ruminate on the word kaleidoscopic for a solid minute. We stared harder than usual out the windows that day.
There was something about Eli’s observations that sometimes made him seem otherworldly. Eli had lived for a short while in Northern California and his natural disapproving facial expression gave him some air of complex superiority. A certain kind of kid would follow Eli around forever after 5 minutes with him, sensing that Eli was a font of copious helpings of knowledge. Eli also seemed to always have weed on him. Other than chain-smoking Camels, Eli could be counted on to always have just one more roach. Suddenly a voice rose up from the back. A flannel-clad Steve, was asking about this poetry reading. Eli responded that we were going to a poetry “slam” and he said it with a certain odd gravitas. We stopped short of glancing at one another and yet wondered without vocalizing it. “What’s a poetry slam?” We would soon find out.
We made our way down Third Street from the suburbs toward the center of town. Dayton, Ohio. On a Saturday it was hard to tell who might be out and about. If it was summer, there were bound to be a fairly wide variety of people. No crowds but always the predictable panhandlers. Some fastidiously dressed, some looking like rocked-out zombies. Hispanic mothers with a child or two. Poindexter guys in their 30s walking alone, looking for a deal at the local record shop, meeting a friend for a movie, or on the way to one of the porn shops. Kids with frisbees. Stray dogs. Dayton was a contradiction. On most weekends it resembled a welcoming ghost town.
The van puttered along through the streets and we soaked it up. A Bible store complete with blinking marquee could be found right next to a porn shop advertising Anal Bangers 5. Another of the inhabitants of the VW van offered a comment. “Eli are you going to read?” Eli looked up as Steve lit a clove cigarette and the scent wafted throughout the van, mixing with the smell of old cheap beer and Saturday nights. Eli answered with a knowing wink and said nothing. We knew we were in for something but nobody but Eli seemed to know what. The van was parked a few blocks away and on the trek to Canal Street Tavern we all felt a camaraderie of some kind but Eli seemed distant.
Eli had the sense of purpose of a samurai warrior roaming the countryside à la Yojimbo. Confidant yet somehow distrusting and vaguely shifty, I noticed that Eli seemed a little bit anxious and walked a bit quicker to catch up to him. I started to recite a bit of poem I was reading the night before “Among twenty snowy mountains, /The only moving thing /Was the eye of the blackbird.” Eli smiled and responded with the mash-up “Where are we going, Wallace Stevens?/The doors close in an hour./Which way does your beard point tonight?” Eli claimed not to like Allen Ginsberg’s poetry but he seemed very familiar with it. We’d argued recently about surrealist poetry and Eli compared much of it to intellectual Mad Libs and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
Poetry for Eli existed so he could divulge his secrets, exact revenge on enemies, and also win over new loves. In that sense, he had way more balls about putting himself out there in front of an audience, dropping literary asides, and adopting a persona that was a cross between a James Dean wannabe, a stand up comedian, and a villain from the 1960s TV show Batman. Eli would take notes during most poetry readings and work clever hints about other people’s poems into his own nascent pieces. When he read them it was understood immediately whether he was offering up a flattering portrait or using the shout-out as a prop to illustrate what a shit the poet in question really was. Either way, when Eli got up to read, people listened. There was no clinking of glasses or whispered side conversations. Eli’s poetry also produced snickers and laughs. People truly got it, which was one of the points of contention between us. I once mentioned that the best poems produce a silence and he thought that was a heresy of some sort. Eli was a huge gossip and poetry was his AK-47, which he spewed blithely at the audience. Either you were completely with him on his ride or not. This is also why he had a couple of avowed enemies. Usually when we left these readings as a small group it was half-likely that someone would want to step up to Eli, most likely to offer a compliment but he also always glanced around nervously because he was fully aware that there were a few audience members who would gladly punch him straight in the face given an opportunity.
We entered the Canal Street Tavern for the first “poetry slam.” There was a small crowd of mostly familiar faces. At that time if you could pass for 19 years of age, you could be served a beer at Canal Street, no questions asked. A Miller High Life tallboy could then be smuggled into the bathroom and given to the person who actually paid for it who would proceed to chug it down within seconds. These poetry slams I would learn were considered “all age shows.” That meant there were usually a few giggling gaggles of high school girls who always dressed like acolytes of the band The Cure. To wear all black and sport a crucifix and wear heavy eyeliner and reek of patchouli was still rather novel at the time. No one had yet described these dark young girls, mostly fans of The Cure and The Smiths and possibly also Depeche Mode, as being “goth.” Being that everyone in my crew had recently turned 18, we thought of ourselves as old and above it and tried our best to avoid anyone still in high school.
