Little Boy turns 100

Today the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old, and he’s just put out a new book. Pretty incredible, right? Even more impressive is how intense the book is, and the power and vitality of his intellect even now. Little Boy is a novel—the author has been very clear about that—but it’s also in no small way about the life, or the kind of life, that Ferlinghetti has lived. ferlingI reviewed the book for the Utne Reader‘s spring issue. Here’s what  I had to say about it:

Ladies and gentlemen: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The co-founder of City Lights, the bookstore and small press that opened shop in the 50s in order to publish the only poets that mattered—or the ones who mattered most in their corner of the world, anyway—Ferlinghetti, who has published some 40 books of his own work, will be best remembered for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of vivid and lyrical poems that remains popular 60 years after its first publication.

If it makes you feel blue to anticipate the way someone will be remembered while he’s still living, apologies. It’s just that Ferlinghetti turns 100 in March, and he has just put out a new book. He’s calling it a novel but it is clearly also a sort of memoir—a praise-song, a thrashing-about, a recounting of his colorful life—and at his age, it’s hard not to read it as a kind of elegy for someone who is decidedly not! Dead! Yet!

The book begins like a third-person biography of “Little Boy,” whose early life was characterized by instability and displacement. With the detachment of a biographer, Ferlinghetti describes a childhood spent bouncing around—from the mother who couldn’t afford to care for him after his father died, to his beloved aunt who brought him to France for a few years and then back to New York City, and eventually to the home of a rich couple in Bronxville—the Bislands, whose family founded Sarah Lawrence College. In the middle of this factual accounting, Ferlinghetti shocks the heart back to life with the phrase, “lonely was the word.” 

From here the narrative goes swooping into one long sentence that accounts for his college years, his service in the navy, and the time he spent faffing around Paris in a cold-water flat after the war. By this point the language has broken loose from its moorings, and for the rest of the novel it rushes forth, much more like poetry than prose. The reader has the sense that Ferlinghetti had to make an effort to contain it. 

At first glance the text on the page looks more unruly than it is: Ferlinghetti uses virtually no punctuation, no chapters, hardly even a paragraph break. But the start of each new thought is usually capitalized, and the rhythm of the language creates a cadence in the mind that serves as a kind of guide. 

Still, it’s intense. The language has a way of sucking you into its whirl and then popping you back up to the surface, over and over again, whether you meant to or not. This isn’t a novel you’re likely to read straight through. Memories, lines from novels, internal rhymes, love and sex and anti-establishment rants, marvelous little throwaways (“Mao say tongue-in-cheek”), caustic observations from the coffee shop—it’s all one steady-churning white water rush. 

Run your eyes down any page to hear a bling-blinging Pinball machine of references: Twin Towers, South of the Border, Onward Christian Soldiers, Mister Proust. Ginzy and Jack are in here too (you’ll permit Ferlinghetti a few trips down memory lane) but this is bigger than Beat Generation windbaggery—and actually, maybe it’s not really a memoir, either. The narrator’s voice is alive with humor and anger and a sense of the eternal now, not the what-happened-then. And each time he starts ranting about the people in the cafe where he’s sitting, all entranced by their “portable universes and handheld computers,” you will absolutely marvel: He’s still pissed! 

In a sense, Little Boy reads like a continuation of the last poem in Coney Island. The whole novel, like that poem, has the word yes threaded throughout it“the small boy knows nothing, he is just a part of it, unconscious in his little existence on the turning earth in some town or city or yes…”—and the earthy positivity is strongly reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses (“And yes I said yes I will yes”), which Ferlinghetti actually referenced by name in his 1955 masterpiece. 

And it must be said: This yes is the voice of the 20th century, a century Mr. Ferlinghetti saw much of, with its exuberance and nihilism, its god-is-a-shout-in-the-street realist grit. Whether the poet ends this particular book on a hopeful note or one of despair, that’s for you to judge. Either way, Ferlinghetti’s old age is a rollicking one, and it burns and raves at close of day.

Book pile

Hi! I’ve just read a few books from the pile beside my chair. Wanna hear about them?

Smile, by Roddy Doyle

This one was a doozy. All of Doyle’s novels are doozies, and I love them. I love him.  I didn’t want to love this one the way I did as I was reading it, though, because I knew it was about childhood sexual abuse, and even though it is so, so easy to be pulled in by the ease and naturalness of his storytelling, the whole brief thing (it’s only 200 pages long, and has the taut shape of a novella) is tight with the tension of something huge and bad lurking, a shipwreck under a black ocean that we know is there but can’t see.

