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Alan Ziegler
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From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Reno, Aug 17. Went out to take the town. P.S. the town took us!” Come one, come all, buy my vacuum cleaner. Be a friend of nature, for if there’s one thing nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s a dirty vacuum. Statute of Limitations Calendar App for Criminals: Enter the crime, the state, and the date, and the app will alert you when you can stop sweating it. Overheard: “I hate to sound like an essentialist since I’m in fact a Yale-trained deconstructionist.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Between Gilroy and Ballard, Aug 21. Stopped at a road-side stand and had a 14-inch Hot Dog.” Sometimes I wish you would turn traitor and lead them to me so I could see you one last time. I trip and scrape my knee. I smile as I remember crying as a little boy when I fell. I think of John Berryman’s line “I am not a little boy,” and a tear re-emerges. On the Trocadero Plaza I think of Hitler in the same place, nodding smugly at the Eiffel Tower: “This is mine.” You Nazi son of a bitch it’s mine now. What my grandmother said when she found out a relative’s husband was a bigamist: “But he held her, he kissed her, he looked her in the eyes.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: Washington, DC, Sept 6. Arrived with $.54. Put gal. of gas — .16. Balance .38. Went to Police station to try & get a loan of a couple of dollars. (Got S- - t.). Still hadn’t eaten anything so went to Salvation Army to try & get a meal. (Again, got S - - t.) At about 11:00 p.m. – bought some food: .38. Cash now on hand $.00 Went to sleep. Continue reading
Posted Aug 11, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
We arrive at connected brick buildings in a clearing surrounded by Vermont; inside, khaki walls, urine, and sobs. We are told, “Students tend to be overly idealistic but this place isn’t bad for a mental institution. Try not to let it get to you and you’ll learn some things books can’t tell you.” I am only visiting with volunteers; they will all leave in a few weeks and I will leave even sooner. I focus on Michael, who talks of Beatles, Stones, and Mets. I am told, “Michael won’t let you touch him, very erratic. He’s fourteen, been here since he shot his big brother six years ago. Under sedation he’s not too bad.” I bring my guitar and he says, “Are you the Beatles can you wear your shoes like Mick Jagger is that Steppenwolf’s shirt?” I say no and he punches me in the nose, smiling at the drops of blood he has created. I am told, “Soon he’ll be transferred to the adult ward and that’s usually the kiss of death. His mother is dead and the father hardly visits, says he can’t cope with him.” In front of everyone, Michael says to me, “Hey lemme see your pecker, is it big?” then cackles at my silence. He reaches for my guitar and I hand it to him, not wanting to set him off but also sensing that this is something he can touch for real. He strums, a-chordal but rhythmic, then sings in shrieks. He is me but less shy. Michael shows me his secret treasures: Shea Stadium grass, John Lennon’s guitar pick, and the key to the laundry room (“Don’t tell!”). We hear someone approaching and Michael closes his hand tightly around his treasures. I am told, “You’re getting too involved with Michael. I understand it’s tempting to try to save one patient, but you’ll have to handle all kinds.” Michael takes me to the laundry room, opens the lock, locks the door, opens the lock. He asks me if I have ever seen the Mets play. I tell him I have, and he asks, “Do they sing, too?” On my last day, we walk though dark halls and tunnels until under sunshine for our walk. Michael stops, makes his arms into a funnel and reaches up to me. I bend and he runs, laughing in circles around me, howling, throwing punches at the air. I want to pump him full of locked rooms. Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
50. Part of me grew up the day Superman blew his brains out. 51. Bowling: Quantity not quality. 52. A wooden wagon propelled by the light of the moon. 53. Inside each of us is a skeleton waiting its turn. 54. Tracking you sometimes I see my own footprints. 55. The mind feeding off the carrion in the heart. 56. Hope springs internal. 57: Incident on the highway: There’s one less tarantula in the Nevada desert. 58: Double positive can equal a negative: “I will always love you forever.” 59: The sadness of the empty dish after the unsatisfying meal. 60: Told to me in a dream: "Because we matter too much in this world." Continue reading
Posted Aug 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