I did notice that Cara was sitting at the bar. Wearing fishnet stockings and a pair of Doc Martins and a jean shorts/flannel shirt combo with dark purple hair, she seemed more sophisticated than any of the friends I rolled with. In fact, she was sitting at a slight distance from them and tipped her head back for a second when she saw me, which to my disbelief was a quasi-acknowledgment of my presence. This hadn’t happened before and I realized, as sweat broke out on the back of my neck, that I would have to get on that stage and deliver or this moment would pass and Cara would most likely forget about me forever. I don’t really remember how I managed this minor epiphany and also mounted a line of attack in such a short amount of time. I hadn’t brought any of my own amateurish poetry to read, and what little poetry I had actually memorized would not go over well with this crowd, which was a conclusion I reached very quickly after scanning the room and seeing a guy applying the Public Image Limited band logo with a magic marker to a ukelele.
I had to act fast. Eli had already set up camp in a far corner with his ever-present cup of coffee, pen in hand, sitting cross-legged on a chair, applying the finishing touches to whatever snark-ridden piece he’d decided to perform. The piece of information that had not yet reached my ears was what a “poetry slam” actually was. I had no idea that the point of this event was to not necessarily elicit an audience reaction but at the very least be prepared for it. Especially if it was bad. Had I known, I probably would not have gone through with my hastily hatched plan to get Cara into some state of mind where she would at least consider making out with me. I glanced over at her again and in my fevered state I actually believed she was looking in my general direction by using the mirror behind the bar. I doubt she was thinking about much more than the array of neon beer signs that the bartender had finally switched on. I mean, this place just opened and it’s Saturday afternoon. I must have a solid 5 minutes to write some genius poem that will demonstrate, finally, to Cara how funny and therefore sexy I thought I was.
I slid into a booth near Eli and could tell he didn’t want to be bothered but soon he was rifling through his rucksack to hand me the pen and slip of paper I had asked him for. The next move found me sauntering back toward the front door to make my way out of the building. I planned to sit in the alley behind Canal Street to have 5 minutes alone to write. Now I needed a cigarette. No time. I nearly jogged behind the building to find 3 guys sharing a bottle in a bag. I stopped for what seemed like a mini-eternity because I knew there would be no other spot for me to really concentrate. One of the guys motioned for me to come over and to my surprise I did.
They all looked like they were 100 years old. Haggard and worn out. I was being passed a bottle of mystery booze and I took it and proceeded to take a big slug. Instantly I felt the burn of some kind of rotgut whisky but also a self-confidence. I sat down on a crumbled parking block next to this trio of filth and nearly instantly had an idea that I wrote down as fast as it came. I signaled to these generous old guys that I had to run and, head whirling, I was suddenly standing again at the entrance to Canal Street.
I must’ve been outside a bit longer than I thought because my crew of poet types were all sitting together at the side wall and the lights had been dimmed. A few more characters had filtered in and despite the light of a summer afternoon, inside the tavern it felt more like being in the dark guts of an old ship or a casino. Magical neon signs advertising Miller High Life, Black Label, Wiedemann, Little Kings, Schaefer, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, beckoned another few patrons to grab a last beer before the festivities began.
I had a slight head rush as I lingered for just a minute near the card table set up near the entrance. A voice from the darkness asked “are you reading?” and I answered “damn right.” I didn’t feel like myself and noticed Eli across the room sort of glowering in my general direction and Steve looking amused, probably wondering what I was up to outside and why I hadn’t invited him. Still not knowing what a poetry slam was and noticing Cara sitting at the bar but now facing the stage, I heard my name being called and for a hot minute the room grew quiet.
