A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When I got into Washington my friend Eddie met me at the train station and took me directly to Neal’s. Neal had drafted Eddie to be the master of ceremonies, a role Neal didn’t wish to play so he could concentrate on simply being the host. Eddie and I were the first guests to arrive and immediately opened up a bottle of Bushmill’s while Neal fixed his bow tie—he was wearing a tuxedo.
Very soon people began to arrive. They came alone, in couples, in groups of ten. They came wearing suits, tuxedos, ripped blue jeans, evening gowns, halter tops, tee shirts. There were lawyers, doctors, students, postal workers, grocery store clerks, as well as people who had no jobs. Somehow word had gotten out that this was the place to be. When the fiddle band arrived they set up in the living room and began playing. Soon the whole room was shaking with people dancing, drinking, eating; and despite the great differences among them, these people were getting along.
But then it was time for the poetry reading and the unveiling. This was the real test, because it meant stopping the music, which had been going on for two hours, and getting the crowd, which had been drinking heavily in this time, to stop dancing and talking and instead just stand still and listen. I didn’t think it was possible but Neal did it, and without so much as a single protest from the crowd. And it wasn’t because everyone knew him that they paid attention; Neal had told me and Eddie moments earlier that he hardly knew any of these people, and that among those he did know were a number of “acquaintances”—namely, people he or one of his colleagues had saved from lengthy jail terms for offenses such as assault with a deadly weapon or manslaughter. “No,” he had said, “the really bad criminal element isn’t represented here at all. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.” And so with the crowd gathered round, Eddie walked into the middle of the room and, with some trepidation, took on his role as master of ceremonies.
“Okay,” he announced, “we got this guy here who’s gonna read you some poems.” He quickly walked away.
I wished I were back in New York, walking down Avenue B at four in the morning past the crackheads and heroin dealers—at least I knew what those people were about; but here, who knows what could happen, and how these people would react to a goddamn poetry reading. They’d probably expect some sort of poetry slam, as news of that beast had recently hit Washington in the form of a cover story in the Post Style section on the burgeoning local slam scene. On seeing that this was a simple poetry reading, with me being the unopposed poet, they’d make themselves the opposition and employ not words but a more physical means of beating me into submission. I took a deep breath and walked into the fray.
“Okay,” I said, “this first poem is about getting drunk.”
To my relief the crowd cheered. I’d found their common ground. I began to read:
“Drunk at four in the morning
my friend Eddie and I
are sitting in this girl’s apartment
watching a Depeche Mode video…”
It seemed like a good poem to start out with. It was the same poem Good Morning America had decided to show me reading after they’d filmed some event up in New York. If the producers of that show thought it was a proper poem to present to sleepy, cranky people waking up and getting ready for work, then maybe it would work with this crowd as well. I went on with the poem, where I talk about both of us leaving the girl’s apartment rather than competing with each other for her affections, then going to the 711 where we get the fixings for a drunkard’s meal from hell; I talk about eating that meal then feeling sick—then getting sick—and how after all that we went ahead and drank some more:
“So we have a toast:
to canned meatballs with gravy,
to all night parties,
to amateur drunks,
to England and its fancy haircuts,
to all the pretty young girls in the world,
and to the sun
which rises high in the sky
over us all.”
The crowd ate it up—they applauded, they cheered, they raised their beer bottles and cocktail glasses. I read more and more poems to the same response. Finally, when I was done, Eddie came back. He was much more confident now in introducing Jim, who was going to be reading the passage from Moby Dick in which the character represented in the soon to be unveiled painting appears.
“God bless ye, and have ye in his holy keeping, men,” Jim read. And onwards until closing with the words, “Don’t keep that cheese too long down in the hold, Mr. Starbuck; it’ll spoil…” at which point Neal walked over and, pulling away the linen cloth that had been covering the painting, revealed a portrait of Bildad, the retired captain whose ceaseless words of advice before the launching of the Pequod seem to be coming not from an experienced seafarer but from an escapee from an insane asylum. At first the people in the room were silent, pondering the creases on Bildad’s wind blanched skin, then gazing into the eyes of a man too caught up in the absurdity of it all to realize that he was, for all practical purposes, already dead. Then came the applause, the cheers, followed by the raising of champagne glasses and the sound of a lone fiddle starting up the band.
