Robert Creeley said,
or almost said.
What Creeley said
in his poem “The House”
Mud is better
but drooped is good.
Robert Creeley said,
or almost said.
What Creeley said
in his poem “The House”
Mud is better
but drooped is good.
Youssef Rakha, Egyptian writer and editor of the international online publication The Sultan’s Seal (aka Cosmopolitan Hotel Cairo), recently posted to his site twelve of his own original poems, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. That posting draws significance for several reasons: both writer and translator are professionals published elsewhere in traditional forms – literary, commercial or journalistic; the poems are estimable; as literary online culture continues to evolve, with some longtime bloggers dropping out following more traditional successes or frustrated by the perceived over saturation of unpaid venues, Rakha continues to appear determined to develop even further his site, creating unprecedented opportunities for diverse writers and readers.
As I consider a discussion of Rakha’s twelve poems, I’m reminded of Kirill Medvedev, the Russian poet whose concerns regarding ownership of communication and open access to literature and language led him to renounce his copyright, and in addition to his other work, he began to self-publish his poetry on Facebook. At the same time, Medvedev seemed interested in writing that would not alienate a common reader, as so much poetry often does, even if inadvertently. Reading poetry can seem like studying a foreign language, as indeed it is.
Rakha’s poems behave, it might seem redundant to say, poetically. That is, they move by metaphor and juxtaposition of images, narration sometimes ambiguous, with many unexpected turns. What is their subject? Rakha has always made expeditious use of tags. At the bottom of the “Twelve Poems” post, for example, we find 70 tags, alphabetically ordered, but we don’t find fridge or hug.
We should assume the speaker or narrator of a piece is not necessarily the author. Authors create characters, in both fiction and poetry, and narrators, including those in the first person, are characters. Even the narrator of a so called memoir, perhaps particularly so, is a character created by the author. Louis Menand recently spoke to this issue in a New Yorker article. I’m not sure he clarified or muddied the waters. That business about the “narrative pact,” for example: I prefer Trilling’s argument that everything is an argument – and that probably includes memoirs, essays, poems, novels, ads and commercials, junk mail, the evening news, anything on an op-ed page, and notes left on the fridge from your partner. The old, venerable encyclopedias? Full of arguments. The new Wiki? Likewise. But Menand’s closing point, that no occasion for writing should prevent us from reading, is right on. But what of the culpability of readers who in their creative reading find something the author had not intended? But isn’t one of the purposes of poetry to create and sustain or nurture the possibilities of unintended consequences?
The setting of the poem where we find the man hugging a fridge seems domestic. His wife is there, swinging from the chandeliers, but this doesn’t seem to be a party. The local world is drowning in rain. We might recall Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” “Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?” The man’s legs are submerged. Is he hugging the fridge for its buoyancy potential, a life preserver? The poem is titled “Listen Ashraf,” and Ashraf Fayadh, a poet initially sentenced to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, is named in the first line. His sentence was subsequently reduced to an eight year prison sentence with 800 lashes. His crime, it seems, wasn’t so much poetry, or being a poet, but of writing the wrong kind of poems. We hug our abodes, our houses, our wives and fridges, our lifestyles, as the waters continue to rise. We hug to say hello, goodbye. We hug the things we love. We hug a fridge or a clothes washer when we want to move it to another location. We hug to hold on. “Listen Ashraf” is the last of the twelve poems.
The first poem of the twelve is titled “First Song of Autumn,” and speaks of joy: “I am the clarinet’s mouth.” This poem is lyrical, cylindrical, like the flight of birds.
In “The Angel of Death Gives Counsel to a Bereaved Parent,” we find one of those poems whose narrator or speaker appears as a character invented by the author of the poem. The poem appears to be the angel’s apology, a rebuttal to the argument that he has no feelings. But he must harbor his hugs to get the job done. And he gives back, not an answer, and certainly not even a hint of a meaning to his work, but a hug of surety.
The twelve poems speak in both the first and second persons. The speaker addresses someone close but at the same time far away, questioning, observing, remembering. There are sparks of sadness and of sarcasm, of hope drowned in irony, of anger:
“Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.”