I hadn’t expected to go first and to have to get right up in front of the room right after emerging from that whisky-fueled huddle in the alley with my new found friends but in my sudden drunkenness I understood the logic of getting up immediately to share with the world what I’d just written. Why not? Eli started a slow clap and some nameless figure in the back gave a slight guffaw and I quickly took the few steps up the stage and now stood behind a microphone and a stool. I set the stool aside and looked up for a second at the blinding spotlight above me. I heard a wiseass in the audience call out “you’re on a stage” and then chuckle stupidly. Next I saw a trembling hand gripping a rumpled sheet of paper coming into my field of vision and words were coming from my mouth. People listened. I was hooked.
There is a certain otherworldly, 2AM tone on Protection, the title track of the band’s second record. It is mysterious. It is dangerous. It asks questions that most are unable to answer. This is especially true for me, as the particulars of how I first encountered this song still haunt me to this day.
Shawn Charles Baker is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Southern California.
Jiddu Krishnamurti. What a funny guy. Groomed by the Theosophical Society to adorn himself in the costume of World Teacher/New Messiah, he told them to fuck that motherfucking bullshit. He experienced nakedness, and once naked . . . well, no costume could ever possibly fit. Is what I hear him saying.
I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. — JK (1929)
Difficult talking nakedness in a language built for costumes.
Wonder what’s for lunch down at the cafeteria as I sit in this hospital out-patient waiting room while my cousin undergoing surgery improves her vision. Love cafeterias. Loved setting out from a little Arkansas town, headed for Memphis and Britling’s bright tile spread where I eyeball glorified grease and inhale the fragrances of fried chicken, fried okra, fried catfish, collards, butter bosomed mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, angel food cake, thick gravy smothered steak, black-eyed peas, fresh tomatoes and cucumber, cantaloupe, and tapioca. Loved what I thought were so many choices. The present keeps sliding into the past. The past produces so many expectations. I still expect choices. Tangled.
Was a time I walked from 14th Street and Avenue A to 48th Street and 9th Avenue every day after work because Miz Vittitow was dying and I’d stop at my place, then walk to hers and spend the night because I couldn’t bear her spending dying nights alone. One evening I was walking and a filthy, drunken, homeless guy stretched out on stone steps looked so beautiful I had to stop and stare.
All perception shifting into wow the plants, swimming in gorgeous green leaves in lovely pulsing pots who knew clay pots could breathe? Buildings, cars everything a glowing beauty never seen before by me before. Wide awake in every cell alive. Wasn’t stoned on anything and stoned was never so going in this direction so beyond human usual detection, amplified colors and textures stirring almost a clarity I could imagine a clarity longed for clarity. Even the trash a garden of delights. Fuck pedestrian rationale. Pulsing connecting glow working every throbbing molecule of luminous city expanding me in every step clear across town to my dying friend wakes up in the middle of nights staring into approaching eternity impatiently going someplace more familiar. She don’t care where. She just really wants to go. It’s so difficult inhaling those slender Sherman cigarettes with lung cancer. No treatment no thank you. She just really wants to go.
Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. — JK (1929)
A softly sung whistling and swish swish seeds in wooden rattle fling me where costumes can’t go. Trembling fear as threads unravel and dissolve. Nothing to wear and no one to wear it. No boundaries, no skin, no stake in the slightest some thing. All narratives collapsed. And yet, here I am. A narrative terrified of collapsing in the midst of collapse.
I try to say it and it’s just words. But I keep trying to say it. Even though it can never be it, it always turns out to be something frustratingly distant.
The world is such a wonder. Isn’t it shocking, grave, gorgeous, gory, nervily musical, wild, caged, wails and croonings, a theatre of whackings upon the indefatigable nasty habits of a species? The polyrhythmic drumming of all these beating hearts in all these creatures crawling flying tunneling riding on four wheels around a planet. Confusion of separation.
This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. — JK (1929)
Lucid confusion almost such tension in the waiting room. The tv. Reality show. Who will the next fool be? Daydream, ah. The lapse I lay my head in. The enormity of being alive. I’ve spent so much time shutting that feeling down. Daydream. No one else in this waiting except Desk Lady doing her job with papers and computer in this cold room. Me reading a book on my phone. About the Angel of the Present Moment sending shockwaves across the digitized globe.
JK says renounce all authority. In the inner space renounce. All. Authority. Yeah sure. Okay. But. The obstructions that imprison clarity. I’m still so entangled.
Our conscience is such a petty affair. How is it our species has been around so long and hasn’t come to clarity? What are the obstacles which prevent clear perception? — JK (1968)
I wish I could tell you.