“Alan Ziegler, Author of Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” A lone white horse wags its tail on the outskirts of Chamoux… Sealed condom in the pocket of jacket inherited from my father. After exploring possibilities I remember he worked in a motel…. Always the man hand-rolling bagels at a table in the small shop in Penn Station, his face as round as a bagel, never looking at the dough, eyes peeled on the ever-changing line of faces, once or twice a week mine…. I haven’t seen her in five years and the first thing she says: “Is that a new shirt?” Yes. Patient on the children’s ward at the Vermont State Hospital, periodically punches himself in the face and says, “Oooch!”…. We order cheeseburgers. She brings hamburgers. Before we can say anything, she looks at the plates and says, “I spaced on the cheese….” The little boy points to the author picture on the book I bring to class and says, “That looks like you.” I reply, “It is me.” He looks again and says, “It doesn’t look like you.” Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Lisa (fifth grade) For almost two years, through distractions and conflicts in the writing group, Lisa gets it done. She enjoys writing, even when it’s a struggle. Sometimes Lisa comes to the Teachers & Writers room alone to write—without any outside direction—in her notebook. Today she seems to be particularly happy with what she wrote, and I ask if I can see it: My mother made a great promise. My father made one, too. They both promised me to stop quarreling. At least for a little while. My cousin made a promise, my uncle and aunt, too. But they all broke their promises one by one. I don't want a perfect family who would always dress up fancy and neat. Just a family that keeps a promise, altogether, one. As writing teachers, what do we want for our students? A good experience with writing—the feeling that it was worthwhile to take pen to paper—should be right up there on any list of goals. I ask Lisa about her experience, and she replies that she exaggerated, which made her feel better. Sometimes we can “write well” but the piece has no life to it—the bones are assembled in the correct formation, the features are properly positioned, but the poor creature can’t laugh, cry, crouch, or dance. A week later, I read “My mother made…” to another class in another school. They listen, quietly, caught up in the words, in the presence of a living poem. Marcus (fourth grade) I notice him hovering around the doorway to the Teachers & Writers room during the lunch period. He inches his way barely across the border. I say hello and ask his name, which he slurs several times before I can make out “Marcus.” I ask if he likes to write, and he shrugs. “Perhaps I can arrange with your teacher for you to come down to the room sometime.” “I never go anywhere, I just stay in the classroom,” he replies. I ask him to write down his name, teacher, and classroom number, and I’ll see if I can make arrangements for him to join a group. It takes Marcus a painful few minutes to get the information down. He is in class 4-3 (next to bottom on the tracking ladder), on the “2 fool.” I ask if he’d like to write something now. “Sure,” he says into his chest. I suggest that he write down some things that are important to him—favorite food, sports, weather, whatever. I can then follow up based on the list. He writes diligently but slowly for several minutes while I make myself look busy. When I look at Marcus’s paper, I am surprised and puzzled. I am learning how to type. Am how to type. Learning am how to type. How am I to type learning? Me to is I type me. Then I remember that earlier someone wrote on the blackboard “I am learning how to type.” Marcus has written like Gertrude Stein, without intentionality. “Did... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In the scarlet light of Valentine’s our paper hearts are blind from “Valentine Melody” by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley (1966) (Tim Buckley was born on Valentine's Day 1947; he died of a drug overdose at the age of 28.) 1) December 1966. While at school in Schenectady, a friend tells me about a new singer-songwriter whose voice is “angelic,” and he’s our age. His name is Tim Buckley, and he’ll be appearing on a bill with Frank Zappa at the Balloon Farm on St. Marks Place. Over break, I climb the stairs of the Balloon Farm toward my balcony seat. Leaning against the wall on one of the landings, alone, is a kid with curly black hair. Our eyes meet and I say, “You’re Tim Buckley.” He smiles and walks away with a wave. The next time I see him he is on stage, singing angelically. In the middle of his set he starts “One For My Baby,” but stops in the middle, says he can’t go on, and walks off the stage. 