Readers might wonder what it is they hug, to get them through the night or day of a poem, across the invisible wall of a border.
One of the twelve poems, “Stallion,” is a prose poem. Not that a piece written in prose is any easier to grab hold of. It only appears to be one of the more accessible poems here. Written “For Ahmed Yamani,” it moves as a dream of water over oil. Another prose poem, titled “Love (Marriage),” seems an aphoristic apology, though we may not be exactly sure for what. It is not the sentiment often found on greeting cards.
On second and third reading, the poems open more easily. The reading is not difficult; that is because the writer has done most of the work. But there is work required of the reader, too. The settings and references may be unfamiliar, the problems, though universal, hardly equitably distributed. Characteristic of the poetry is the packing together of history, personal observation, everyday events (visiting a cafe, for example), a kind of diarist epistolary form. The movements feel free, without restraint, not hamstrung.
A fun and generous review of Alma Lolloon has appeared on Amazon. Here is a link, and I’ve pasted the review below:
by, Rucker Trill
July 4, 2018Format: PaperbackVerified PurchaseDear Miss Lolloon – You are no doubt by now growing weary of fan mail after the publication of your eponymous novel, Alma Lolloon, but I just finished reading it, so I must write to tell you how much I liked it.
Right off the bat I thought, hmmm, this is new and unusual given the absence of most punctuation not to mention quote marks so that I knew I was in uncharted waters here, or maybe a better metaphor (I learned that word from the book)would be along the line of separating skeins of different colored yarn after the kittens have been in the knitting basket. But soon enough I got my stride and realized that this is the way things happen in real life – there are no quotation marks there, now are there. And it seems like that’s the way this book unrolls, just like life with the unexpected hidden just around the corner, under the everyday. (Though given your five husbands I wonder if anything about your life is “everyday”.)
I’m no writer myself, but one of the things I liked was how you and your friends talk about the book right there in the book while they’re supposedly hearing the book! I mean whoa! What’s that about? It was like falling into a hall of mirrors or something. I asked a professor who lives down the block about it, and she said you were “meta-texting” and after I showed her a few pages she said you were doing it very humorously, and I confess I laughed way more than once. But like I said, I’m no writer, so who knows.
Now, I don’t knit but I’d love to join you and Curly, Hattie, and Rufa some day for coffee and scones and we could talk more about your book. I could even bring the scones. Maybe some time in August? I plan to be up your way then.
Anyway, I’ve run on too long and I know you’re busy on your next book. I hope it’s a mystery, I really like the mystery part of the book with Jack Rack. (I think you should have married him!)
Best regards, Rucker
Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding, by Lim Lee Ching, with Drawings by Britta Noresten. Introduction by Neil Murphy and Afterword by Jeremy Fernando. Poems Sequenced by Mary Ann Lim. Layout by Yanyun Chen. Paperback edition first published 2017 by Delere Press, Singapore.
In a December, 2014 interview with Sara Lau for Obscured, Jeremy Fernando talks about his vision for Delere Press: “We didn’t see the need to have a prescribed look for all our books – we recognize that we are a small boutique press, and we are probably going to remain that way in the foreseeable future. In the end, all we want to do is to create and publish something that shows the artists and the writers’ work in the most beautiful way possible.” “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding” is my second experience reading with notes intended for the Toads in response to a Delere Press work. Of particular note is the press’s intent “to provide a home for text and images that may not have a home otherwise, no matter what its geographical origins.” That the press attempts to do so with hard copy, illustrated texts, choreographed by literary troupe in our digital age is remarkable.
“Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding,” is a collaborative effort to book a collection of poems by a particular writer that becomes more than a sum of its parts. We have, maybe, become too familiar with books of hidden poetry. They line the shelves like butterflies pinned under glass. A poem does not begin like a fallen leaf pressed between pages of a book for bibliographical preservation. A poem begins as a particle, a photon, a piece of light that lands in the reader’s hands, a single note that enters the ears with a breeze, something that bugs the skin with an itch, as in, “something just bit me!” A book cannot preserve that piece of light except in fossilized memory. We may never hear that note again; it has joined the sound ocean waves make. The bug has lit, and we are left the proof of a small rash of the bed bug or lice visit. We jump into a bath of prose to escape the itching.
