“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt met Andy Porter for lunch at Be Bop Dim Sum Café on Clement. The place was run by a jazz lover from Taipei who still had not mastered his adopted tongue. The musical ambiance was Golden Age bebop. Whenever the owner saw Wendt he would shout “Bud Powell!” but unfortunately it came out sounding like “butt powwow!” Invariably heads would turn.
He had spent the morning being guilty and dithering over imaginary details. Sometimes his life, like the weather, sucked. Even though there were hints that spring would finally make an appearance, fog banks persisted. There was always sun in the Mission. Just ask those who lived there. Out in the Avenues, cold steel-grey wool clung to the belly of the sky.
Andy was cheerful, maybe a little more than usual. He was young, after all, hopeful, full of ambition, full of himself. This was different. He was bursting with what he wanted to say.
“Good news?” Wendt asked as the waitress placed the pot of green tea between them.
“I got the fellowship. I’m going to China!” Then he shared his excitement, in Chinese, with the waitress who giggled and moved quickly back to behind the service area. Andy liked to practice his Chinese on restaurant staff, often with hilarious results. Wendt was clueless but amused by Andy’s apparent discomfort.
“I think I just said ‘a dog’s leg is bitter as ashes after sex.’” He shrugged, resuming his cheery demeanor. “I’ll be a year in Shanghai. I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t leave till late August, but I’m going to make an exploratory trip in June, just to get a feel for it.” Andy was beside himself, “It’s going to be really cool,” and blushed at his enthusiasm.
“That’s great, Andy.” Wendt poured the tea into both their cups. “Your girl friend will be house sitting for you while you’re gone, I assume?” The wheels had begun their spin, tumblers rolling, in the slot machine behind his eyes. Andy lived in a studio apartment on Albion behind the main residence owned by a relative or a friend of a relative.
“I don’t think so. She’s spending the summer with her parents in Delaware, and she’ll be gone as soon as her classes are over.” Andy made a fake sad face. “We’re kind of in the process of separating. She’s going to intern in DC, and I’ll be in China.” He overturned a hand, palm up, as if letting something go. “Why?”
Wendt explained his upcoming eviction from the Balboa address. He would need a temporary launch pad until he could find a more permanent situation. He mentioned that Nora was arranging a reading tour for him. He did not mention that nothing had been settled and often Nora’s schemes resulted in miscommunications and the threat of lawsuits. So, ostensibly, he was assured, virtually, of a cash flow.
Andy agreed readily. And having Wendt look after his tiny apartment would be perfect for the month he was away on his recon mission to Shanghai.
Ka-ching! Wendt thought, which is not in itself a Chinese expression meaning jackpot. The perfect solution had presented itself, an archipelago of house sitting for his friends dotting the summer months while they vacationed in Big Sur or Yosemite, Paris or Athens, someone to collect the mail, stack the newspapers, water the plants, pet the gold fish. The wobble of his flight for the last couple of days stabilized, and his smug became a little more self-satisfied.
There was more to Andy’s show and tell. He handed over an issue of Autoclone, a literary magazine from Tasmania, for Wendt to page through.
“International, with a twist.”
“It’s the first time my own writing has appeared outside the country. That is if you don’t count the poems I published in Perverse Notions, an on-line magazine from Oslo.”
Wendt recited a list of his foreign publications. “Translated into Hungarian, Czech, Finnish, and Romanian. I have no idea if they even came close. I was in that French anthology and whoever translated those poems made me sound like a tight-assed academic.”
“Weren’t you in an Italian anthology?”
“Right, I was. Do you know that in Italian my poems rhyme? But then so do everyone else’s. It’s a wonderfully lyrical language.”
He tried to remember the name of the anthology, but that had been years ago. Secret Ballot? Something like that. And that had been Sheila’s doing. One of the editors was a friend she made when she’d studied a year in Padua. He remembered how delighted he’d been at the thought of being read in Italian.
