Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fran Lebowitz on youth

Q:   Young people are often a target for you.

A:   I wouldn't say that I dislike the young.  I'm simply not a fan of naivete.  I mean, unless you have an erotic interest in them, what other interest could you have?  What are they going to possibly say that's of interest?  People ask me "aren't you interested in what they're thinking?"  What could they be thinking?  This is not a middle-aged, curmudgeonly attitude.  I didn't like people that age even when I was that age.

-- from Paris Review, Summer 1993

Guest, by Vikram Seth

I woke.  He mumbled things in the next bed.
I lay there for an hour or so.  At four
The alarm rang.  He got out of bed.  He wore
Nothing.  I felt his sleepy classic head
And long-limbed body stir my quiescent heart.
I'd thought that I was free.  Wrong from the start.
I found I loved him entirely instead.

There was no real hope.  "Guy loving guy?
Man, that's a weird trip- and not for me."
I accepted that.  But next day warily
We coiled to snap or spring.  Rash truth.  To lie
Still could have spared the trust; the warmth as well.
I left his room that day.  I try to tell
Myself this sorrow like this ink will dry.

-- from 12 Modern Indian Poets

Friday, January 4, 2013

from "11 Versos," Dionne Brand

From 11 Versos (Writer’s Trust of Canada Margaret Laurence Lecture May 2012)
Dionne Brand

Verso 7
Controversy, against the turn, against the furrow

I finally joined the Communist Party of Canada when it was almost at the end of its existence.  Party meetings were long bureaucratic procedures where many papers were read and intense eyes directed at the people who had encyclopedic brains full of Marx and history.  I joined the artists.  There were artists of all kinds in the club, we were writers and painters and actors, and there were even puppet-makers and comics.  These meetings were possibly the most boring meetings we ever attended.  None of us ever had a meeting perhaps to do anything that we did as artists.  There were photographers and musicians too and proofreaders, and bookshop owners.  And if we did have meetings they would never be this dreary.  The meetings were deadly, tedious meetings discussing things I can’t remember now.  I loved these meetings.  There was a conversation there that we never had to have about what we were doing.  In the muddy meetings there was clarity about our love.  The same love as Lorca and Neruda, Saramago and Carpentier.

A poet friend of mine, two in fact, who were not in the party asked me once why I was a Communist.  I was taken aback.  I said what else would I be?  They stoned me with Stalin, I pelted them with Sartre.  I said I’m a Communist because I’m not a capitalist.  They said this was simplistic.  I said yes but it’s clear.  It was an evening in Massachusetts, we were going to a reading, they said what had communism done for Black people, I said what had capitalism done, they brought up the pogroms, I brought up slavery.  They said but you’re Black, I said but you’re Black too.  They said these isms are only there to hoodwink Black people.  I said most likely but I had never thought of being anything else, for me it was simply logical, organic, I come from the working class.  One of them so annoyed with me asked was I going to call Gromyko to ask him what I could say that night.  I said you call Reagan, I’ll call Gromyko.  We went silent and walked diagonally separated toward the reading.  I read an erotic story about some teenage girls in love with their French-language mistress, we parted company, the diametric widened.

From Brick 90
Winter 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

from A Game of Hide and Seek, Elizabeth Taylor

Now that evening had come she was more confident.  She could even believe that for everybody there is perhaps another person who will not fade on approach; with whom it might not be entirely like those fishes in tanks, crossing and re-crossing, weaving their way through the water, fearing only, it seems, to touch one another; gliding upwards and away instinctively when their paths threatened to meet.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Allen Ginsberg, Julie & me

(originally posted at

As I left the Union Theatre the other night after the LGBT Film Festival's presentation of "Howl," the mesmerizing love letter to poetry, free speech and Allen Ginsberg, I remembered that I'd once seen the man himself a few hundred yards away in the Union Ballroom.

He'd been invited to speak at Marquette, but at the last minute the invitation was pulled after pressure from philistines, so the reading was moved to UWM. Defiantly, hundreds of MU students marched up to the East Side to hear him, along with legions of UWM students and a scattering of high school hipsters.

It was 1967 and I was a junior at Riverside High School. Back then "East" was mainly a neighborhood school. Geography determined where you went, and the Riverside demographic pie split three ways:

1. Working class Black kids who generally lived east of 7th Street.
2. Working class white kids who generally lived east of the river to Maryland, and in what we later called Riverwest.
3. Middle (and higher) class kids, sons and daughters of professionals and intellectuals, who generally lived east of Maryland to the lake.