When I say “to book,” I mean that pinned collection of specimens organized for study. To book is to create a model to look. The helpless reader must imagine the specimen fluttering in a heat of flowers. A poem may try to evade its predators (its digital critics) by hiding in the book:
“Even as it might be chuckling, perhaps always
le rire du poeme
A laughter from elsewhere,
one that we perhaps cannot yet hear.
Much like the silence of the sirens. Always perhaps
That is from Jeremy Fernando’s “Et tu…A Prayer for Lim Lee Ching,” an afterword to “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging from Hiding.” Other parts of Lim Lee Ching’s book of poetry include an introduction by Neil Murphy (“Lim Lee Ching: Bounded by Beauty”) and eight drawings of birds, spread throughout the book, by Britta Noresten. We are told the poems were sequenced by Mary Ann Lim and the layout composed by Yanyun Chen. All of those collaborators are called “contributors,” and they are given end-space so they too might become familiar to the reader. What becomes larger than the sum of the parts is that collaborative effort that creates emergence. What emerges is poetry from hiding, raising elation, poetry unshackled, flown like paper birds from the garret into a community, a society. Poetry is a question of community more important than mere self-expression.
“The path is not tongue-tied,” Lim Lee Ching says. The path is there and people will walk it. The invitation, the invocation, is clear. But who are these people, these walkers (readers) of the path? “That perhaps is not so much the question, but quite certainly a question,” Fernando says, and “Keeping in mind Paul Celan’s beautiful, haunting, reminder that la poesie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose. One might even say it opens itself” (93). Opens itself to itself, it’s self-same intuitions, which are its conventions, if you need “criteria” to read by, if mere light proves insufficient. We are on a path.
When I first read “Quick Guide” (48), I thought I was to pick words from the text box on page 48 and insert them into one of the blank lines in the text on pages 49 through 51. I thought the path had come upon a Mad Lib.
“Sometimes a show can be too new for its own good” (49), I suggested to myself, my choices being “first blue dark ripe new fast.” “Mad” is a choice farther down the list, and “sad,” and “bad,” if you want to rhyme. But now I’m not so sure. All the words in the text box are one syllable. There are 78 words in the text box, and there are 60 blank spaces in the text on pages 49 through 51. This is analysis. Am I analyzing a joke here? Is this humor? Of course it is! Let’s get the reader really involved!
“It quickly becomes clear that part of the idea is to use humour to send up some of the ____________ attitudes still dominant in the art world. So, the pleasures of discipline are extolled, the players get their turn and pretentiousness gets a ____________ kicking” (50).
Poetry comes without directions, or it should. Critics may provide some directions, using a kind of rear view mirror to describe the path now behind them. The critic’s notes may prove useful maps; then again, the reader may feel just as lost.
Beginning with “Ode to Everman” [sic], we hear repetition and a counting (accounting of things): cadence, marching, peace and piece, music piece, measured. Every man [who has ever marched, marching in a line, in a poem, to a tune, attuned]. Circumstance, the silence of Beckett (a ringing in the ears). Military “boom time,” “armed,” “beating” (12:13).
Warren Beatty? How’s that for a surprise? Repetitions (‘One at a time”), words connected by sound: “cravat advocate” (14).
“Unloading pomposity one at a time” (14), and again “…your / Penchant for pomposity” (22). Where “Iowa” is monosyllabic: “Impossibility of authenticity” (22).
Numbers as poetic concern, things counted, measured, “Halved too far” (15).
“Cull” illustrates the poet’s task. The poet fishes, on a perch, for a perch. But who are the “armed men”? Look how quickly we can move from river to city:
“Waiting and baiting on the narrowing perch,
The centre holds them still.
A trunk, a branch – of streets and lanes,
Of skinny legs and weathered shoulders” (17).
Suggesting weathered soldiers, readers. Again, a military, a line: “Of fight, of fright, / And frenzied feeding against stained walls” (17). Desire is impotent. Who will teach that?
