I’ve got some deep archives, and they’re a mess. I’ve been writing and submitting poetry since the late 1990s, and this submissions sheet is a reminder of just how much has changed since then. Now almost everything has been updated to online submissions forms – Submittable foremost among them – and only dinosaur journals like the Paris Review still require you to send them a SASE. (I remember knocking on the door of their offices on E. 72nd St. in order to drop off a package for George Plimpton, on assignment for the Gotham Book Mart.) These, anyway, were my first attempts at publishing, and you can see the titles of my very first published poems on the right. It’s funny how the passage of time gives value to the most banal artifacts of our lives. Glad I saved this one.
I’ve always wondered what it might be like to be interviewed.
When did you first start writing poetry?
Longer ago than I thought, actually. My sister recently mailed me some papers she found in her personal archives, and in them were poems I had written at college. I studied visual arts, and somehow had no memory of taking a poetry class in my first year. Once I read the poems, it all came flooding back to me.
Can you elaborate on that?
I was able to visualise the apartment I lived in at the time, in Richmond. And my bedroom, and then all the details of the poems themselves. It was a typical writing exercise: it was called “Twenty Snapshots”. It was evident from the writing that I hated the artifice of it. I think that experience shut the door between poetry and myself for a few years.
When did you return to it?
I hated college, and dropped out after my second year. I had burned all my bridges, had no friends and was supremely unhappy in Richmond. In hindsight, I was probably having a belated teenage rebellion. I moved to New York City in early 1995 – just caught a Greyhound and stayed in a cheap hotel on the Bowery until I found a job and a place to live. My first job was at the Strand. I walked in because I knew Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine had both worked there. They were my heroes then.
That experience, though horrible in many ways, exposed me to books and literature in ways college libraries hadn’t. And other people for whom books were a way of life, an obsession. I got caught up in that stuff. We drank a lot, and lived a pretty sordid lifestyle. I wrote about that time in [untitled chapbook].
Anyway, long story short I quit the Strand in a tizzy and ended up eventually at the Gotham Book Mart. Again, it was a Patti Smith thing. She had published her first book of poems with them. I probably knew that from some book I’d read about punk. Well, Gotham was a totally different atmosphere than the Strand, much more intimate and serious about books and people who loved them. And it was in midtown, on 47th, crushed in on every side by the diamond merchants. They had a great poetry alcove, and important poets each had a whole shelf for themselves: Stevens, Pound, Williams. Their photos lined the walls. It was a bookshop with a long history, and these poets were like extended family. At some point I came across Hart Crane and that was it.I was intoxicated by his poetry in a way I’ve never been by anyone else’s. I wanted to do what he had done.
Crane can be a difficult poet.
He can! I was drawn to that initially. He was like pure music. Even when he was drunk and didn’t make sense, he still sounded wonderful. He had a kind of logic even in madness. His letters were great too. For me he was like the Velvet Underground, one of those artists whose effect is transformative on a rather small group of people. Others kind of just look at them sideways, or in horror (laughs).
Did you begin writing at that point?
Yes, right away. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to get his hands dirty. I don’t care if I’m out of my depth. I wanted to see if I could make this wonderful word-music, too. My first poems were imitations, as they had to be. But they weren’t so bad, in my opinion. Or maybe they were!
And did you publish them?
Yeah, I was lucky that at the Gotham there were tons of editors and writers coming in and out. New York is great like that. I took advantage, striking up conversations with people. People would tell me to send my work, and they would sometimes accept it. It’s very different from the submissions process today. At least for me. I got four poems in Pivot right away. I thought, This is easy.
What is different about submitting today?
I no longer have an advantageous perch in a well-trod New York bookshop, for one. Now I live abroad, in an out of the way place (as far as American literature goes). I’ve also never stuck with it year in year out, so I lost whatever foothold I had had. I keep starting over from scratch. And the internet has changed the game.
It seems there is so much more happening now. Social media has become the preeminent way to promote yourself and your work. Of course, the rewards are greater for those nimble enough to navigate the internet effectively. You can become a superstar practically overnight. I distrust such success, however. I don’t crave it. I want to get past the filters on the merits of the work alone. I’m my own worst enemy in that sense. I think that comes from my father. He would always do things the hard way.
Who are your favorite poets?
I don’t really have favorite poets. I like certain poems I read, certain voices, but I don’t go out and buy the collected works anymore. I read a lot which isn’t poetry, too, so I’m not obsessive like I once was.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Homo Deus, which deals with the future of Homo Sapiens, a poetry chapbook and a novel. I get bored reading only one thing. I’m restless.
Let’s talk about your work. What is your process when writing a poem?