Interesting also that the French experience had turned out to be so phonetically askew. And his inclusion in that anthology had been with the help of Val Richards who was a lycee schoolmate of the publisher of the volume. He remembered the name of that anthology because of his original mishearing of the title, something that caused him additional consternation once he learned the truth. He had been told by Val, who had a habit of slurring her words when she took certain pills, that the anthology would be titled L’heure du temps which his rudimentary French told him was a typical Gallic redundancy but, loosely translated, was The Time Of Day. When he finally got his hands on the volume he read his mistake. The title was L’horreur du temps.
Andy passed a book the size of a small shoebox across the table. “Here’s that anthology I was telling you about.”
“Whenever I read an anthology I always think of all the poets whose poems are not represented, and that’s an anthology in itself.” Wendt scanned the columned gallery of names on the back cover. Not one signaled recognition. “Ok, here’s one, A. W. Porter. That’s you, right?”
A rosy glow colored Andy’s cheeks. “Yeah, but you know, the editor was a year ahead of me at Stanford. It helps if you know someone.”
“You’re telling me?” Wendt flipped the volume and read the cover. “Poets of A Later Latitude, A Geography of Poets Under 30. No wonder I didn’t recognize any names.” He set the large book on its spine and let the pages flop open at random. “And look at that, it opened right to your poems! Good placement. Do you have to pay extra for that?”
The noodles arrived and Wendt ordered a Tsing-tao. He was beginning to feel pretty. A significant worry had been alleviated. It made him feel a hundred pounds lighter, virile even. He felt like having fun, special fun, rather than his usual mundane day to day fun. A frenetic Charlie Parker solo punctuated his musings.
“I always like looking through the contributors notes, sometimes they’re more interesting than the poems.”
Andy chuckled his agreement.
“Let’s see now, herewego, Andrew Walter Porter. . . .”
“Walter’s my mother’s dad, my grandfather’s name.” And then as an afterthought, “Isn’t Walter your first name?”
“You are correct,” Wendt said considering his first taste of the old German recipe of his Chinese beer, “but, no offense, I didn’t want to be known as Wally so I go by my nomen, my middle name. It’s one syllable so it’s direct, to the point. Kind of like ‘shit’ or ‘fuck,’ both of which I’ve answered to, by the way.”
“What about Walt? That’s one syllable.”
Wendt feigned consideration with an impish grin, “A little too Whitmanesque, I’d think.” He referenced what he’d been reading with his finger on the page. “Anyway, your note says, born in Santa Barbara in, hmm, for some reason I thought you were older. Currently pursuing a post-graduate degree in Asian Studies at Stanford. Published in Yadda Yadda, This Then, and Contemporary Literature In Translation. So you’ve got some cred, that’s good.”
Wendt turned a page. “Who are these other clowns? Jesus, look at this guy, Ross Arbuckle, associate professor and he’s hardly a few years older than you. Two books of poems, too. You’ve got some catching up to do.
“Jerrold Lloyd, professor of Creative Writing, a string of books from presses I’ve never heard of, the recipient of the Golden Lyre and he’s barely twenty-nine. Ok. Laurel Hardy, also twenty-nine, lives in Vancouver, MFA from SFU, recent book, Special Agent from Screeming Lesbo Press.
“Barbara Keaton, professor of European Literature specializing in Beowulf. How can someone so young specialize in Beowulf? Baffling.” Wendt shook his head with mock consternation for Andy’s benefit. Andy, for his part, was enjoying the running commentary.
“You’re traveling in some pretty rarified air. And Darla Costello. A Steiner Fellow. How nice. She’s like a year younger than you and yet she has two books of poems, Don’t I Know You From The Microwave? from Platypus Press. . .must be an Australian publisher . . . .”
“I think that’s a misprint. It should be I Don’t Know You From The Microwave.”
“. . .and Last Warning, Poems of Self-destruction and Resurrection. Her titles are intriguing.”
“Get this, the guy she studied with is the Buddhist poet who runs the monastery outside of Omaha.”
“Omaha. Perfect place for a Buddhist monastery. Om. . .Aha!”
“ So essentially Costello studied with an abbot.”
“You know her?”