I was fairly anti-social in high school and I may not be the most reliable historian, but I believe these groups all got along reasonably well, with a fair amount of social leakage between them. In fact, Riverside in the late '60s was an excellent place to practice social mobility and to try on new identities. I was desperately sick of my given one.

Though I was solidly working class, my weird obsession with books and reading alienated me from my family at a young age. By 16, I aspired to brainy, more interesting "east of Maryland" status. But we lived in a flat on Bartlett, my father worked at Briggs & Stratton and there were no books or ideas in our home except the ones I smuggled in. I had a Milwaukee Sentinel paper route from age 12 and this gave me enough income to purchase a few accessories for my new avant garde life.

The antiwar and civil rights wave that was sweeping the nation also passed through Riverside. The epicenter was Julie Gibson, with whom I was deeply, secretly and hopelessly in love. Julie’s parents were English professors and published poets. They seemed caught between being outdated beatniks and premature hippies. At the time, I just thought of them as by far the most fascinating people in Milwaukee. Especially in comparison with my own parents.

Their home on the corner of Park and Maryland was a magnet for anarchists, writers, communists, activists and left-bankers of every sort. Julie’s mother Barbara was the opposite of my mother Betty in just about every way imaginable.

When called to the school because we refused to stop selling the underground newspaper, Kaleidoscope, on school grounds, or for passing out flyers accusing a despised gym teacher of being
a racist fascist or for a number of more Dadaist pranks, Mrs. Gibson would invariably side with us, and lecture the principal about the constitutional rights of students.

Mrs. Eklund, on the other hand, who had to take time off from her job at the La Rosa noodle factory on Holton Street, saw only incomprehensible mischief on the part of her son, and no violation of his rights. She was mystified by my new friends; to her it was as if I’d been invaded by body snatchers. The principal advised her that I had fallen under the influence of some bad actors. True, these were not juvenile delinquents, but the smartest kids in the school. It made no difference, they were troublemakers.

I shadowed Julie like a lovesick puppy, but I was always an extra in her show. Fiercely individual, she was in frequent hot water for her appearance -- one day a scandalously short skirt; the next, elaborately patterned old-womanish scarves and shawls covered with political buttons and armbands. Her tinkling chains, bells and rings made a little Julie soundtrack as she flowed through the halls between classes trailing clouds of patchouli.

She was passionate and political, and picked fights with teachers at every opportunity. The Vietnam War was a personal affront to Julie. A book had just been published by Doubleday called "Where is Vietnam: American Poets Respond," that included a grim entry from "Julie Gibson, age 14." It was
called "Typical Eve-of-Destruction-Type Poem Written by a Typically Frightened and Disgusted Person-to Him, to You, to Me and to Us." On the facing page was a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

Despite my somewhat marginal relationship to Julie-world, I spent a lot of time in it. There were afternoons we played hooky, hanging out in the Gibson’s living room, listening to Jefferson Airplane while her mother practiced yoga. There were lunch hours with fish sandwiches from East Side Foods or
French fries from Francesca’s. On one hilarious occasion Mrs. Gibson pretended to be my mother and called in sick for me so we could all attend an open housing rally.

Somehow the idea of asking Julie out on a date seemed too square, even if I hadn’t been shy to the point of catatonia. But there were times together that felt like dates, or potential ones. She’d say "You’re going to that be-in at Lake Park Sunday, right? Please say yes." I’d imagine us sort of floating through the park in a little private bubble, but instead we were quickly swarmed by the usual crowd of her other admirers.

Once we went to hear some folk singer she was excited about at the Avant Garde on Prospect. I ordered a plate of potato chips and two coffees but by the time they arrived we’d been joined by some college students she knew -- glib, smart, intimidating.

But despite all that, when she asked me one morning whether I wanted to go with her to hear Allen Ginsberg read at UWM, I agreed instantly. And imagined that this time it would be a date. "He’s staying at our house!" she noted. That should have been a warning. If the choice later that evening was to be between being entertained by Allen Ginsberg or John Eklund, I was in trouble.

I realized that I had nothing to wear to an Allen Ginsberg reading. Luckily, I had just done a round of collections from my paper route customers and had $30 in my pocket. I took a bus to Johnnie Walker’s on 3rd Street and selected a dark, oversize dress shirt with enormous white polka dots to go
with my burgundy bell bottoms and brown corduroy jacket. My parents were aghast as I left the house on the evening of the reading but my younger sister thought I looked cool.

We met at Julie’s house and waited for the Marquette marchers to come up Maryland. As they passed, we joined. We were alone for the rest of the walk, and when we got to the Ballroom the UWM students who were already seated gave the Marquette arrivals a rousing ovation. It seemed personal, like they were applauding Julie and me.