I don’t really have a process – or I don’t think I do anyway. Writing usually begins with a line or phrase that pops into my head when I’m doing something else. Sometimes I’m diligent enough to write it down in a notebook, and at times a poem follows. I’ll usually get something down in a rush, just trying to catch the words before they disappear, then I’ll type it up and the real work begins. But I like to see the poem on the page, study the shape it makes, then attack it from there. Then I put it aside when something else starts happening, and so on. It’s a nonstop process.
When do you submit a poem to a magazine?
Sometimes after years of working on it, other times immediately. I’m still not sure what the best strategy is, so I just try everything. Rejection is pretty much guaranteed either way. I’ve learned not to worry about it, because it’s like a kiln in which your poems are fired. It’s good for them.
Do you give readings?
I think I did only once, for a magazine called Greetings. I was invited to read my three poems from that issue at a bar in New York. I haven’t done one since. I’ve never had an opportunity, really. I was invited by Rattle to read in Los Angeles recently, but I couldn’t make it. I’d have loved to go, but I live in Italy!
Tell us what took you away from the United States.
Oh, god, that could go on forever. Basically I was growing tired of the itinerant New York lifestyle. I was in a different apartment pretty much every year, breaking up and moving in and out, and I couldn’t handle another roommate situation. And living alone was too expensive on a bookseller’s salary. So I was generally fed up. I had also gotten screwed by my ex-girlfriend, and had bad credit as a result. I put my stuff in storage and took the first plane to Rome.
Did you plan to stay?
I had no idea. I just wanted to get away. I ended up taking a sabbatical year in Rome, writing a novel-in-verse, and meeting my wife. Everything changed that year. There was no going back at that point.
Tell me about the novel-in-verse.
It was begun on the eve of my departure, when I was still living in Brooklyn. Everything was falling apart, and I just began with this line, “Each night the poems traveled from his pen…” which was true enough about me at the time. It turned out to be a Byronic satire. The main character is a version of myself, but put through a number of filters. It goes on for eighty pages or so. It’s quite funny in its bleakness. It’s a bit like long-form Edward Gorey.
Is it true you met Gorey once?
How did that happen?
I was working at the Gotham and the owner, Andreas Brown – Andy – who had been the one behind the Amphigorey books in the 1970s – he was a friend of Edward’s. At Gotham that was how they stayed alive at that point, by selling Gorey books and prints and paraphernalia. All signed. They had the market cornered on all things Gorey. One day Andy – who didn’t drive – told me I had to take him up to Provincetown (where Gorey’s house was) with a carload full of books. It was quite a trip.
What was he like?
Andy, or Gorey? (laughs)
He was like you’d imagine, I suppose. Let me say that I was not a fan at the time. I considered his brand of art whimsical. (I’ve since revised my opinions.) So I wasn’t going up there to meet the myth. He had that beard, and that crazy old mansion with too many books and cats – it smelled awful – but he was pretty normal. I remember the tv was always on. Sitcoms. I recall canned laughter coming from upstairs. The funny thing is that [untitled poem] – the novel-in-verse – ended up taking a great deal from that encounter with Gorey. I barely spoke to him, but I observed him pretty closely that weekend.
Has the novel been published?
No, no, I’ve still never had a book published. That’s like the Holy Grail for me, a book person, to have my own book. I’ve sent it out but it always comes back with a rejection note. Too bad, because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But I can see how it’s maybe not for everyone.
What do you mean, ‘not for everyone’?
I mean that it’s a quirky book, which goes to great lengths of absurdity just to see how far a joke can be pushed. When I was writing, I would just follow the stanzas – which are strictly rhymed and metered – wherever they went. All those years of working in bookstores, of non-stop reading, came out in that poem. It overflows. It’s not a quiet reading experience, or an orderly one. I’ve been told it’s very much like I am, by people who’ve known me. I take that as a compliment! From a marketing perspective – which is responsible for which books get picked up and which don’t – it’s probably a nightmare. Which is precisely what I like about it.
What do you think of contemporary poetry?
I don’t. I read it, and I write it, but I try not to think about it.
What’s the point? I’m not a critic or a publisher. I just write what I write. Whenever I find I’m competing with fantasms, I have to step back. I don’t care about what other people write. If it’s good, I’m happy to read it, but I’m not into all the back-scratching happening on social media. All the networking. Which is probably why I’m under-published. Of course it may just be that my work is not that great. Who knows?
What are you working on now?
Everything at once. I’m still submitting those manuscripts, trying to place them. I write pretty much every day, no matter how much other work I have to do. I’ll find some time, even ten minutes, to revise a poem or jot down a line or two.
Thanks for talking to us.
[…] Titles have been deleted to protect the names of circulating manuscripts.
It’s 2018, folks, and it’s time for an update. I haven’t published anything on this blog in almost two years. Frankly, it’s just too much work at times, and there are always more important things on my to-do list, like cobbling together poetry manuscripts, writing new poems, raising a family and – yes – work.