“Sure, she’s part of our gang, you know, the writers down in Palo Alto, the two Steves, Panke and Timey, Alfred Falva. Darla’s married to Ben Turpin.”
“Right, the horn player. He’s been on Leno.”
“That’s some pretty glamorous company you’re keeping.” And referring to the book again, “How about Laurence Mot-Kerlit?”
Andy shrugged. “I’m like you, I haven’t heard of a lot of these clowns, either.”
“Professor of Abstract Languages at Buffalo. Now there’s a job for a poet, a buffalo job.”
The noodles had cooled to an edible heat though their spice ensured that they were enjoyed tentatively. Distracted, while they slurped and then inhaled big gulps of air through their mouths to cool their tongues, Wendt leafed through the paper brick.
“Ok, so explain to me what these guys are about. Are they any good? Besides you. I know you’ve got chops.”
Andy was bursting to please. “Well, there’s a real mish-mash in here because the editor wanted to be representative. A mistake, I think. Anyway, you’ve got your conpo. . . .”
“Whoa, whoa, your what?”
“Conpo, conceptual poetry. Or poets.”
“Alright, I can see poets as a concept. But I thought conpo would be more like the poetry my friend Deidre Davis, DeeDee the Destroyer we call her, for the number of marriages she’s torpedoed, taught to the inmates at San Quentin or here at juvenile hall.”
“Uh, no, it’s like when you say Ampo for American Poetry. Or Fopo for foreign poetry. And formal poetry too, I suppose.”
“I’ve heard of faux pas, never Fauxpo. But I can dig it. Pretend poetry. That could be what I write.”
“And there’s Fempo and Gaypo.”
“Is there a bipo, you know, for bisexual poets? Or would that stand for bipolar poets? Like Jimmy Schuyler. Or Ann Sexton.”
“That would probably be bipopo,” Andy said without cracking a smile. “And Avpo which stands for avant-garde, or average poetry.”
“Sometimes they’re the same.”
“Mopo for modern poetry.”
“Mopo sounds like one of those Japanese toys you keep on a key chain.”
“And there’s Autopo, Surpo, Clapo, NeoClapo, Pomopo.”
“Northern California Indian poetry?”
“No, Postmodern Poetry. Native American poetry would be Napo.”
“It’s like you’re naming off future generations of Marx Brothers. I mean, look at all the possibilities. Synpo, Cypo, Actpo, Poactpo, Slapo, Slangpo, Slampo, Slurpo, Minpo, Haipo, Gypo. . . no, wait, he really was a Marx brother.” Wendt pointed his faux porcelain spoon at Andy for emphasis. “So by what you’re saying, it sounds like schools of poetry are similar to vaudeville acts.”
“There is a Hypo. It stands for hybrid poetry.”
“Oh, I see, I was thinking of haiku poetry. Hybrid poetry, isn’t that a little redundant? On the other hand, hypo could also stand for hypothetical poetry. I’m pretty sure that’s what I write.”
“That would probably have to be hypopo. And I suppose you could have hypnotic poetry which would be hypnopo, and you’d have to have posthypnotic poetry and that would be pohypnopo.”
“Now you’re talking! We’re starting to sound Greek!”
The pot stickers and pork buns had arrived and both men fell to with a relish that belied the simple fare.
“Come on, Wendt, weren’t there schools of poetry in your day?”
Carl held the slug of beer in his mouth and raised an eyebrow. I’m continually being defined by my past, he mused.
“Oh, sure,” he said finally to ease the embarrassment that has set Andy’s ears aglow. “There was the Homunculus School of Poetry. Only cared about what went on in their heads, the body mattered not. Their poems had that hall of mirrors effect, you know, the repetition of an image ad infinitum. If they’d had any imagination they’d have called themselves The Infinite Regress School.”
Wendt turned his eyes upward and to the left as if he were scanning a script. “And there was the Heavy Metal School. Not to be mistaken for the Leaden School. They were mostly second gen New York School types though they were more into ‘rock mine off’ than Rachmaninoff. Working class kids who got the call. It was short lived. The working class has a built-in bullshit meter and it wasn’t long before they realized that the poetry scene was complete bullshit.”