2) March 1968. Buckley is performing at the Fillmore East, but we’re stuck in Schenectady. We listen over and over to Goodbye and Hello, and I say, “He should know what he’s doing to us." I call the Fillmore and say, “Let me to speak with Tim Buckley." “He’s on stage right now. Can I give him a message?” “Yeah, tell him that we hear him in Schenectady.” “Far out, I'll let him know!” 3) July 1968. Cliff Safane and I (two-thirds of a folk/jazz group “The Shuttle”) obtain press passes to the Newport Folk Festival through the Union College newspaper. Cliff has brought his bass clarinet with the hope he could jam with Tim Buckley. We introduce ourselves to Tim in the outdoor backstage area, and arrange to meet him at his hotel. Over lunch, he tells us that he had been called for his draft physical shortly after signing his first album contract with Elektra. “It’s what I always wanted, to make a record” he says, so he did everything he could possibly do wrong at the physical. “They pointed to a room down the hallway and I walked in that direction, straight into a wall.” He has perfected collecting a huge glob of spit on his mouth, which he did repeatedly at the physical. “The Army guy told me I was either the stupidest guy they’d ever seen, or the smartest; either way they didn’t want me.” We talk about Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne, who, along with Buckley, were dubbed the “Orange County Three” by Cheetah magazine. (More about Steve Noonan to come.) After lunch Tim pauses on the stairway above the lobby, waits, eyes imperious, until he attracts some attention. Slowly around his mouth a huge wad of spit congeals and remains. Back in his room, Tim improvises an extended scat, his voice melding with the chords on his 12-string. Cliff unpacks his bass clarinet and joins in. This is way... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
a play in one love affair Two people on a bare stage; any combination of genders. (For this version, it’s a man and woman.) They stand in random places throughout the play, changing positions during each blackout, sometimes together in various poses, sometimes separated. Sometimes they speak to the audience; other times to each other. MAN: In a crowd someone laughed. Thinking, incorrectly, it was me, a woman said: WOMAN: What a sad laugh. MAN: I was about to defend myself when she added: WOMAN: But there’s sweetness in your eyes, so there’s hope for you. MAN: We went off together, and I tried not to laugh. (blackout) MAN: A week later, when the joy was too much, I bellowed. She declared: WOMAN: That laugh! I have changed your life. (blackout) MAN: The world doubled its offering: my two eyes and two ears were no longer sufficient. Only with our four eyes focused together and four ears tuned to the same frequency could I fully see the beauty in art and the sky, and completely hear the music of symphonies and breezes. WOMAN: In the past, the best that others could do was to help me forget death briefly. With him, I could be reminded of death and still love life. MAN: We laughed and frolicked and kissed and nuzzled and ravaged and napped and did it all over again. WOMAN: They should’ve slapped a caption on us: MAN: In happier days. (blackout) MAN: The voice on the radio was hysterical. We turned it louder until we couldn’t make out the words, drowning out the phone and sirens. WOMAN: We shut the windows and harmonized in a hymn. My hands threw scary shadow figures from my past onto the wall. MAN: My fist shadows pummeled them. (blackout) WOMAN: We discovered the formula for happiness, the roadmap to contentment, and the recipe for good living. MAN: Unfortunately, we were terrible at following directions. (blackout) MAN: I truly believed that her orgasms were authentic, but I started to suspect that she was faking her understanding: WOMAN: Oh. Oh. Oh. Yes. Yes. Yes. You poor thing, you! (blackout) MAN: When I told her I loved her, I was caught red-hearted returning to the scene of someone else’s crime. She studied me up and down as if cramming for an examination. WOMAN: He passed the test. Time to make the questions harder. (blackout) MAN: I was an incurable optimist until I swallowed her medicine. She had me beside myself, and I hardly recognized the man standing next to me. Each time we parted, I was like a rocking chair she had gotten quickly out of. WOMAN: He ran away from me in circles, and I ran circles around him. He surrendered, and I shredded his white flag. He went limp and bared his jugular, like a vanquished fox. I snapped at him. MAN: I give up. You win. I will fight on. (blackout) WOMAN: He broke my heart in two. Then he quartered it.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Prologue: In late 1967, an English professor asked me to be Allen Ginsberg’s escort for his February 13 reading at Union College: “I think he’d be more comfortable with a student.” I wrote Ginsberg to ask if he’d add an event in our makeshift café, the North End. I figured I’d get a form letter from an assistant telling me Allen was too busy being Ginsberg. I was half right. He was too busy being Ginsberg to make plans, but it was Allen himself who replied. [Dear Mr. Z—I don’t know my schedule as it’s made up by others while I stay home & avoid correspondence & do my work — poesy, solitude as much as I can get. See you I guess there, I’ll keep yr. address & number thanks for good cheer — Allen Ginsberg] Allen wound up staying at my apartment for three nights, before moving on to Rochester to meet with Norman O. Brown (whose Love’s Body was a hot topic). He visited classes, did radio interviews, and gave a reading at the North End (including “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and “Wales Visitation”). Here, through the prism of distant