Then we turn the page to a drawing of a bird, not quite but almost black and white, but more, the feeling of a bird in flight, perhaps in the night, or a fog, or over a grey sea. We resist the impulse to anthropomorphize. But it’s clinging to a small branch. Building a nest? Very few birds fly solo. What a world this must be, to a bird. In any case, to cull is to pick, peck, at words.
“Only the facts remain” of Ryan White, who picked up a “Contagion.” Only our germs remain. You build yourself a bomb shelter against the fallout, but you are yourself a germ, a bug, rising, falling. So much fear. “Only the facts remain” (20). Facts survive. If we’ve lived for any length of time in a refugee camp, we have germs. If we’ve lived any length of time in a bungalow in Des Moines, we have the same germs. We are emergent, emerging – emergence, as writer merges with reader, something more. Is that pompous? Is poetry a contagion? After the poem, what remains?
“Bookmarks” is a longer poem, of which there are several in the book, prose blocks, not non-lyrical, but not lyrics. But not prose, and not blocks, scrolls. We keep to the first word of each line capitalized, giving the line that authority accustomed poetry, but the lines are not necessarily sentences, not in the usual sense:
“Only the words remain to be spoken, the writing to be sung
Of happinesses witnessed and tongues tied
In full contemplation of the idea of ideas” (24).
Who inhabits the space of an idea? “…not…king, colonel or clown, / Nor the realm of whisperers seeking to please” (24).
An idea (ideology is not ideas, Trilling said: Ideas malleable, suitable for poetry; ideology fixed). Idea of order in things (Key West shells, beaches, cocktails, dandy diamond Wallace Stevens). “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Stevens said. No idea except in things (Williams, Paterson, Book I):
“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”
I’m in “Bookmarks,” and I’m reminded of Blake (where I left plenty of bookmarks), “Proverbs of Hell.” “Adagia”? Erasmus’s collection of proverbs. In any case, Lim Lee Ching says:
“The source of ignorance may well be reluctant pursuit.”
“The cult of stability and singular meaning
Diminishes ascendant beauty, delight and breath-hope.”
“Persistent therefores are fallacious,
They bind while unleashing the gateward push” (25).
Prayer, cadence, repetition. Whose tongue is tied praying, writing, reading poems? The scat of the song ruins the stutter, but the poet’s many tools are not obtrusive:
“Whispery songs of woven trances,
Of ancient wisemen oozing” (27).
Cadence as old steps (“the fragrance of remembrance”) might lead to disappointment, even depression: “Accord each a place in abjection” (27).
But isn’t time directionless? What does it matter if we are moving forward (in desire, in anxiety) or backward (in memory, in loss). For-word. Back-word. The poet spends time in a backworld, where the citizens speak backward.
“Penance is the province of princes, not poor men” (28), which brings us to T. S. Eliot:
“Here lies the awakening
Of the dispensation of an age,
Dismissing the certainty as one in many
The faces put on meet the faces within” (29).
Ideology is a “contagion.” Is poetry the antidote?
And again birds, before a song breaks the spell of the litany. Something lonely about the bird drawings. The birds are not in nature, or even in the city, but alone, each its own poem, each drawing its own poem, saying the same thing, but in different expressions. Where do we see these birds? In sky that is like a sea: grey-green; blue-grey; slate; cliff chalk white.
“Song” (34): Blake of the Songs – song, rhyme, cadence, hope, safe, heart, metaphor for what? Can the reader, too, be one of the “players of the heart”? (35).
“faithful” (37), religious or spiritual, sound but abstract images, nothing of the kitchen full of dirty dishes or the toilet in the bathroom in need of cleaning. Not Bukowski here. And I’m still hearing Blake of the Songs. Which is lovely, lyrical, song. I try to remain a faithful reader.
We’ve had our song, now the “Road Rises” as the reader falls. Mix of pop culture with “village.” The “tenderizing songs” of Elvis. And “Plastic Jesus” – the perfect image on the dashboard desires deconstruction, a theory to explain its presence, or disappearance.
Then again I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, but not Stevie Smith or Marianne Moore. Not a statistician. Enjoys punctuation that helps, not simply follows some rule. Writing as accretion, addition. I find something interesting, a two word form, in “Shallowbreath”: “ribboned arches…winded depths…cobbled many…meddled few…celebrated warmth…allayed smokememory…displaced upon…hounded the highroad… …warmed eyes.” We could be in London or Singapore or Dublin. Joycean, that “smokememory.”