It’s not possible to talk about many details of this story without ruining its impact for someone who hasn’t read it, but I can tell you that if you love Doyle’s writing, as I do, for its economy of language and vivid dialogue—as bright and honest as a conversation you catch going past you on the street—then you will not be unsatisfied by this book. It’s also true that most of his stories, not just this one, deal with the heartbreak of—what should I call it? Fatalism? (In his review of Smile for the Washington Post, Ron Charles called it “crumpled hope.”) It’s a characteristic of a lot of Irish fiction, actually. Have you read Doyle’s Barrytown books, The Snapper, The Van, and The Commitments? I read them years ago and later reread them, and was surprised by how sad they were, when what I’d remembered was their good humor and charm. That stuff is in there too, though. And the thing that’s really killer about Doyle’s writing is the way he has of making everything that happens to his characters feel … inevitable. That’s a better word than fatalism. In Smile he deals with those kinds of ideas—those kinds of lives—once again, but in a way that is new and frankly horrifying.

I read an interview with Doyle yesterday, about a week after I’d finished the book. (Though, apparently, it hadn’t finished with me.) He told his interviewer, the writer Catherine Dunne, that he wrote the novel the way he did to shock readers, particularly Irish readers who may have thought they’d already heard it all regarding the Catholic Church and sex abuse. Shock. The word is so overused, it’s tempting to dismiss his comment as insignificant, but a few hours after I read the interview the penny dropped for me and I felt, with embarrassment, that I understood the novel completely for the first time since I’d finished it. The truth is that the ending is open to interpretation and more than a little confusing, which is why I was left hanging for a good few days. Sorting it all out may not be the point, though—I think I see that now. It’s the attempt to sort it out that informs a true understanding of this novel, the going over of details and memories that don’t line up, the sickly sense that some information is missing and that you know what happened but don’t know at the same time. Those are effects of shock, aren’t they: that fug of confusion, the delayed reaction. It’s often the effect of abuse, too. I think it’s possible that Doyle has done something extraordinary with this novel, something I haven’t quite experienced before in my lifetime of reading. He’s given us a painful story that hurts worse later than it does in the moment of reading it, because it’s our memories of the character’s life that get wrecked upon reflection. In a real way, the loss is ours, and the story functions like real grief in our minds. We experience the horror of having to remember again and again, as if for the first time, that something terrible has happened.

Black Wave, by Michelle Tea

I recently read this article in The Guardian about a study, released by the Living Planet Index toward the end of 2016, which reports that two-thirds of all wild animals on Earth will be gone by the year 2020. It sounded dire, which chimed with my mood, I must admit. I feel cheerful enough at the moment, actually, but it just seems end-timey out there, don’t you think? We’ve been post-everything for a while now, for starters, and although I am aware that people, whenever in time they find themselves, are always standing on the edge of history, that cliff seems extra steep right now. When I finally got off my ass and read Michelle Tea’s new novel, which came out last year from Feminist Press (what took me so long?), I was primed for it to be about the end of the world, as I’d read that it was. I was READY for the end of the world. BRING IT.

To my deep pleasure, the book is for-real about the apocalypse, and this end starts out ordinarily enough, with a ruined Earth—stinking oceans, dry patches of dirt where trees and plants once grew, undrinkable water—that people have gotten used to ignoring. (!) Then the whole thing ramps up and starts cycling faster, and it becomes clear that the human race only has about another year to go. Our scrappy protagonist, Michelle—drinking and drugging too hard, even after she wants to stop—ignores even this for as long as she can until finally she faces the truth and decides to wait out the end of everything in a used bookstore in L.A. Tea makes this part feel deliciously cozy, like a dreamy dust-mote-filled opium den, even as the streets outside get more violent and chaotic by the day. This book is about the end of the world, yes, and it is also about the way you have to kind of die in order to change.