Andy chortled and had the waitress bring another round of Tsing-taos. Wendt was going to tsing for his lunch.
“Then there were the Homo Poets. The name has nothing to do with sexual preference or orientation, and everything to do with sameness. Some of those people should have been working for the department of weights and measures! Their obsession with the anal perfection of the identical was maniacal.” Wendt stabbed at a pot sticker with a chopstick. “The Pointless School of Poets, they’re still around. The Iceberg School of Poetry, all below the surface, lying in wait for the Titanic of the unwary. The Surrogate School of Poets and their exclusive magazine, Turret, Vince Clayborn, dreadnaught and editor. The Usurpers, anti-academic slammers who for all intents and purposes grabbed up all the academic posts and honors that they had once so vociferously trashed. OG’s, the Old Guard, and the Leaden School with their dense, turgid paperweight verse.
“Of course, my favorites of all time were the Anti-Gravity poets, floating above the fray, resisting the pull of gravity and it’s aura of authoritarian self-righteousness and inherent elitism. The California Pretenders, a band of wild and wooly poets, essentially neo-romantics, who are no more because romantics are well, lemmings, and so,” Wendt made a mime with his hand that depicted a leap off a cliff, “you know the rest. Defenestration. Did they jump or was they pushed?”
“I had a prof in a survey course as an undergrad who described the romantic poet as posed on a promontory, wind in hair, waves crashing below, an image that’s stuck with me.”
“Exactly! Poised to leap.” Wendt smiled with satisfaction that his point had been proven. “And then there’s the whole underground of secret poetry societies.”
“Really? Secret poetry societies? Who’s in them?”
“Nobody you’ll ever hear of. They’re mainly loose fits, not quite misfits, the lumpen poetariat collected under various acronyms like TANTRA, The Association of No Talent Rejected Artists, or POO, Poets of Outer Orbit, whose motto is Kerouac’s ‘Poetry is shit’.”
“Didn’t Genet say that, too?”
“Probably. It’s a French thing. Merde. Such a poetic word.” Wendt took a sip from his glass. “The AWWA, The Association of Waxed Wing Ascenders also known as The Icari. And of course the C Squared group, the Comic Cosmic poets.” He paused. “Maybe that’s the Cosmic Comic poets. Also known as The Holy Fools.
“Anyway, all this speaks to a factionalized regimented poetry world. There have always been poetry groups, exclusive societies of amateur writers who essentially snubbed anyone who wasn’t part of their crowd. And sometimes they affixed a name to their association, as a kind of shorthand for those in the know. It was Breton and his Surrealist who institutionalized the idea of a school of art or literature. Surrealist and Surrealism became brand names. And now everyone wants to brand themselves, literally and figuratively. I mean, look at the prevalence of tattoos. You can’t be a loner anymore. You can’t be unique. Or to be unique you have to be so extreme as to be the center of attraction that aligns everyone else like iron filings around a magnet. And then you’re just part of a group, a social network, a school. When anyone talks about outsider art, they’re just stating the obvious. All true artists want to be outsiders. But being an outsider, an eccentric is anti-social. Group poetry, by your designation, groupo, is in.”
“So like what are you, Carl? A ronin, a masterless poet?”
Wendt laughed. He liked Andy. Andy was a good poet on his way to becoming a university professor. He had a choice. Be a good poet or be a good professor. One invariably diluted the other. “That’s right, the I-Don’t-Belong School of Poetry that excludes everyone and includes no one.” Wendt drained the bottle into his glass and then looked up meaningfully at Andy. “Being a poet is not a club or association you belong to. Poetry is the leprous affliction of the exiled and shunned. It is not some kind of cult. It is the reaffirmation of a singularity.”
Andy had been down this road, or one like it, with Wendt before. He had an idea of what was coming. But that’s why he paid for lunch. Lunch with Carl Wendt was bound to be informative if not enlightening.