A short, lyrical, litany ends, “And then there is you.” Do birds prepare for flight? Always at the ready, never slack, like cats, never napping in clear sight. Are birds keen to fly? “On the station platform prayer beads change hands” (57). Partnerships.
“A Gazal” (58). What gets rhymed, and why, and what gets repeated, and why? For song, for the sake of song in which we have something to keen. Poetry gives form to the broken. What is unbound cannot be broken again.
The poems seem to call on a kind of philosophical muse, hard thought. Yet that thought’s softness comes through in poetic style, the form and shapes, the lines, the breath, the flows repeated and measured. The writing seems logical, in the same way that Kafka may appear logical, or Borges, without dismissing the nonlogical. The first person is not paramount. Others are. And when I appears, it’s Meng Jiang (61). If we continue to break what is broken what do we become? Minerals? Salts?
Little poems of “love and faith” (65). What more can a reader ask for? The reader comprehends the poetry without necessarily every line understanding it.
Nijinsky appears (66). The last time I saw Nijinsky in a poem was at El Camino, around 1969. Stephen Jama passed out a poem he had written, typewriter print on colored paper. Some students got a green sheet, others a yellow, others blue or grey. Never white. “And the world dies, Adonis on its lips,” I think I recall, at the top. And Nijinsky was “dancing a band”? No, dancing I forget what. And there was a “tousled laugh.” I wish I could remember that poem. It’s lost now. I don’t think it ever made it into a book. I wonder who still has their copy. I kept mine for years, then one day without reason tossed them all, along with a box of my own stuff. I was knee deep in the red dust by then, cleaning out the basement, lost in the dust. Maybe it’s poems “belong only to the night” (67). Jama’s assignment was for us to read the poem and then to write a response. Birds in flight.
“What I have written, I have written,” Jeremy Fernando says in his afterword. Would that were true of what I have written. But what I have read, I have read. Fernando attempts to connect writer to reader: where does poetry, that space of water we seem to want to cross, a crossing, from the shore of sleep to the loading docks of day – poetry the ferry full of readers unbound from one shore, paddling for the opposite – what path leads down to the ferry launch? When the poem laughs, is it the reader laughed at? That is a cynical view many hold.
To read is to experience. Any attempt to make some other sense of that experience is a different matter:
“… every try, any trying, perhaps even trial, is not just haunted by misreadings, over-writings, one cannot even underwrite it with the certainty that reading has taken place, that one has even read” (77).
Day job workers share in common evenings. Time off, free time, leisure time, time-wasting, occupy the evenings. What to do? The question often haunts office and factory workers (workers clutching daytimer calendars are bothered by another version of the question). The evening absorbs the question of what to do like a fountain swallows wish thrown coins. The equity of time off beggars everyone. Free time hours can’t be saved, must be spent. On what?
Frits van Egters, the main character of Gerard Reve’s “The Evenings” (first published in Dutch in 1947), works an office day job he considers so boring he barely mentions it. His attention is focused on his evenings, how they might be spent, how they pass, what he might do with his free time, and what he does do. Frits lives with his parents when in December of 1946 we are invited to spend his evenings with him as they pass from around Christmas thru the new year. He talks to himself, has bad dreams, tells horrible jokes, thinks about the evening hours passing, goes out and about, visits friends, is condescending toward his parents, alienated, sarcastic, cynical. It’s freezing outside. Inside there’s the coal stove, a radio with a classical music and a news station, books, food, his bedroom. One night he goes out and drinks too much and gets sick. By the next evening he’s recovered enough to be able to go out again. He sees a film, rides a tram, crosses canals, walks along a river. He owns a bicycle, but it breaks.