I have loved Michelle Tea’s writing for a long time now. Her evocation of a certain “scene”—her own punky, dirty, resilient young queer community of 90s San Francisco—is one of the things to love the most about it (but if you thought it was the thing, you’d be forgetting how just plain good she is, how bright and surprising her use of language and metaphor). This loving wallowing around in that familiar world shapes the first part of the book, but about halfway through, after she’s told us a short novel’s worth of a very engaging story about a young woman’s life in decline, the book itself starts to disintegrate and “get meta,” in the words of a funny bookseller I talked to about the novel after I’d finished it. “I didn’t need it to get meta,” is what she said, and I took some offense at her glibness—this is MICHELLE TEA we’re talking about, lady—but it forced me to admit that I too had worried as I read it that the rest of the novel would keep referring to itself and shifting from one reality to another, and I didn’t want to lose my footing. I was glad when it righted itself and went back to being a good old-fashioned story. A science fiction story about the end of the world, no less, which made me appreciate why Tea had to tear the whole thing down and start again.

This is the most developed piece of Tea’s writing that I’ve read; like Roddy Doyle did with Smile, she did some things with form that I’ve never seen in her writing before. Black Wave is—in a really interesting way—a story about the way cities change over time, leaving us feeling like the lives we’ve lived in them are disappearing, too. More than that, it’s about addiction and survival, and beginnings as much as endings. It’s entertaining, incisive, and wonderfully hopeful. I think you should read it.

Learning to Drive, by Katha Pollitt

Everyone (every woman?) in the English-speaking world with half the interest has already read this book, it seems like, except for me. It came out ten years ago, and a well-thought-of film was made from the title essay starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. (I haven’t seen that either.) And to look at the many reviews quoted inside the book, everyone seems to love it and its author, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Bust. After reading this collection of her essays, I can understand why.

Pollitt is a feminist who admits to having human weaknesses where romantic love is concerned, which is only an unpopular stance with people who refuse to tell their inner teenager to get a grip, and she’s great company, astute and funny and also surprising in the way that very smart people will continue to surprise you with their opinions even once you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the way they think. Mostly, she says exactly what she’s thinking, and nine times out of ten it’s what you’re thinking too. Pollitt, who has written for The Nation since the 90s, is probably best known for her cultural criticism, but these are personal essays of the best kind—they’re about her life and ideas, but they encompass bigger ideas too, and are likely to spark an interest in you on any number of topics—the Rubaiyat, council Communism, Danish painting. Her use of metaphor is poetic; well, she’s a poet too. Here’s how she describes the Internet: “It was like something a medieval rabbi might conjure up out of the Kabbalah: a magical set of propositions that acted as a mirror of reality and perhaps even allowed you to control it and change it.”

“Learning to Drive” is the most famous piece in the book and is about the lifelong New Yorker’s attempt to learn to drive a car after her cruddy little philandering “boyfriend” dumps her for one of his other ladies. (It always sounds so weird to me when grown adults use the words boyfriend and girlfriend.) Her disdain for men, on display throughout the book, might make you smile with pleasure or it might make you cringe a little, and I don’t think those two reactions break down all that neatly between the sexes. I winced a few times myself and found I didn’t even want to finish the essay “After the Men Are Dead,” but there were plenty of other times that I really enjoyed her cogent put-downs of men of the stupid, bullying variety, as well as her ability to pin-point precisely the ways that women’s lives are diminished by their behavior. She describes these things so confidently, she’s like Zorro: zip zip zip!

Pollitt’s opinions are only very occasionally strident, in my view, though your take on that may vary depending on how much you agree with what she’s saying. I almost always agree, but talk about wincing: When I read that “even the thought of rap makes [her] heart surge with sorrow and fury” because it makes her think about “the end of melody, the end of tender and delicate feelings, the end of any sort of verbal cleverness that requires a vocabulary of more than 300 words,” let me tell you, my heart surged with sorrow and fury. Because … what? How can someone so sensitive to nuance, and so knowledgable about art, hold such a doofy opinion? Verbal cleverness and vocabulary: Ever heard of Del the Funky Homosapien, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Aesop Rock, Outkast? How about Biggie Smalls? (I’m trying to be fair here and only mention people who were around back in 2007, when this book was published.) As for tender feelings, come ON. Killer Mike is so full of tender feeling and righteous rage he’s about to spark a revolution with his music. I don’t want to say that no older white person should write about hip-hop because that’s silly too, but maybe people should think twice before doing it. Or maybe I just need to think twice before I bother to read it.