memory, are some moments from Allen Ginsberg’s three days in Schenectady. Fitz Hugh: Allen’s main reference point to Union College is that Fitz Hugh Ludlow went here. All we know about Ludlow is that he wrote Union’s alma mater in 1856. Ode to Old Union (Alma Mater) Let the Grecian dream of his sacred stream And sing of the brave adorning That Phoebus weaves from his laurel leaves At the golden gates of morning. But the brook that bounds thro’ old Union’s grounds Gleams bright as a Delphic water, And a prize as fair as a god may wear Is a dip from our Alma Mater. Then here’s to thee, thou brave and free, Old Union smiling o’er us, And for many a day, as thy walls grow gray, May they ring with thy children’s chorus! We have referred to the “brook that bounds” as the “creek that reeks,” and someone once suggested that Ludlow must have been high when he wrote it “gleams bright as a Delphic water.” Allen informs us that this, indeed, may have been the case, that a year after graduating from Union, Ludlow published The Hasheesh Eater. (Many years later, Allen would be on the board of advisors to the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library). Dylan's Scarf: Allen notices the album jacket for Dylan’s John Wesley Harding propped against our stereo speaker, and points to the scarf worn by one of the people standing next to Dylan. “Dylan gave it to me,” Allen says, extending the scarf he is wearing. Dylan's Poetry: We discuss Dylan as poet: “ ‘The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen!’” Allen declaims. “That’s as good as anything I’ve written!” Uncle Allen: Allen walks by the poster of him wearing an Uncle Sam hat. He stops, backtracks, and signs his name on the ribbon. Bathtub: I awaken in the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 23, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In my first few years teaching I conducted creative writing workshops—with students ranging from six to eighty years old—in public schools (including my former elementary and high schools), community libraries, colleges, P.T.A. meetings, and senior citizens centers, in the five boroughs and beyond. I had one-shot sessions with groups as large as sixty students, and met once a week with a single student for a school year. Most of my workshops were sponsored by Teachers & Writers Collaborative, N.Y. Poets in the Schools, and Poets & Writers, but I also did sessions for groups with names like Young Visitors and Sub Sub. If it’s Tuesday it must be Yonkers because Wednesday is Lynbrook and Thursday is Spring Valley. A well-kept (and consulted) appointment book became essential. One morning I got a call from the Ardsley Library. “Oh hi, I’m looking forward to seeing you next week,” I said. “There are thirty children here who were looking forward to seeing you a half hour ago,” was the cold response. I had to be careful with the amount of work I took, to allow time for writing. The idea is for writers to preach what they practice, not what they used to practice. I could not make a living writing poems, but I could support myself helping others write poems. Some of our students would likely wind up teaching others to write, who would then, etc., resulting in an exponential growth in creative writers. One night, overscheduled and underwritten, I imagined a grant proposal to deprogram former students: “You’re upset or rapturous with joy? Pick up the damn phone!” (I also facetiously proposed prenatal workshops, but it turned out I wasn’t too far off on that one.) I wasn’t making a fortune, but I was fortunate. Teaching was not at conflict with art but in itself an art form. In both writing and teaching, you can alternate between having control, relinquishing control, and sharing equally; it is the wise writer or teacher who knows when it is appropriate to be in charge or to let things happen. Usually the teaching fed into and out of my writing. The same creative energy that fueled my writing also contributed to my teaching. I must constantly find ways for students to make it new, make it real, and make it finished. Instead of struggling with the development of one poem (my own), I sometimes felt like a chess whiz scampering from writer to writer helping each make a move. It was exhilarating. I experienced the same kinds of ups and downs in my teaching as I did in my writing. Sometimes I was on and the room seemed to glow with energy. In discussing exemplary texts, I almost always taught myself something new. Other times I was off and had to draw on professionalism to complete the task. There were moments when I was exhausted with language, indifferent to imagery, and I felt like Sartre’s bad-faith café waiter, playing the role of writing teacher. But... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Back in the 70s, SOME Magazine/Release Press was having a party in my apartment. Every room was jammed, and I kept hearing what a swell guy my super was. I hadn't invited the super but was delighted that he came. "He's over there!" someone said, pointing to Paul Violi, holding court with the smile you see above.