My intention is to use this space to track new writing as it is published. Last week, Poets Reading the News ran a poem of mine about the Strand Bookstore which was written on the occasion of the death of its owner, Fred Bass. The Strand was my alma mater, in a way. There is a lot to say about that time and place, about New York City in the mid-1990s. There is probably a novel in there somewhere down the line. But let’s let poetry do its work. Suffice to say it took 20 years to write this.
The King Is Dead
Employees stocked the fridge with beer, pocket
bottles of Smirnoff tucked
behind stacks for easy nipping. Lunch-
breaks were drinking contests, pounding
pints to dull ourselves before re-entry,
turbulent and dazed. After our shifts
we’d hit the bars along the Bowery
fueled on Chinese takeaway and pizza
by-the-slice. We were ‘bodies’
in their jargon, useful mannequins
for schlepping boxes full of books –
ten floors of them and counting.
The intricate small man sat at the desk
glasses clasping the bridge of his nose
bald pate shining like a headlamp.
“I need a body,” he would say. Someone
would pick up a phone, request
a body, one would be sent up
from the nether world. We were paid
minimum wage to build labyrinths
of boxes made of books made
of paper, miles of it, enough to pave
Broadway with a pelt of snow. Walls
went up between us, block after block after block,
a city within a city. Like Theseus,
I wandered through them endlessly in search
of my Minotaur. The king is dead.
I’m reminded, now more than ever, of something Arthur Miller (yes, that Arthur Miller) told me as we sat together in his kitchen on 68th St. in Manhattan. “One day in the future” — this was around 1999 or 2000 — “someone will have an idea of genius. They’ll decide to put books in a store and allow people to come in and browse them. It’ll be called a ‘bookstore.'”
You’re probably asking yourself what I was doing in Arthur Miller’s kitchen. My then-employer, Gotham Book Mart, had sent me to get five or six large boxes of rare and not-so-rare books signed by the renowned playwright. One of the ways the sinking bookshop stayed afloat was by milking its proximity to famous authors. Signed books sold like hotcakes. They were a boon in a dying market, and if they couldn’t come in to sign and schmooze, we went to them.
The most remarkable such trip was to Provincetown, Massachusetts. We drove up from New York to spend the weekend with the famously hermetic illustrator Edward Gorey at his mansion on Cape Cod. Overgrown weeds had ambushed the house on all sides. Thorn bushes crowded the walkway up to the front door. Inside, the house reeked of cat urine.
Everywhere there were books: on sagging shelves, piled on top of tables, in stacks on the floor, cluttering up every conceivable surface. Any square inch not occupied by books was occupied by an equally endless collection of trinkets: I recall a rich assortment of colored glass bottles of every size along the many windowsills of Gorey’s great home. From the stairwell the theme song of “Cheers” resounded down through the sitting room. In contrast to the spooky, ethereal persona he projected through his books, the man was a television junkie.
Both Miller and Gorey have since died, and everywhere there are signs that bookstores are about to follow them to the grave. Of course, people have been talking about the death of God for a very long time, and the old bugger is still with us. So I’m not going to get all sentimental just yet. Bookstores — and, let’s just say it, books — may yet survive the online onslaught.
There was a time when I proudly stated I’d never buy a book from Amazon. A vacuous statement, and easy to say by someone who at the time lived in the vicinity of countless English-language bookstores. This was the same mouth that had proclaimed at various points in its history that it would never a) eat onions; b) kiss girls; c) speak a language other than English. The contradictory adage “Never say never” never seemed more appropriate.
Now that I’m living in a place with no access to anything in English but bestsellers — and even those must be hunted down — Amazon has begun to makes sense. It’s all so perfect. You go online (if you’re like me, you’re there already), find the book you want, click and wait for it to arrive at your door. All you need is an Internet connection and a mailing address. So why does clicking “Add to cart” make me feel so unethical?
I’ll chalk it up to having spent most of my working life in bookstores. I’ve breathed in so much of their dust that they’re part of me. The weirdo who comes wandering in off the street with Ziploc Baggies full of pennies and complaining about his rabbi will never infiltrate the virtual walls of online commerce (which is probably a good thing.) But neither will the Arthur Millers and Edward Goreys. And neither will all those odd and interesting people I’ve met over the years who simply happened to ask the right question to the right clerk at the right moment. Some of them are — yes, thanks to the Internet — still my friends.
Sure, you can have fun writing reviews and posting them to Amazon. There are all kinds of interactive ways of sharing your passion for books online, too. For me, however, they don’t quite measure up to the serendipitous experience of stumbling upon a book that changes you forever.