Still, I only had to go a few pages further, in the same essay (“End Of”), and bam, Pollitt is making me cry on the train, talking about how the old things, and sometimes the really good things, slip away with the passage of time and there’s nothing you can do about it. “The truth is, by the time you find out what’s happening, it’s usually too late. … It’s like the turquoise frogs—by the time scientists figured out what was wrong with them, they were gone.” And all of her jabs at men aside, “Good-bye, Lenin” is an interesting and warm portrait of her father written shortly after he died. A lover of poetry, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (his FBI file makes the Bureau look almost lovably inept), and a lawyer who remained devoted to not “selling out” for his entire life, he comes across as a sincerely lovely human being.

 

What Punk Means to Me (in 2,000 words or less)

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Photo credit: Joseph Carlough

A couple weeks ago I received a friendly email from a writer who was reporting an article about the Philadelphia Zine Fest. She was most interested in its history and wanted to talk to me, she said, because she’s been attending the event for years and always sees me and talks to me there. I had to smile at that. “Yep,” I wrote back to her, “I’m an old-timer for sure!”

I’ve been tabling at the zine fest for almost as long as it’s been in existence. Its first year was in 2003, and the only reason I didn’t go to that one was because I only heard about it after it was over. The following year, I was ready.

Sort of. But actually, I was scared. I’d been writing about books and art for a local newspaper for a couple of years by then, and I was proud of this job and enjoyed doing it, but was surprised to find that, on its own, it wasn’t enough to satisfy my need to express myself. (I’m not sure why that came as a surprise.) I was in my mid-20s then, and when I wasn’t writing for work, I was almost compulsively making these found poems. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to, well, find them. Once I started looking at text in this new way, I saw symbolic meanings and irony everywhere, almost like secret messages or fortunes–in an old Boy Scout Handbook, the owner’s manual for an oven, the titles of Lifetime movies. All I had to do was rearrange the text a little, or remove a small part of it, to display its double meaning for other readers to see.

I was more proud of these weird poem-stories than almost anything else I’d written to that point, and I wanted to share them, so I began compiling them into my first zine. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom and pulling apart a zine I already owned to try to understand the mechanics of laying it out. It was painstaking, but I eventually got it. There are lots of good books out there now that give instructions and tips on how to make a zine–I’ve even contributed to one of them!–but I didn’t know about any books then, and my hands-on method worked just fine.

When registration for the Zine Fest opened that next year I signed up for a table, and paid something like 5 bucks to rent the space for the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect, and was actually so nervous about sharing my book with these strangers that I took my mom with me, and she sat at the table for a few hours, keeping me company. I now recall that afternoon as one of the happiest events of my life. I knew that zine fairs existed as a means for people to sell their work, but I didn’t know that they would be so social, that people had formed an artistic and ideological community around zine making and liked going to the events to see their friends. That was the day I found that out, and joined them. I had conversation after conversation with some of the most interesting people I’d ever met, folks who were keen to listen to me talk about my poems and just as excited to tell me about their projects: zines, bands, paintings, shows. None of them batted an eye at my mother being there. Everyone was gentle and kind, eclectic and dynamic, and had interesting hair. No one thought I was weird or, if they did, they didn’t mind.

For several years after that, zines were the biggest and most important part of my writing life, as well as my social life. I’ve made dozens of the things at this point, and although my output has slowed up a bit, I’m still into it. Participating in zines has led me to join The Soapbox, the independent publishing center started by a couple of friends of mine. Through that organization I’ve been able to participate in readings, art shows, and workshops, and their kind support has helped me to feel like a real part of the Philadelphia art scene. In the last several years my zines have been in a number of gallery and museum shows around the U.S. and in other countries, too. They’re archived in public, university, and grassroots libraries. I’ve taught workshops on how to make zines to little kids at the free library, to older students on college campuses, and to adults at arts festivals of different kinds. A few years ago I participated in an artist talk at MoMA’s PS1 on the topic of zines, and I was so nervous about doing it that I nearly cried. One year a reporter from TIME freaking magazine called to interview me about zines, which is just ridiculous, but it was so exciting. I’ve published two books now, and both of them started out as serial zines I’d been writing for some time, one about yard sales and the other about linguistics. After the first one came out my publisher introduced me to Michelle Tea, who is one of my all-time favorite writers and a person I deeply admire. She invited me to read in an installment of her monthly series in San Francisco, which you bet I did, and I’m pretty sure I cried about that, too. I lived in a converted shed for two weeks in Nova Scotia, where I was the zine writer in residence at a community art center. I was supposed to spend that time writing an issue of my zine, White Elephants, but I frittered most of it away reading comics, going for walks, and swimming in the ocean. Zines are the reason I know a lot of the people I now call good friends, including about 25 pen-pals and my husband Joe.