In mid-March 1996, Erin and I whisper-argue in the bedroom while my father lies on the sofa bed in the living room watching Family Feud. I would appreciate the irony if my father wasn’t having surgery in the morning for advanced colon cancer. The surgeon is a rotund, jolly fellow around 60, rated by New York Magazine as one of the best. He put my father at ease during the office visit, which is not easy for a doctor to do. The last thing the surgeon said was, “You’ll be dancing the tarantella in six weeks.” I leave Erin in the bedroom, hoping my father hasn’t overheard our quibbling. My father’s hospital pajamas are in a plastic supermarket bag, his blue slacks draped over a chair. He is wearing baggy boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. He is engrossed in The Feud. “So that’s the guy who replaced Richard Dawson?” I ask as I sit on the edge of the bed. “Yeah—a few years ago. They canned him—this is a rerun. It’s a shame. I liked him.” I can tell that my father was rooting for this boyish man who landed a dream job. We watch as he schmoozes with a boisterous, healthy-looking family, then smiles sweetly as mom, dad, and adult children jump up and down, hugging in celebration of a “good answer.” I like the new—now fired—host. What a rough day it must have been when he was let go, though not as rough as being told you have cancer—even if the surgeon is also a good schmoozer. I think about how, in the next few weeks—whether my father makes it through or not—the surgeon and host will move on: the surgeon telling others they’ll be dancing the tarantella, and the host smiling boyishly on the set of a new game show. But tonight, as I sit on the edge of the sofa bed with my cancer-ridden father while my wife fumes at me from the bedroom and my father’s wife is long dead, I am grateful for the company of the sweet ex-host and the jolly surgeon. By the Fourth of July, I will read in the obituaries that the surgeon died of a massive heart attack and the host hung himself with bed sheets in a closet of a psychiatric ward. Though he will never dance the tarantella, my father will live to mourn them both. Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Charlotte and Anne without Emily Charlotte without Anne and Emily Don without Phil George without Gracie Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo without Chico Groucho, Zeppo, and Gummo without Chico and Harpo Zeppo and Groucho without Chico, Harpo, and Gummo Zeppo without Groucho, Harpo, Gummo, and Chico Mimi and Joan without Richard Joan without Mimi and Richard Paul, George, and Ringo without John Paul and Ringo without George and John Elaine without Mike Jerry without Anne Dom and Joe without Vince Dom without Joe and Vince Harry and Jimmy without Al Harry without Al and Jimmy Doc without Merle Eng without Chang Matty without Pearl Karen, Alan, and Philip without Matty and Pearl Continue reading
Posted Jul 11, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Create algorithms to determine the following: 1) How many pencils, pens, and markers are stored right now in mugs and other holders? How many are usable? How many have been nonfunctioning for more than a year? 2) How many people within the past hour looked for their glasses, which were nestled atop their head? How many people looked for their glasses and swept the top of their head without finding them there? How many found their glasses on the top of their head then looked around to see if anyone saw them? 3) How many people within the past hour said goodbye to someone they will never see again? How many people in the past hour passed someone on the street whom they once passed on a street in another city? How many people were on a bus, train, or plane with someone they went to high school with, and didn’t know it? 4) How many writers spent more than one minute trying to decide whether to use past or last before hour in the past hour? 5) How many individual french fries were consumed in the past hour by someone other than the person who ordered them? How many hands were slapped trying to do the above? 6) What is the collective weight of all the dog excrement dropped on sidewalks in the past hour? What is the collective weight of all the dog excrement transferred to trash bins in the past hour? How many dog walkers confirmed nobody was watching before walking away from their dog’s excrement? How many people walked away without looking around first? 7) How many people think that Larry Keating is an underrated comic actor? How many people have ever mentioned ZaSu Pitts in a Facebook post? 8) How many people dreamed last night that they told their students, “The decision to place bases 90 feet apart in baseball is the most perfect decision ever made!” How many people can answer the following question without consulting a map: “If Yankee Stadium had no fences, would a ball that lands in Montreal be fair or foul?” 9) How many people have wondered about any of the above in the past hour? 10) How many people have, within the past hour, wondered about all of the above? Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