The layout is dense, the dialog embedded in paragraphs, and the book is meant to pass as slow as an evening might, and to mean the same thing, which is nothing, which is to say, everything. Often, Fritz’s thoughts during a conversation are spoken to himself and interwoven with what he actually says and hears. His dreams are related in a similar way, so that the reader may not immediately realize when a dream, or the memory of a dream, has begun or ended. The writing is clear, though, the descriptions appealing to every sense. The home meals, the food, for example, are described with local, specific detail – texture, smell, look, feel, taste. You can even hear the meal cooking, eaten. The clothes, weather, walks also all described with realistic detail, a pleasure to read. There is no television, no devices to distract or synch. “The Evenings” is a book, a perfect way to pass an evening.
The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale, Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, London, 2016.
I was interviewed by Vlad Savich for Queen Mob’s Tea House. Trip on over and check it out?
The Phenomenology of Error[i]
A solo Mission at the Ranger Station before group poetry night, hoping
for a good napkin poem. When we read like police we make a criminal[ii]
shot with red pencil corrections, the poet apprehended, booked.
Pull over the rotting rhymester! Handcuff this conceptualist clown.
Arrest that academic asshole. Ticket the doggerel running off-leash.
Slipknot a sleeping surrealist. Deny the pop songwriter his award.
We might read like Mother Theresa[iii] anointing the sores of lepers,
becoming the other for the time saving takes then letting go.
The poverty of poets paves the way to the cornucopia of poetry.
Line 14 stops and a pretty woman[iv] hops off in bright orange shorts.
She’s poetry in motion[v], no idea of me, and could not care less
what I’ve done to this napkin. For her, a perfect reader, I must error not.
[i] “The Phenomenology of Error” is a study by Joseph M. Williams showing when we read self-consciously we do so with bias from personally invested conventions that often have nothing to do with the reality of the text at hand (May, 1981). http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/schaffner/Williams%20Error.pdf
[ii] In “Seeing Through Police” (n+1, Spring 2015), Mark Greif says, “Police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals.” https://nplusonemag.com/issue-22/police/seeing-through-police/
[iii] Mother Theresa was canonized by Pope Francis in September, 2016, amid ongoing criticism of the quality and quantity of her work with the poor.
[iv] Any resemblance to the Roy Orbison song (1964, “Oh, Pretty Woman”), or to the Julia Roberts film (1990), is purely coincidental.
[v] Line 14 is the Hawthorne bus. Poetry in Motion places poems on buses.
Just as we might ask a critic not to call not good a work for not being what it is not intended to be, we might remember expecting a like from any particular audience predisposed to dislike the chosen form doomed to deletion. We often think others think like we do, but they probably don’t. We persist in putting our selfie into play in the hopes of turning on an audience to a new experience. But before this post devolves into another discussion of what is good, let’s update the recent doodles, many of which have received welcomed likes from the general audience online community (hover for titles):
Artists like van Gogh who truly lust for life can afford to ignore pandering or otherwise trying to persuade an audience of anything, let alone what might be good, because those artists pursue their work free and unencumbered from the fickle vicissitudes of audience likes and dislikes and market influenced fads. The cost of this artistic stubbornness is usually obscurity, the rat infested garret, fasting; the reward is independence, exploration of the unknown, relaxation.
These various recent venues, if the attempt is art, (facebook, twitter, blogs, instagram, etc.) are as full of activity as the Midwest summer evening near the lake is full of mosquitoes, where each like becomes a bite that draws blood and soon begins to itch like crazy for more. Bites and likes, interchangeably. In any case, each of these venues presents a certain form that challenges the artist to conform with the appropriate content for the coveted like. No likes doesn’t mean no appreciation. One may safely assume lurkers around every post. Or one may at least tell oneself so.
Think maybe for a moment of the undiscovered or otherwise ignored (perhaps worse) artist who has invested much more emotion and investment and expectation in a work longer than the doodle (the epic novel, the still oil painting that seems to move, the play with a cast of a dozen burning stars). One begins to envy the popular doodler who survives on fish and chips and cheap beer, and turns away with the crowd from the hunger artist. What is it we want, what are we looking for when we open a book, look at a painting, watch a play unfold? What does it take for us to simply like something? A like is like a smile; it’s not a kiss.
Some evenings are full not of mosquitoes but lightning bugs, fire flies, glow worms – that light the length of a like. But it’s foolish to lust for likes. What’s important is to like what you are doing. A neighbor recently asked, “What are you doing, Joe?” If I only knew, I’m sure I could stop. Sometimes people ask what when what they mean is why. In any case, don’t lust for the like; like for the lust.