And throughout all of this, there was the Philly Zine Fest. I never missed a year except for once when I had the flu. Walking into the smelly, sweaty Rotunda–the building in West Philly where the event is always held–has come to feel something like coming home. Still, there were a few years where I wondered if I still belonged there, or if I cared enough. Sometimes the event was sparsely attended, and other times it was packed with people who were attracted by a spike in the trendiness of zines, and it didn’t feel like my crowd. I’ve watched the scene change more than once, and I haven’t always liked the direction it seemed to be going in. Some of the new transplants to a city I consider “mine” have really rubbed me the wrong way. I felt my age catch up to me at a certain point too, and worried I wasn’t making books that were relevant or interesting to people (especially the younger ones) anymore.

But something really beautiful happened this year. The room was packed all day long, and you could feel people’s excitement in the air. A dj from WKDU played good music, but it wasn’t too loud to talk. I spent hours hugging and gabbing with people I’ve known for years, as well as ones I met just that day. I sold almost everything I’d brought with me, and got some reading material from other tablers that I’m looking forward to studying more closely. I talked to two librarians about the zine library that Joe and I have set up in our living room, which we’ve been working on turning into a quasi-public performance space. A woman found me to tell me that she’s included some of my zines in a two-year traveling art exhibit called the Artmobile, which will travel to grade schools and high schools around Bucks County, Pennsylvania beginning on September 19th. She said she thought I’d like to know that my work will be a part of it, and I do. I do like to know it. Someone else told me she wants to commission me to make her an embroidered wall hanging, which is My New Thing.

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Most of all, I felt like I’d been a part of things long enough to have really earned my place in the community. I’ve weathered the changes and I’m still here. An unusual thing happened too: An old friend I haven’t seen or talked to since we were in college together–in the freakin’ 90s, guys–stopped by my table and we had a great conversation, as if 20 years hadn’t passed. But of course they have, and I’m happy to report that I feel good about the way I’ve spent at least a little of that time. I mean, I’m at least 50 percent asshole, just like the rest of you, but it is so incredibly sweet to be able to look back on a portion of your life and feel both proud of what you’ve done and thankful for what you’ve been given. So thanks, Philly Zine Fest. I’ll see you next year.

Gary, Indiana

It doesn’t come out for another few months, but the artist and critic Gary Indiana has written a memoir, and it is glorious. I think he’s not as well known as he should be, at least in my circles. I keep trying to talk about the book with people I know, and they all frown and say, “The name sounds familiar,” not getting the joke of it or, therefore, why it sounds familiar to them. I probably shouldn’t quote from the book publicly yet, but I’m just going to leave this here for now, in case anyone needs it:

“The audience was as much the show as the music, raw sound that drilled into the brain and was less important than what the players wore, what they did with their bodies on stage. Everyone competed for the most fucked-up reputations, the most suicidal carelessness with drugs, the most gratuitously hostile behavior. Yet punk musicians and followers I got to know personally were touchingly sweet, highly intelligent, and un-materialistic to a utopian degree. Damaged in one way or another, but who isn’t?”

He’s writing here, of course, about punk, which he experienced when it came to Los Angeles in the late 70s. Before that, he lived in a crumbling hippie mansion in Haight Ashbury. He’s also lived in Cuba on and off for many years. So far, he’s had a kind of extraordinary life, and he is so fucking smart and funny—his writing voice is wonderful company.

(The book’s back matter describes him as caustic, but I don’t see that. He probably wrote the back matter himself because the book’s author usually does, I think, so maybe he’s the one who thinks of himself that way. He comes across as far too thoughtful in his analysis of things to be caustic. He is breath-takingly direct though, I’ll give him that. He doesn’t seem to flinch at all when he has to say something difficult, or unflattering; his descriptions of his family are priceless. But there’s a tiny, chest-ripping tenderness that telegraphs across every mention of the stray cats he sees on the street in Havana or in L.A., even though he usually doesn’t do much more than notice them and describe their looks. But you can’t fool me, Gary Indiana. If you love lost, scrappy little animals, then you love everything that’s good.)