One of my second-grade classmates has the demeanor of a little man. In 1953 Brooklyn, boys are required to wear ties to school; most of us have one or two clip-ons, worn until they become invisible. Except for the little man—he has many ties, and they are always perfectly knotted. Each morning after he takes off his coat he pauses at the classroom mirror and adjusts his tie. “Windsor knot,” he announces to anyone who stares. One day, the little man and I stay after school to help the teacher rearrange the bookshelves. It is taking a long time, and I start to toss in the books. The little man says, “My father always says, ‘If you are going to do something, get it right.’” I am impressed, and we redo the shelf. On the first day after Christmas vacation, the teacher—younger than my mother—asks the class to gather in the story area because she has something to tell us. The little man was killed in a car accident over the vacation. She could have told the class he moved away, she says, but she thinks we should always know the truth. Now a grown man, I can’t remember what the little man looked like. But I can picture this vividly: It’s a December blizzard night. The little man’s family is going visiting. His father is warming up the car. “Hurry up, dear, we’re late,” his mother says gently as the little man stands, his back to me, at the mirror next to the Christmas tree, getting his Windsor knot just so. Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I have concluded my self-imposed hiatus from this blog, and will be posting regularly again. But I wanted to pre-restart with a note about Max Ritvo's forthcoming book of poems, Four Reincarnations, which will be published this Fall by Milkweed. (A poem from the book recently appeared in The New Yorker). Two days after Max joined two of my classes at Columbia in January 2014, I learned that he is terminally ill with Ewing's Sarcoma, a state of being that is in the text or subtext of many of his poems. But his poems—and his life—are about so much more. Max is one of the most intellectually and artistically gifted people I have ever known (he is also a wonderful performer). Timothy Donnelly—among others—has spoken splendidly about Max's work. For now, I will appropriate Max's own words: A CENTO FOR MAX RITVO’S FOUR REINCARNATIONS moving, joy, moving I am given a reward so passionately and imaginatively though the images vary exhaustingly and troublingly much more beautiful than either one of our voices your brain binds around mine, a gold gauze this is how love works thou art me before I am myself you have my thoughts faster than I can even of the imagination sizzling on top of it I will live in your small ecstatic brain for the possession of our smallest sensations this is purity who brings a kind of relief in the middle of a blizzard no one can speak the language you will rewrite Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
My first computer, in the early 1980s, is a Kaypro (C/PM operating system) bundled with WordStar (“the most popular word processor ever invented”) and a JUKI daisywheel printer. I select the Kaypro because an article in New York magazine calls it “the computer of choice for New York writers.” I buy it at the purchasing place of choice, Wolff’s (near Columbus Circle), where New York writers are milling about like musicians at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in the early 60s (well, I assume they’re all writers). The Kaypro boasts of a built-in “large 9-inch display” with green phosphor characters, and 64K of RAM. (My IBM Selectric has the equivalent of one byte of RAM: if you hit two keys almost simultaneously, it “remembers” the second letter and spaces it properly.) The Kaypro stores files on 400K floppy disks, and the whole machine folds into a hard-shell “transportable” case—convenient if you’re not trying to transport it very far. Once I get the system up and running, I notice that WordStar defaults to justified right-hand margins, which I dislike (especially in drafts). I change the default, but now the spaces between letters are wackily uneven, making for a disjointed printout. I call Wolff’s and Kaypro, but nobody knows what I’m talking about. Am I the only New York writer who has this issue—I can hear Dylan wailing “Oh my God am I here all alone?” I call a New York writer friend who says he doesn’t have the problem, then looks at a printout and realizes he does but it doesn’t bother him. I am bothered. Eventually I reach someone at WordStar who says, “I know what you mean. A rabbi called last week with the same problem.” He explains that the culprit is “microjustifcation,” which is what makes justified text look professional but stays on even when justification is turned off. “I guess we should put those together,” he says. There’s a “dot command” (huh?) to turn off microjustification: “Just type .uj off at the top of the page." Voila! It works! But .uj off has to be typed at the very top of every page that gets printed, which means deleting and replacing the code whenever a page is revised. Back to my WordStar friend, who says he shouldn’t be telling me this but there’s a hidden array of commands that can only be reached by typing a hyphen. He gives me directions to change the default to microjustification-off, and my documents print out perfectly without typing any codes. Then my JUKI printer quits, with no justification of any sort. I lug the machine to Wolff's. While I'm crossing the street, a stranger looks at me and announces: “Another JUKI breakdown!” At long last, I am not here all alone. Continue reading
Posted Nov 27, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