During my first year in New York I had a job keeping track of sales statistics for a direct mail marketing firm—”Well, Charlie, the Jennifer O’Neill faux pearl earrings are moving like cheetahs to wild boar meat in the African grasslands, but the Arlene Dahl cubic zirconium pendants are just sitting there like shit in a Penn Station toilet bowl. I guess people just don’t give a fuck about Arlene Dahl anymore.” It was a steady work and not very difficult at all, but when they realized I wasn’t the sort of person who should make a career of this business they laid me off, giving me two months of severance pay and enabling me to collect unemployment benefits. This freed me to spend more time writing, and what I wanted to write was fiction, nonfiction, reviews—anything but poetry. A poem I could knock off in an hour or two—which, while I was working, was about all the time I had at night for writing. I started working on a novel and doing freelance work for a downtown weekly. With my unemployment benefits, plus the money I made from occasional articles for the paper, I was able to live comfortably.
When my benefits ran out I found temp work at a Wall Street brokerage, inputting data for their annual personnel review. It was a great job for me because I could work whenever I wanted to, listen to music on my walkman while I worked, and get a cab ride home when my shift was over. I always worked the lobster shift. Going home at the hour when everyone else is just getting to work felt good to me. It was something like the feeling of accomplishment that goes along with staying out all night, except instead of having spent a lot of money I was making money. I thought that this was the best possible job for me, leaving me plenty of time in the evenings, before heading down to Wall Street, to do my freelance work. But then something even better came along, a job where I would be able to make a living on my writing alone—a job writing a porno novel.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a porno novel; it was what is euphemistically referred to as erotica, the difference being that while a porno novel would pay about three hundred dollars a shot and be sold in dirty book stores on Times Square, an erotic novel would get an advance of up to five thousand dollars—after which you’d collect royalties—and would be sold simultaneously in respectable bookstores and through book clubs such as The Literary Guild. All it took for me to get this job was to take a walk up to 14th St. and Third Avenue, a block away from the offices of one of the major publishing houses in New York. It was at this corner where I ran into a man who was with this publisher and who had seen me, at various events, reading excerpts from my novel in progress. My novel was rife with explicit sex scenes, and although this caught his attention he was unable to speak to me about his plans on restarting a line of “Victorian Novels”—all because of my habit of leaving the scene of a reading immediately after getting paid. But then, on the day after my job on Wall Street was finished, while taking a peaceful afternoon stroll, I just happened to run into him.
Soon after this meeting I began work on Three Men And A Lady, the story of a young woman who, after having studied in London, returns to live in the country inn where she grew up. In London she was but one of many beautiful young ladies, whereas away from the city she was now, what with her education and sophistication, the most desirable woman the country squires could imagine. “This novel is basically going to be a stroke book for women,” the guy from the publisher said, “but a stroke book with class and elegance, which is why we’re able to sell this shit in respectable places.”
It was while I was working on Three Men And A Lady that I took a break to go to Washington for Neal’s party—the party which made me think that Washington was an easy place to live. When I went back to New York after the party I began to miss Washington, its slow pace, and its wide open skyline. Since working on this erotic novel was not going to tie me down to a particular place I decided to leave New York. I left in a couple of weeks, planning on finishing the novel in Washington, but when I got there I found myself unable to write a single word. And not only that, I couldn’t even come up with any dirty ideas for the novel. And although some people find that a sense of danger—which was the pervasive feeling I had after returning to Washington—acts as an aphrodisiac and leads them to sexual fantasies they normally couldn’t imagine, I was not among them. I began to miss New York, where I felt safe and where, as long as I kept my eyes open, opportunities seemed to just fall in my lap. And above all I missed the inspiration New York provided.