Poet and musician Barbara Barg grew up listening to Delta Blues and Memphis R&B. In New York, she taught poetry to at-risk youth in tough NYC high schools where her students introduced her to hip-hop and rap. She is the author of two books: Obeying the Chemicals (Hard Press) and The Origin of the Species (Semiotext(e)). Her poetry, short stories, and strong opinions have been published in many magazines and anthologized. She is also a faculty member of The Chicago School of Poetics.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, age 74, and the praise for him is universal, both as poet and personality. On one particular Irish website, there was a conversation about what Heaney’s real status as a poet would be. But of course none of us has the answer, time being the judge of that fight. But one of the most interesting conversations occurred on the New York African-American painter Carl Hazelwood’s Facebook thread towards the end of August. Oma Pollitt said that Heaney’s poem “Digging” was African in its construction. I was taken by this remark, and so I responded by saying that “all good Irish writing is African in its origins.”
Of course, I was thinking of Roddy Doyle’s great music novel The Commitments. If you’ve ever seen the film of this novel, you may recall the protagonist’s soliloquy about the Irish in which he says the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, the north Dubliners the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. There is also a long Irish tradition of the black Irish, a type of Celt usually from the west of Ireland, out beyond the lamps, beyond the Pale.
Several years ago, the BBC conducted a study in the west of Ireland, trying to determine the ethnic origin of the black Irish outside of Galway, in County Mayo. It was discovered that nearly everyone tested had the same DNA as people from the Basque region of Spain, which explains the dark Irish if not the black Irish. Black Irish is not just a dark complexion, though, it is a kind of mood that pervades someone. It is not a racial thing.
Seamus Heaney was many things to many people, in and outside of literature, out and about Ireland, both North and South, but also significantly in America, his second home for many years. I met him several times in my life, the first time at Fordham University, where I was working in the early 1980s. I had the job of entertaining him before a reading, and so we drank Old Bushmills in my office overlooking the quad. The second time I met him was again at Fordham, and this time he had a toothache, and we had to find him a dentist. He had that Irish curse of teeth. I remember meeting him at the train station in Princeton, in the late 1980s, and once again we had to find him a dentist before he could read. But teeth aching or not, Heaney was good company.
If there were a prize for the nicest poet, he would win hands down. Sometimes I think that if Heaney is to be judged harshly, someone will take umbrage with the niceness of the poet, making it the ultimate failure of his poetry. The lesson I learned from reading Seamus Heaney was that his poetry was magnificent in his early career, but that the later work was corny, even sentimental, at least to my ears. But that is not the lesson I learned; the lesson was that a writer can’t be all things to all people, and this is not only a problem Seamus Heaney faced, it was something that all Northern Irish writers confronted.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which includes England, Scotland, and Wales, too, among other entities. Most Northern Irish people I knew in London, where I lived for twelve years, carried the British passport or the Irish one, and sometimes both, depending on the situation. Heaney and Paul Muldoon, singled out of the crowd of Irish poetry, were given a chair at Oxford for a British poet. You can’t hold that chair if you are not British. We may think of these poets as Irish poets, but they are also British poets too.
There is a price to pay for this sleight-of-hand, and it is usually in the poetry where consequence reveals itself. Heaney never offended anyone; Muldoon has a way of writing inoffensively, too. Derek Mahon, another Northern Irish poet, has played this hand less well, being curmudgeonly and misanthropic, not willing enough to play the game with his Britishness and his Irishness. Northern Irish humor is dark, and from the gallows, and certainly Mahon’s poetry is filled with such examples. After all, he wrote the introduction to the poetry of Jonathan Swift, the ultimate gallows humorist, kind of the Richard Pryor of his own day.
Earlier when I wrote that all good Irish writing was African in its origin, I meant that Ireland’s music, the root of its poetry, has a sound whose origins seem to hark back to Northern Africa. Bagpipes are very Islamic in their souls. One may not think of Ireland as the westernmost reach of the European Oomah, and yet the west of Ireland had a long history with Barbary pirates. They ransacked the town of Rochester, taking all inhabits in slavery back to Northern Africa. One day Rochester was a flourishing town; the next day there wasn’t a soul in it.
I don’t hear African rhythms in most of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I hear the north of Ireland, its soul even, which is part British and part Irish.
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.