When Seinfeld the television show was on, a guy in my office gig at the time used to come by my desk in the morning after each episode and ask me did I see Seinfeld last night. I never did. My colleague would then repeat over the course of the day practically the entire episode for me, scene by scene. “And then Kramer comes in and says, ‘…’.” That sort of thing. And he was really good, too. He could have been a stand-up on his own. In fact, he ended up doing a few shows of his own. Very witty guy, good mimic, remembered all the good lines from the classic movies and shows.
Eventually, I did watch some Seinfeld, new and reruns. Funny stuff, the four friends and their meaningless, purposeless adventures, circuitous – but there’s truth in comedy, and while the Seinfeld episodes might have failed to high jump the MASH bars in the handling of controversial issues, they were subtly subversive in their almost zen like refusal to acknowledge the importance of quotidian values. Seinfeld crossed into farce, while MASH was embedded in satire.
So it was with interest I listened to Susan who first told me about Seinfeld’s newest venture, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” an independent, on-line show now in its 7th season and 50th episode. The premise is Jerry calls up one of his comedian buddies and invites them to get a coffee, to which they drive in paradisiacal Los Angeles weather in some American Graffiti like cool rod. Susan and I watched the latest installment together on her laptop this morning. Jerry picks up Judd Apatow and they head out in a 1968 candy apple bougainvillea red Firebird. And while we were watching, the idea came to me for this post.
You see, the problem with comedians in cars getting coffee is that there isn’t anything intrinsically funny about getting coffee. And there’s not much funny about souped up, expensive cars – retro, restored, like they’ve never been taken out of the garage.
How about, Comedians in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “What number are you, Jerry?” “I’m number 236, Judd, how about you?” “33.” “Really, how lucky is that? When did you get here?” “Yesterday, around noon.”
“Number 236? 236?” “Hey, man isn’t that you?” “Number 237, 237?” “Oh, bummer, man. You gotta go pull a new number. Otherwise, you’ll be like taking cuts.”
Or how about, “Comedians without medical insurance coverage in line at the ER with a strange raspberry red itchy rash all up and down their arms and legs. “You, know, Jerry, when we got here the rash was only around our ankles.” “Don’t worry, it’s got a ways to go yet before it gets to our eyes and ears.”
And why comedians, anyway? Why not a car pool full of adjunct instructors in an old beater on their way to night classes? Oh, wait, I guess those are comedians.
Or how about a couple of plumbers in tee shirts and blue jeans getting hot dogs and beers at a food cart in Culver City across from one of the old studios? “Hey, Jocko, You think maybe you can come over my place take a look at my plugged up toilet you get off? “Sure, Mabelline, love too.” “What, around 5, 6?” “Yeah, yeah.” “I’ll put some cool ones on ice for ya, Jocko.” “Swell, lovely.”
Postal workers getting their feet rubbed with coconut oil at nail salons, complaining about all the junk mail, but without which they’d probably be unemployed.
Paparazzi taking a Pierria bottled water break on the beach at Malibu.
But I’m glad to see Seinfeld’s project a success. There’s a sponsor now, so Jerry’s presumably broken another preconceived assumption too long controlled by network TV and others in advertising – and social media wonks and the like. In any case, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it more than once, you should not criticize a work for not being the work you want it to be. The good critic considers intent, intended audience, type of argument, persuasive appeals. There are many types of argument, many ways to persuade. Some audiences are friendly, others hostile, and they can change direction like a spinning top. Besides, it’s not easy being funny. Many folks have very little in the way of a sense of humor, and they don’t tolerate fools or clowns with their time.
There are other getting coffee like projects, involving all the arts. Indie ideas. In Poets Online Talking About Coffee, Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts conducts a series of interviews ostensibly about the poet’s relationship with coffee. But relationships with coffee can be complicated. And you can get your own coffee.
What are we reading?
Joe wrote a book.
Really? What’s it called?
Are there any cats in Joe’s book?
I hear Joe’s working on a sequel.
Tell him to put more cats in it.