And Ginsberg? Oddly enough I barely remember anything about him. He looked a bit creepy. James Franco’s Ginsberg was a lot more adorable than Ginsberg’s Ginsberg. There were long poems that angrily bashed Lyndon Johnson. There were lots of theatrics -- incense, candles and chanting. There may
have been a squeezebox involved but I don’t remember whether Ginsberg played it. Julie watched it all in a kind of rapture. I watched her.

Afterward, as we stood outside the Union, friends of Julie and her parents gathered to talk. I tried to stay near her, which was easy at first when the interlopers were people I knew. But gradually the spreading cluster of grad students, professors and bohemians became mainly strangers, and somehow Julie slipped away. I was left standing with a group of people I didn’t know. Because I hadn’t really said hello I was too self-conscious to risk attention by saying goodbye and walking away. So I just
stood there silently for a very long time, listening to clever talk while becoming increasingly invisible.

Eventually, Allen Ginsberg emerged surrounded by an entourage, and our group drifted over to join that one. I turned west on Kenwood to walk home. It was nearly midnight and I had to do my route at 5 a.m.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robert Walser on expectations

As for me, I'm valiantly studying French, go to work each morning, come home insane in the evening, expect letters, don't write any myself but still expect, every evening, at the very least three letters. They should be lying there when I open the door, white, dazzlingly white, with the dear stamps upon them, the sweet postmarks and all the rest. And when there aren't any, I get perfectly stupid and can't work, and then I say to myself quite sensibly: you never write any letters, but you expect them! You blockhead!

It isn't precisely that I expect letters, but now I'm always expecting something as dear, as tender as a letter. Every evening there ought to be some uplifting little surprise for me, just like a letter.

But one can live quite well without excitements, can't one, only one ought to be endowed with a bit less poesie and the like, should one not? What a babbler I am, am I not, am I not?

- Robert Walser, a letter to his sister, 1898, from Microscripts.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Act of Kindness

One blustery night during the winter of 1973 I was leaving a meeting at the Party office on W 26th street. This was during the time in which the Communist Party was under siege by Lyndon Larouche’s “Labor Committees.” They had singled out the Party for annihilation and suspected members were being assaulted on the street with baseball bats and numchucks.

In the tiny vestibule, one of the elderly volunteers who haunted the building was in the latter stages of steeling herself against the bitter wind. She had wrapped herself in several layers of clothing, and was struggling to tie a scarf around her neck. She moved slowly and with difficulty.

I didn’t recognize her, and I didn’t know whether she was one of the volunteers who actually worked- answering phones, stuffing envelopes, operating the mimeograph machine- or one of the legion of Party veterans who just enjoyed a chance to hang out all day in a comradely atmosphere. The latter would sit outside offices, trying to engage busy functionaries in conversation, like the old guys who hung around in barbershops without ever getting a haircut. But the Party always honored its own, and Gus Hall would never have stood for turning away these beloved old-timers.

“Would you walk this comrade to the bus stop?” someone asked me. I would. Her name was Rose and she said she’d been ‘working at the Center” since her husband died eight years ago. She took a bus down from the Bronx (why not the subway, I wondered) and left for the day only after being convinced that she wouldn’t be needed any more. She walked very slowly, and as we crept down 26th street toward 6th avenue I realized that she couldn’t see very well. I suddenly grasped how frail and vulnerable she was, and I wondered what I would do if we were jumped by Larouche thugs.

But the walk was uneventful. She talked about her work in the garment industry, and told a complicated story about how the union had once made a big mistake by electing a red-baiting secretary who “wrecked the Local.” I couldn’t tell whether these events had taken place recently, or decades ago, but the bitter injustice was vividly alive to her.

From time to time she asked me a question, mundane things along the lines of “What time is it?” The circumstances surrounding the comings and goings from the Center, even something as innocuous as “What brings you to New York?” or “Where are you from?” was not something into which a volunteer would inquire. And old timers, for all their insatiable quest for conversation, had little patience for idle chatter and social niceties. They had one big topical preoccupation: Their Story. And as far as Rose could tell I was just one more interchangeable young comrade who had kindly walked her to the bus stop.

I waited with her until the bus came. Once she was safely aboard, I walked uptown toward 43rd street, where I was to meet my friend Liz before another meeting. Snow was collecting in skittish little eddies, the cold was bone-chilling, and Rose had left my revolutionary credentials in tatters. I felt like a lame imposter.