“The independent or non-aligned poet is regulated to the status of hobbiest by the professional cant of the academics who promote their own in a self-perpetuating literary daisy chain that includes big payoffs like inside track on hiring and fellowships. It has nothing to do with literature and everything to do with who is fucking who and who knows who is fucking who and how they can use it as leverage to keep the whole inane squirrel cage spinning. A bunch of no-talent hamsters.”
“Hey Carl, ease up, I’m going to be one of those academics, you know.”
“Not you, kid, you’ve got a head on your shoulders. Besides, you’re a scholar, not a professional poet.”
“Gee, who would that be?” Andy begged with mock innocence.
“Warren Pace, and just about everyone else in the Monotonous School of Poetry, is a perfect example. Also known as the monotones or the monos. Today I suppose they’d be monopo. And the Flatliners, an off-shoot that has lost most of its adherents to attrition or career changes.
“The collective under the banner of ‘school’ is the Trojan horse used to infiltrate the citadel of academe. The Monos created a cachet and marketed it through the exclusivity of social networking. Someone always had to be out, so that its members could be in. Poets United, whose initials says it all, a subset of more rigid intellectuals and poseurs, used exactly the same ploy. No effort is made to understand the undercurrent or the essence of the art, only the desire to make it different which only makes it, by its sheer novelty, self-cancelling.
“And what do they have to offer? Their awful middle class boredom, passing it off as profound intellectual angst. It never worked for me. Their focus on the technical aspects of poetry masks a deep misunderstanding of what poetry is. It’s not about technique. It’s not about how tight your pants fit. It’s about talent. It’s about undermining, not commodifying. But I suppose when you want to appeal to bourgeois taste, you have to think product, the aesthetic object that can be bought or bought into.” Wendt paused. He had to laugh at himself. His aesthetic critiques often degenerated into faux vitriol, amusing bluster of a Falstaffian cast, especially before a bemused audience such as Andy. He wasn’t about to take himself seriously. Not over lunch. But a few more points needed to be made.
“Once they’ve achieved the metaphorical high ground, they set themselves up as guardians of the velvet rope, id checkers, sniffers of social status, quantifiers of the quibble, bureaucrats of subtle hierarchy, enforcers of the status quo, crabs in a barrel, judge and jury.
“I had a guy come up to me after a reading some years back to tell me that he really liked my poems and admired the fact that I still kept at it. ‘This poetry racket is a hell of a hard one to break into,’ he told me. He knew. He’d tried. Eventually he gave it up, too many obstacles, too many tiny exclusive circles you had to run around in. Then he said to me, and I’ll never forget this, ‘they only know what they think and think only what they know. Everything else is unknown to them. The imagination is a primitive construct to mask what we really think about what we know, you know?’”
Sonny Stitt assaulted the bridge of Bopping A Riff, an old Bebop Boys standard from the forties with Bud on the piano comping in stride. How could music so old be so current? The chef was flashing him teeth and a thumbs-up from the entrance to the kitchen area. Wendt returned the teeth and the thumb.
Andy picked up the check and loaned him, in a manner of speaking, a twenty, essentially the fee for his mentoring.
Wendt grabbed a toothpick and a handful of peppermint candies by the register. “Have you heard anything about NAIF and Stoddard Leary?”
Andy made a face. “I don’t have much to do with that crowd, you know.” He tried to sound apologetic. “The last time I saw Stoddard was at Enrico’s, the night you were there.” Andy smiled as if remembering something pleasant. “You left with that redhead.”
“Ah, yes, Mac, the astral acrobat,” Wendt spoke cryptically.
“Anyway, Stoddard got increasingly drunk and boisterous, and at one point took off all his clothes, yelling ‘If Allen Ginsberg could do it, why can’t I?!’ Why?”
“Word is that his teaching position at NAIF is up for grabs.”
“Go for it, Wendt, you’d be awesome! I would even take your classes!”
“I’m sure I’ve told you this before, Andy,” Wendt said sucking on a mint, “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my day, but teaching creative writing is not going to be one of them.”
Next Time: Wendt hooks up with Dottie and Lynel at the Zig Zag Room in the Haight, next door to The Upright, a coffee house where weekly poetry readings are held. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.