My personal library is like a large-scale model of the mental world I’ve inhabited for the past 20 or so years. I pride myself on being able to remember where and when I got just about every book in my collection. Downloading an e-book to my Kindle app is exhilarating for it’s speed and simplicity, but I doubt it will leave me with much after I’ve read and digested the text. Books have always been about more than just content, haven’t they?
Maybe I lack the visionary imagination of a Steve Jobs, but books are simple things in the end. They come in all shapes and sizes and they can take abuse. I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw a Kindle. A woman came into the bookshop, pulled the broken device from her purse and explained that she needed to buy back the books she’d lost when it slipped out of her hand onto the pavement. She was crestfallen.
As I muse on the demise of bookstores and the much-prophesied disappearance of the “dead-tree book” I watch my daughter flip the pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” She’s enjoying the colorful pictures of fruit and the feel of the cardboard in her hands. She pokes her fingers through the tiny holes. She’s just as taken in by the physical properties of this book as she is by the content — more, actually, as she can’t yet read.
What, I wonder, would her first experience with books be if she were to fondle a Kindle “Baby” reading device?
I had a great and turbulent time in New York, from the moment my mother kissed me goodbye in front of a Bowery hotel when I was 20 to my last meal eight years later in a Flatbush Chinese restaurant. I rented eight apartments, held three jobs, spent seven months on the dole, fought two court cases (I won both), and survived two relationships. You can only live like that in your twenties, and I did.
My first week in the city I wandered up to the East Village and browsed the used record shops. In those days, music came before books. I nursed the dream of fronting a band, playing CBGB and living on refried beans until I was famous enough to buy a flat on Central Park West. I even bid for and got a job at the Strand, the infamous bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street, because I’d read somewhere that Patti Smith had worked there before she became, well, Patti Smith. If I’d read that she’d worked at Balducci’s I probably would’ve pestered them. Such was the power of punk lore over my neophyte imagination.
While at the Strand I embraced a progressively more degenerate lifestyle. It was a heady place to work, despite the fact that they treated their employees like garbage. The Strand myth was that they would hire anyone: “struggling artists,” squatters, junkies. And they did. In fact, the place was crawling with vice. In the employee lounge — where rats scurried across the concrete floor from time to time — the refrigerator was always chock-full of malt liquor and beer. The management either drank as heavily as we did or looked the other way.
We’d go out and get hammered at the bars on First Avenue for lunch, then as soon as six o’clock rolled around we were back at our favorite watering hole on Avenue B for more. Far eastside bars still had sawdust on the floor and killer jukeboxes. We drank pitchers of McSoreley’s Ale, an East Village specialty, and bopped our sodden heads to Iggy and the Stooges. We’d stumble home to Greenpoint, stopping off at the all-night bodega for a few tall cans of Ballantine and cigarettes.
Around that time I began having severe bowel trouble. My steady diet of ephedrine, Twinkies and Yoo-hoo probably didn’t help. I recall squatting in the public toilet at the Strand munching on alfalfa sprouts, hoping for the best. It certainly didn’t occur to me at the time that ephedrine — which was my over-the-counter answer to shooting speed, something I wouldn’t have had the guts to do anyway — was calcifying my innards. My bad diet did the rest.
A couple of times a year my mom and step-dad would drive up from Maryland to visit. They’d bring me things like old furniture from our basement, crates of used albums and boxes packed with macaroni and cheese and canned salmon (why not tuna, I always wondered?). Then they’d take me, their emaciated son, out for a decent meal at Katz’s or the Second Avenue Deli. Hungry as I was, I’d crunch away at the bowl of sour pickles, slurp down the matzo ball soup and take the uneaten half of my corned beef sandwich home in a napkin. Once my mother even made me try kishke, which was delicious.
With my sister, we visited the Tenement Museum together on Orchard Street. There we found a photo of an original tenants who looked exactly like our mother. I’d take them on rollicking subway rides. I once even took them to the bar where I hung out. I think I wanted to show them my world, let them in on some deep secret about who I had become. Instead, all I managed to do was alienate them. After that, they visited less and less frequently.
On Monday nights I’d schlep down to the Ludlow St. Cafe with my guitar for open mic night. I’d order a pitcher of beer, put my name on the list, and slump down over a barstool to work up my courage. When they called my name I’d stagger up to the stage, plug in my faux-Rickenbacker hollow body to the amp, and start in on Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” The changes were simple and I knew all the words; besides, it was my favorite song. How could the public not love it?
Maybe it was my tendency to end every performance in a loud feedback roar a là Sonic Youth, or just the fact that I couldn’t sing and had absolutely no interest in my audience, but on my final night they pulled the plug on me. I kept playing before I realized no sound was coming out of the amplifiers. When it dawned on me, I slunk back to my barstool and ordered another pitcher.
And there died the first of my great New York dreams.