1) My first attempt at physical comedy; age 4: The Set-up. With my family in Manhattan for the first time, I am told that the Empire State Building is a skyscraper. As we get closer, I notice that the pole on top—which I assume is the skyscraper—disappears from view. The Bit. I lead my family back to where we can see the pole: “Look at the skyscraper!” Then I march us closer, point up, and say, repeatedly, holding my head, “What, no skyscraper?!” 2) You never know who might be in the audience; age 11: A bunch of us get interested in pro wrestling, and we construct a backyard ring using rope, trees, and garbage cans. I don’t really like doing the wrestling, so I pick up a fallen branch and turn it into a microphone. I announce the fights, calling for Killer Kowalski’s famous “claw hold” (his deadly match-closer that makes no combative sense), and occasionally throwing in a phrase I saw in a wrestling magazine: “a tangle of arms and legs.” I improvise names and characters for the wrestlers. “The Ape Man wins again. But it’s under protest, here comes the doctor to test whether he has human genes. Oh no! He really is an ape and he’s disqualified. He’s going ape!” Twenty years later, at a literary event I meet a scholar who is from my hometown. “I know you,” she says. “You were friends with my son. I used to watch you calling the wrestling from the window and think, “What a clever boy.” 3) My first recorded pun, in my journal of a family road trip; age 12: “We woke up early and hit the road. When our hands hurt, we got into the car and drove off.” 4) My father shows me how to construct a joke with no words; age 13: My father takes out a comic strip he keeps folded up in his wallet. As I scan the four captionless panels, he grins with anticipation: In the first panel, a portly schlub wearing a bowler hat catches his dog peeing on the couch. In the second panel, the schlub scolds the dog. In the third panel, the schlub and the dog are outside and the schlub is peeing against a tree while the dog watches. In the fourth panel, the dog is once again peeing against the couch, but now he is standing on his hind legs, holding his penis with his front paws. My father is immensely relieved when I can’t stop laughing. 5) My first comic in the flesh; age 13: I’m at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah at Carl Hoppl’s in Baldwin (not the lower-class Carl Hoppl’s in Valley Stream, where I had my Bar Mitzvah). After the reception, we’re moved into the nightclub, where the headliner is Morty Gunty (who, a few years later, would follow the Beatles on Ed Sullivan). Gunty switches accents as he flails about. He becomes a beautiful woman undressing in a hotel room when... Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Ah, Dave Frishberg -- singer and writer of my favorite song about baseball -- "Van Lingle Mungo."
(In honor of publication of David Lehman's Sinatra's Century.) 1980, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn are leading a quartet at Fat Tuesdays. After two wonderful sets, I’m about to leave when I overhear a waiter say that someone representing Frank Sinatra just called to reserve a table for the last set. The scheduled time comes; no Sinatra. The musicians drink and smoke and look at their watches. One of them says he heard a rumor that Sinatra is going to do his next album with a jazz quartet, so perhaps he’s on a scouting mission. “Aw, the hell with Sinatra, let's play,” Zoot says, quickly adding, “Just kidding. We can wait for him.” Finally, a party comes in: a couple of tough-looking guys, and a young couple dressed like they have come from a prom. Trailed by Sinatra, looking tired, dressed in what I assume is the first thousand-collar suit I have seen in person. Nobody pays overt attention to Frank, but peripheral vision runs rampant. Al Cohn and Zoot Sims resume swinging. A woman in her early fifties breaks the code and bee-lines toward Sinatra with a menu in one hand and a pen in the other. One of the bodyguards emerges from the shadows and cuts her off. Sinatra slightly lifts a finger, nods, and the bodyguard backs off. The woman puts the menu in front of Sinatra and says something. He beckons her closer, and she whispers into his ear. Sinatra nods again and signs the menu. The woman walks away with a big smile—no one else approaches—and Sinatra turns back to the music, keeping time—or maybe making time happen—with his eyes. Continue reading
Posted Oct 26, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
You know those commercials featuring “the most interesting man in the world?” Tom Meschery should have gotten the gig. Bio Note #1: Tom Meschery was born in Manchuria and spent five childhood years in a Japanese internment camp. He received an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where his teachers included Mark Strand, Marvin Bell, and Helen Chasin. After Iowa, Tom ran a bookstore, taught for Poets in the Schools, and did physical labor before receiving his teaching credentials. He joined the faculty of Reno High School, where he taught Advanced Placement English and creative writing for 25 years; he also taught at Sierra College. Tom is the author of several books of poetry, including Nothing We Lose Can Be Replaced, Some Men, and Sweat: New and Selected Poems About Sports; he has also published the nonfiction Caught in the Pivot. In 2001 he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Bio Note #2: Tom Meschery was born in Manchuria and spent five childhood years in a Japanese internment camp. He was an All-American basketball player in high school and college, and an NBA All Star. He played ten years, mostly for The Warriors (first in Philadelphia and then in San Francisco) and later for the Seattle Supersonics, appearing in two NBA Finals. His #31 has been retired by Saint Mary’s College (where his career rebounding record stood for 48 years), as has his #14 by the Warriors. Tom coached the Carolina Cougars and was the assistant coach for the Portland Trailblazers. In 2003 he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. I’ve been fascinated by Tom Meschery since I heard about a former NBA star, whose name was often prefixed with “hard-nosed,” turning from personal fouls to personal poems. I started a list of “athletes who write poetry” for use with reluctant students when I toured high schools. Not long after my father died in 2001, I was moved and impressed by Tom’s poem “Working Man," in which he addresses his late father (more about this later). Over the years, I have read the poem to several of my Columbia classes, and one day a student said: “He was my high school English teacher!” Interesting. Recently, I talked to Tom (while he was recovering from his second shoulder replacement surgery); this piece is based on that conversation and other sources (see note on bottom). Manchuria to the NBA Thomas Nicholas Meschery was born Tomislav Nikolayevich Mescheryakov. His father was a hereditary officer in Admiral Kolchak’s Army. His mother was the daughter of Vladimir Nicholayavich, who participated in Kornilov’s failed coup against Kerensky: “My grandpa was put under arrest in the Winter Palace. Together with Nicholas II.” Tom’s mother was related to the poet Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (second cousin to Leo). Tom’s parents met, in exile, in Manchuria, and Tom was born in 1938. In 1939, Tom’s father went ahead to San Francisco; his mother was to follow with Tom and his sister... Continue reading
Posted Oct 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Ralph works for EMS. He never talks about what he does. One night, we’re all watching the local news. The reporter describes a triple murder in the Bronx, and says, “One of the victims was dead at the scene, the other two died at the hospital.” “Two were dead at the scene,” Ralph says under his breath. “And the other one died in the ambulance.” Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
1969. I get a temp job on Manhattan’s diamond block, West 47th between 6th and 7th, working in an upstairs room sorting and transporting gems from bins into marked envelopes. It is menial, minimum wage. The perk for me is spending my lunch hour across the street at the Gotham Book Mart; I can see the Wise Men Fish Here sign from my window. On my left works an old woman with a concentration camp tattoo on her forearm; on my right a young man with a lizard on his biceps. The young man asks me to join him for lunch and tells me that he’s been watching the operation for a while. He has determined that the managers do not know exactly what they have until we sort the gems; how easy it would be to slip a few in our pockets each day. He proposes that we take turns on lookout duty. I decline. That afternoon, one of the bosses approaches the young man, says, “Can I talk to you for a minute,” and escorts him out of the room. I never see him again. He likely believes that I ratted him out. So be it, but I devoutly hope the old woman doesn’t think the same. Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I trip and scrape my knee against the pavement. During the two-second delay between the act and the pain, I remember crying as a little boy when I scraped my knee. As the pain kicks in, I think of John Berryman’s line “I am not a little boy,” and a tear re-emerges. Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
My parents’ poker game starts in Brooklyn on Friday nights. I fall asleep to poker chatter leaking into the bedroom I share with my sister: Pair of deuces. Possible flush. No help. One poker night, I’m the one who needs help, awakened by excruciating stomach pain. The doctor comes over and examines me in the best light, on the card table, then drives me to the hospital for an appendectomy. The game continues after we move to Long Island, now once a month. The players arrive about nine: Marvin and Sylvia. Marvin is a shoe salesman with thick glasses whose eyes get progressively worse over the years, until he needs a magnifying glass to read the cards, and then special cards. Sylvia is small, always joking and cracking her gum, saying “denks” for “thanks.” Sidney and Phyllis. Phyllis is large with a lusty laugh, and Sidney a rotund, balding door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Our dog, Duke, greets him effusively as Sidney calls him “Bootchie-Bootch” over and over. Sidney leaves Phyllis and their two teenaged daughters for another woman, and I overhear my father talk about his mean streak. I am disappointed in Duke for falling for the “Bootchie Bootch” routine—he probably tells that to all the dogs. Molly and David. They lived across the street from us in Brooklyn. The happiest I ever see David is after he takes his first ride in a jet plane. “You’re strapped in there and the thing takes off and you feel glued to the seat as the ground disappears. I tell you you’ve never felt anything like it.” Their son gets leukemia and is dead in three months. I overhear Marvin tell my father that David came into the shoe store and wept, “My boy, my boy, they took my boy.” Stu and Burt—who join the game in later years—are bachelors who go on vacations together and buy new cars every couple of years. My mother says it is because they are single and have no families to support. Many years later, my father and I visit my mother’s grave in the vast complex of Jewish cemeteries on Long Island, with an empty plot next to hers, reserved for him. He gestures yonder and beyond, and says, “Out there is our poker game.” Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry