Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), “O Pioneers,” Leaves of Grass

Years ago I had a plum job straight out of college working for a post-production house as an assistant video editor.

There were a lot of impressive features in my claim to this job: I was female (still am, last I checked, but one can never be sure), I was completely green, and I was respected. The respect came from my knack for picking up skills quickly, and my talent for faking it in sessions with paying clients (really, really paying clients. Hundreds of dollars-an-hour paying clients). Though my direct superiors knew I didn’t know what I was doing, their clients were blissfully unaware due to my rather remarkable grace under pressure.

In this way, I had what you could call “on-the-job training.” Yes, I had graduated from college with good marks, and a final year in film school. I had even heard of the high-falutin’ editing system that the offline editors worked on, but I didn’t actually know what “offline” versus “online”  meant, which was where I was hired to assist. I had seen a patch bay briefly in college, but didn’t touch the thing; I had opened Photoshop but never did anything beyond make a poorly constructed collage out of a picture of my dad reading a book in front of Saturn. It did not qualify me for my job title.

But, perhaps because I’m more afraid of public humiliation than anything else on this green earth, I never let the clients see me sweat. The lead editor would lob me a slow ball and I’d rally, looking the picture of cool as I stumbled through menus in Photoshop looking for God knows what to design a layout on the fly; then the client would ask for something that I had literally never heard of in my life and I would, with subtle sign language from the editor, pull a rabbit out of my ass. We were an amazing team.

But I learned my job very well. I was adept at graphic design, I learned all the technical crap associated with the machine room; I learned how to patch any machine to any other machine via patch bay; I learned how to use color bars and what being “out of phase” meant. I ended up being very good at what I did. I earned my title eventually.

What I was not good at was leaving my high morals at the door. We were not working on Scorsese pictures; nor were we working on documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil or the crimes against humanity in Rwanda. We worked on the maiden roll-out of Tivo infomercials. We worked on Nike spots (featuring more often than not the recently disgraced patron saint of Nike, Tiger Woods). We edited a shockingly embarrassing children’s series called “Bibleman,” produced by and starring as Bibleman himself none other than “Eight is Enough” alum Willie Aames, who, despite his belief, still managed to be smarmy and creepy and totally full of himself.

There were high quality spots from some of the greatest ad agencies in the country, and some of the lamest dreck ever to grace late-night television in the form of “As Seen on TV” product pitches. Precursors to “The Snuggie,” we led the charge on such products as Bowflex, OxyClean (featuring our lost coke-head infomercial star Billy Mays in some of his early work) and early incarnations of the ShamWow craze (not, sadly, featuring Vince Shlomi, the guy who had his tongue bitten by a hooker but someone completely less memorable).

In this climate, I felt sullied. A little dirty. Crass. I begrudged the work we did, the high-flying feats of amazing editing and graphic prowess, our team’s remarkable grace and fluidity, put to onerous use by Beelzebub and his band of ShamWow shillers. The amount of effort that we expended in creating horrifying spots at the behest of our clients was just a little bit more than my Evergreen State College-informed views of media could handle; I lasted about three years in the business before I retired at the ripe old age of 32.

I don’t think about it much anymore, except to wonder at the amazing success my former co-workers and bosses have found. They are pillars in the field. And I’m very happy for them.

I’m also older, and a little less, shall we say, morally bound to strict ethical interpretations of how my skills are best put to use. I don’t think I would sneer so much anymore. I understand now, as I didn’t then, that sometimes you just have to step back and hold your nose until the noxious fumes of aesthetically devoid commercials dissipate. They’re gonna make the shit one way or another no matter where your morals lie; you just aren’t making a living if you get out of the ring.

But now and then I’m shocked anew at how advertising works upon us. I don’t know if working in the field, albeit briefly, gives me any special insight, but now and then I find the cultural critic in me wallowing up out of the depths of my long-dormant liberal college education.

I cannot help but be enthralled by the recent ad campaign called “Go Forth” from our Portland hometown heroes Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest ad agencies in the country. In two spots, poems are read with a certain creaky ancient charm, both clearly archival recordings, or an amazing facsimile. Paired with a dirge-like mono-tonal soundtrack and shockingly lovely images of eerily beautiful humans in all states of outdoorsy revelry, the spot entreats us to embrace our American heritage, our pioneering spirit to “Go Forth…”

…and buy Levi’s.

If you really want to be a part of the bleeding edge of our youthful American spirit, you’ll want to do it in some Levi’s jeans.

I was so impressed by the spots that I looked up one of the poems online, to glean a touch of understanding about whether or not it was a real poem, or a jingle crafted in the Dark Arts of ad copy. Imagine my surprise, and a little shame, that it was that most American of American poets Walt Whitman, himself reading his poem “America,” in a recording from so long ago that it was preserved on a wax cylinder.*

This set my mind racing. I couldn’t actually believe it.

The first thing I couldn’t believe was that I didn’t know the poem. As a person who prides herself on, if not bookish scholarship at least a well-rounded education, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this iconic poem from an iconic collection by the most iconic of American poets. What did that say about me? What did that say about my education? What did it say about education in the main?

It occurred to me in the dark wallows of the night that if I didn’t know the poem, most everybody else didn’t either. Which, if one can extrapolate, makes our first collective listening of our finest poet a recitation in a Levi’s commercial. Does this imply that we are being educated by commercials? That the erosion of the basics of American History and American Lit class leave us to the mercy of Wieden+Kennedy to provide our scholarship?

I tried to think of other poets, American or merely English-speaking. I tried to think of cultural heritage. I hate to say it, but I came up wanting. I know a number of American authors, classic or otherwise. I’ve read me a fair lot of Steinbeck and Faulkner and O’Connor. The only poet I could think of was T.S. Eliot who was such an old bigot that he didn’t even want to be American, even though his poetry is amazing.

But I could list an astonishing number of television spots. I could rattle off, with no problem whatsoever, the jingles of countless dozens of ads shilling everything from coffee (the Folger’s coffee theme still resounds in the morning when I’m desperate for my own cup) to soda (“I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) to the Super Sugar Crisp Bear and Tony the Tiger fighting for superiority in my brain while some Frooty Toucan duels with some ne’er-do-well Cap’n). I still quote those Budweiser assholes completely inadvertently (“Waaaaazzzzzahhhhp”) and sometimes hear the groaning bullfrogs singing their Budweiser chant completely unbidden. I can tell you about Superbowl ads from before the DotBomb, but cannot tell you who was in the Superbowl.

“Where’s the Beef?” “Got Milk?” “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” “Calgon, take me away…” Stop me, now.

It hurts me in a deep private place to admit that I’ve succumbed this way. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I could recall with any confidence one single poem that wasn’t crafted in a boardroom as a part of some campaign. I might be able to recite a little Shel Silverstein, that bitter bard of Seventies ‘tweens, or Dr. Suess books because I’ve read virtually all of them numerous times since our son was born.

So I’m left with the obvious: I heard “America” for the first time in a commercial selling jeans. And I liked it. How do I square that? Interesting that, once I began researching the commercial, I found hints of people being similarly mesmerized. People linked to it on YouTube, people discovered that the poem was by Walt Whitman. They blogged about it, they wondered what the poem was about (and, predictably, made completely erroneous analyses of the poem).

That is the mark of a successful campaign.

And I’m left wondering, how do I feel about being introduced to Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial? My life has been enriched by the experience; I never knew there were live recordings of Whitman and am happy to have heard one. The poem itself is a worthy introduction, under any circumstance I suppose. And an entire generation of dips like myself have also been introduced to Whitman, albeit through a pitch for jeans which apparently, upon their donning, will help one embrace the American dream.

So on balance, would Whitman understand what had happened to his poem? Would it matter to him one jot that he influenced a tide of Americans, not through Lit Class in fourth period but in a flashy, well-produced advert? He may very well reach more humans in that one ad than he’s reached in the last decade in English class. What is the moral or ethical barometer of that, when we are exposed to something great? Is the greatness diminished by its delivery? Is the fact that Whitman is being used to sell jeans an indication that we should close up shop and retire English Lit Classes forever and instead offer college classes analyzing the last several decades of the art within the advert?

Because I know, through working with commercials both great and small, that some of the greatest creative juices are being dumped into amazing 30- and 60-second spots.

There is something beautiful about the form, if you separate it briefly in your mind from its sole intention of selling you junk you don’t want. It’s like the haiku of film; all the humor or grace or sadness the director wishes to convey must be synthesized into a tiny little package. The writers are constrained by impossible boundaries to tell a story, and yet time and again they do it, not just successfully, but often with beauty, simplicity and poignancy. The bleeding edge of special effects are pushed further in the cause of creating 3D models of absorbent diapers and stunning animations of hamsters driving cars than they are in movies and tv. Why? Because the budgets are (used to be) in advertising.

So I’m being disingenuous when I suggest that we scrap American Lit in favor of “Sixty Years of Commercials: Art and Poetry in Advertising,” but only slightly. I didn’t end up spending my life in the field, only because I was too inflexible at the time to recognize the subtle beauty of that most pernicious of forms. But I recognize greatness when I see it, and I know that even though I won’t buy any Levi’s as a result of W+K’s campaign, I will inadvertently quote Whitman at strange times, maybe in tandem with the Budweiser frogs.

*There seems to be some question as to the provenance of the recording itself. In a comment, D.R. Hainey writes:

…a Google search led to the real deal. According to the accompanying information, it’s believed to be Whitman, and the recording is only thirty seconds long, which was as much as those who discovered the recording in the early 1950s could retrieve. As to the voice on the recording, which is thought to have been made in 1899-1890, one analyst has this to say: “It contains a subtle and quaint regional inflection–a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent–which has quite literally disappeared in our age. No one speaks that way anymore. The notion that someone might have set out to imitate such a nuanced archaic inflection strains credibility just a bit.” I agree. If this isn’t Whitman, who was born on Long Island in 1819, he must have sounded very similar.

Thus tipped off that my scholarship is not 100 percent, I did a little Googling myself, and found no proof that it wasn’t Whitman, but no proof that it was, either. My discoveries, in the short time I dedicated to the search, are in the comments. But should anyone want to take up the charge of the Whitman recording mystery, I think it’s a fascinating cause.

I choose to suspend my disbelief because I think it’s simply magical to hear Whitman. But I understand that in the search for truth, justice and historical veracity, it may be more important to others to keep up the quest.

Photograph by Andrea Augé

What got you started with poetry?

Well, there sure wasn’t anything literary going on in my early environment. But I was exposed to great music, especially the Latin music popular in the Fifties. My parents had met in Atlantic City in the late Forties, when Boardwalk hotels had Cuban bands playing in ballrooms with crowded dancefloors every night. So I wound up bouncing to Mambo records as a toddler. Along with this, I was living in a hotbed of immigrant anxiety hopping with explosive feuds—my father’s parents had it in for my mother, and she hated them right back. The shame endured by the Jews of Eastern Europe was spilling into family dynamics, spouting from the pores of these people so blindly anxious to belong, and I got drenched in the vitriol. I was myself of course anxious to belong, to be seen and known through the blaze of the arguments, through the constant crossfire of blame.

patricide-frontcover600I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.

And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.


If there’s a more generous writer in America than Jonathan Evison, I haven’t heard of him. (Full disclosure: Evison was kind enough to blurb two of my novels. This ain’t about that.) This son of Washington, a New York Times bestseller for his sweeping epic West of Here has engendered good will the old-fashioned way: by working damn hard at what he does, being thankful for the opportunities, using his time and talent to promote other writers and being a beacon of optimism in a business that breaks hearts as a matter of course.

With his latest, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin), set to drop on Aug. 28, Evison unspooled for a wide-ranging, multi-day email interview about the new book, writing a smaller, more intimate story after the ambitious West of Here, working through the darkness, and what he might say to the 15-years-younger version of himself.


In response to Whitman:
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much?

Hi Walt. If you’re asking how Thomas Edison got into the river in the first place, it’s because I put him there. His work and the magnitude of which he depended on public approval tortured him—he had to escape. However, no matter how far he travelled from his art, it was within him. He sweat it out. Part of my journey in self-understanding is rooted in empathy with other characters. To imagine Thomas escaping his craft and into utter darkness is for me to find myself in the Amazon, for him to discover that he is still dreaming of light is for me to wake in the middle of giving-up with a hand twitching towards a pen.

The cover of Bushnell's most recent poetry collectionMike Bushnell has been making Internet literature for years, and in 2007 he appeared as the force behind publishers Jaguar Uprising and Bore Parade. He also created an alter ego in the form of a professional wrestler called “The Industry,” with which he made promo videos wherein he wore his now-signature face paint and business suit as he screamed threats into the camera. Jaguar Uprising was a chapbook press as well as a sort of shock squad that challenged literary and Internet conventions, while Bore Parade specialized in parodies and tributes to the aesthetics of the publisher Bear Parade.

The Day the Lampshades Breathed


“We must all be foolish at times. 

It is one of the conditions of liberty.”

—Walt Whitman

Like just about everybody else who lived in California during the 1960s, I Went Through a Phase. I grew me a mustache and a big wig, and got me some granny glasses and pointy-toed elf boots and bell-bottom britches (which did not, Charles Reich to the contrary notwithstanding, turn my walk into “a kind of dance”; nothing could turn my walk into a kind of dance). I threw the Ching. I rocked and I rolled. I ingested illicit substances. It was épater le bourgeois time, baby!

But this was not my first attack of mal de Californie. I’d been through it all before.

By way of explanation, let me go all the way back to 1952 just long enough to say that after that uninspired freshman year at Washington & Lee, I moved on for three more uninspired years at Miami of Ohio, where I majored in 3.2 beer and blanket parties on the golf course and published uninspired short stories in the campus lit mag. In 1955, I went to Stanford to try my hand at creative writage in graduate school.

Stanford was too many for me. I lasted just two quarters before I received a note from the chairman of the English Department inviting me to drop by and discuss my highly improbable future as a graduate student. I declined the invitation but took the hint, dropped out, and slunk back home to Kentucky to conclude a brief and embarrassingly undistinguished graduate career at the state university in Lexington. Thence to Oregon, and four years of honest toil at Backwater State College, in the freshman composition line.

But California had left its mark on me. For I had gone west as the blandest perambulatory tapioca pudding ever poured into a charcoal-gray suit, and I came home six months later in Levi’s and cycle boots and twenty-four-hour-a-day shades, with an armpit of a goatee and a hairdo that wasn’t so much a duck’s-ass as it was, say, a sort of cocker spaniel’s-ass. I had been to San Francisco and seen the Beatniks in North Beach, I had smoked a genuine reefer, I had sat on the floor drinking cheap Chianti and listening to “City of Glass” on the hi-fi. I’d been Californified to a fare-thee-well, and I’d loved every minute of it.

So when I weaseled my way back into Stanford—and California—in the fall of 1962 via a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, it was a case of the victim returning to the scene of the outrage, eager for more. Immediately, I sought out my old Stanford roommates, Jim Wolpman and Vic Lovell, who were now, respectively, a labor lawyer and a grad student in psychology, living next door to each other in a dusty, idyllic little bohemian compound called Perry Lane, just off the Stanford campus. Among their neighbors was Ken Kesey, himself but lately down from Oregon, whose novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been published just a year ago and was in fact dedicated to Vic—“Who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs”—for having arranged Ken’s enrollment as a test subject in a drug-experiment program at the local VA hospital. And the neighborhood was fairly crawling with writers and artists and students and musicians and mad scientists. It was just what I was looking for: a bad crowd to fall in with. I moved in a couple of blocks down the street and started my mustache.

In a lot of ways, it was the same old California. We still sat on the floor and drank cheap Chianti, though now we listened to Sandy Bull and called the hi-fi a stereo, and the atmosphere was often murky with the sickly-sweet blue smaze of the dread devil’s weed. The manner we’d cultivated back in the fifties was sullen, brooding, withdrawn but volatile, dangerous—if not to others, then at the very least to ourselves. Its models were Elvis, James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The idea was to seem at once murderous, suicidal . . . and sensitive.

(Locally, our hero in those days had been, improbably enough, the president of the Stanford student body government, George Ralph, who’d campaigned in sideburns and Wild One leathers behind the sneering slogan “I Hate Cops.” George’s campaign was a put-on, of course—between those sideburns was a dyed-in-the-wool Stevenson Democrat—but he had the style down cold, and he beat the cashmere socks off the poor Fraternity Row cream puff who opposed him.)

But six years can wreak a lot of changes, and by 1962 the future was already happening again on Perry Lane. “We pioneered”—Vic was to write* years later, with becoming modesty—“what have since become the hallmarks of hippie culture: LSD and other psychedelics too numerous to mention, body painting, light shows and mixed-media presentations, total aestheticism, be-ins, exotic costumes, strobe lights, sexual mayhem, freak-outs and the deification of psychoticism, Eastern mysticism, and the rebirth of hair.” Oh, they wanted to maintain their cool, these pioneers, they wanted to go on being—or seeming—aloof and cynical and hip and antisocial, but they just couldn’t keep a straight face. They were like new lovers, or newly expectant mothers; they had this big, wonderful secret, and their idiot grins kept giving it away. They were the sweetest, smartest, liveliest, craziest bad crowd I’d ever had the good fortune to fall in with. And their great secret was simply this: They knew how to change the world.

“Think of it this way,” my Perry Lane friend Peter, who never drew an unstoned breath, once countered when I mentioned that my TV was on the fritz. “Your TV’s all right. But you’ve been lookin’ at it wrong, man, you’ve been bum-trippin’ your own TV set!”

For a while there, it almost seemed as if it might really be that easy. The way to change the world was just to start looking at it right, to stop bumming it out (ah, we could turn a phrase in those days!) and start grooving on it—to scarf down a little something from the psychedelicatessen and settle back and watch the world do its ineluctable thing. Gratified by the attention, the world would spring to life and cheerfully reveal its deepest mysteries. The commonplace would become marvelous; you could take the pulse of a rock, listen to the heartbeat of a tree, feel the hot breath of a butterfly against your cheek. (“So I took this pill,” said another friend, reporting back after his first visit to the Lane, “and a little later I was lying on the couch, when I noticed that the lampshade had begun to breathe . . . ”) It was a time of what now seems astonishing innocence, before Watergate or Woodstock or Vietnam or Charles Manson or the Summer of Love or Groovy and Linda or the Long, Hot Summer or even, for a while, Lee Harvey Oswald, a time when wonder was the order of the day. One noticed one’s friends (not to mention oneself) saying “Oh wow!” with almost reflexive frequency; and the cry that was to become the “Excelsior!” of the Day-Glo Decade, the ecstatic, ubiquitous “Far out!” rang oft upon the air.

The first time I ever felt entitled to employ that rallying cry was on Thanksgiving of 1962. That evening, after a huge communal Thanksgiving feast at the Keseys’, Ken led me to his medicine cabinet, made a selection, and said matter-of-factly, “Here, take this, we’re going to the movies.” A scant few minutes later, he and I and three or four other lunatics were sitting way down front in a crowded Palo Alto theater, and the opening credits of West Side Story were disintegrating before my eyes. This is . . . CINERAMA! roared the voice-over inside my head as I cringed in my seat. And though I stared almost unblinking at the screen for the next two hours and thirty-five minutes, I never saw a coherent moment of the movie. What I saw was a ceaseless barrage of guns, knives, policemen, and lurid gouts of eyeball-searing color, accompanied by an earsplitting, cacophonous din, throughout which I sat transfixed with terror—perfectly immobile, the others told me afterward; stark, staring immobile, petrified, trepanned, stricken by the certainty, the absolute certainty, that in one more instant the Authorities would be arriving to seize me and drag me up the aisle and off to the nearest madhouse. It was the distillation of all the fear I’d ever known, fear without tangible reason or cause or occasion, pure, unadulterated, abject Fear Itself, and for a hundred and fifty-five awful minutes it invaded me to the very follicles of my mustache.

Then, suddenly and miraculously, like a beacon in the Dark Night of the Soul, the words “The End” shimmered before me on the screen. Relief swept over me, sweet as a zephyr. I was delivered. The curtain closed, the lights came up. I felt grand, exuberant, triumphant—as if I’d just ridden a Brahma bull instead of a little old tab of psilocybin. If they’d turned off the lights again, I’d have glowed in the dark. Beside me, Ken stood up and stretched.

“So how was it?” he inquired, grinning.

“Oh, wow!” I croaked joyfully. “It was fa-a-ar out!”

And in that instant, for me, the sixties began. Characteristically, I was about two years late getting out of the gate, but I was off at last.

Ken Kesey was a singular person, as all who knew him will attest. But these were all singular people, this lunatic fringe on Stanford’s stiff upper lip. I should probably keep this to myself, but to tell the truth, the thing I remember best about the next few years is the parties. We had the swellest parties! Parties as good as your childhood birthday parties were supposed to be but never were; outrageously good parties, parties so good that people would sometimes actually forget to drink!

The best parties were immaculately spontaneous. Typically, they began with some Perry Lane denizen sitting at the breakfast table, staring out the kitchen window into the dappled, mellow perfection of a sunny California Saturday morning, resolving: Today, I’m gonna take a little trip. By early afternoon, two or three friends would have dropped by and signed on for the voyage, and together they’d choke down either some encapsulated chemical with an appetizing title like URP-127 or an equally savory “natural” concoction like peyote-orange-juice upchuck or morning glory seeds with cream and sugar (don’t try it, reader; it ain’t Grape-Nuts, and there’s nothing natural about it), and then for the next half hour or so they’d lie around trying not to throw up while they waited for the lampshades to start respiring. A similar scene was liable to be transpiring in two or three other Perry Lane households at the same time, and it wouldn’t be long till every lampshade in the neighborhood was panting like a pufferbelly. The incipient party would have begun to assert itself.

Under the giant oak by Vic’s front door—the very oak in whose shade Thorstein Veblen was alleged to have written The Theory of the Leisure Class—half a dozen solid citizens with pinwheel eyeballs might be banging out an aboriginal but curiously copacetic sort of hincty bebop on upturned wastebaskets, pots and pans, maybe an old set of bongos left over from the fifties, Vic himself laying down the basic bop lines on his favorite ax, a pocket-comb-and-tissue-paper hum-a-zoo. Next door at the Keseys’, they’d have drawn the blinds and hung blankets over the windows, and Roy Sebern, a wonderfully hairy artist who lived, apparently on air, in a tiny box on the back of his pickup in a succession of backyards, would be demonstrating his newest creation, a rickety contraption that projected amorphous, throbbing blobs of luminous color all over the walls and ceiling like lambent, living wallpaper, to the murmuring chorus of “oh-wows” and “far-outs” that issued from an audience of several puddles of psychedelicized sensibility on the Kesey carpet. Over at my house on Alpine Road, Peter and I would be feverishly juicing peyote buttons in my wife’s brand-new Osterizer.

In the late afternoon, Gurney Norman, another apprentice writer from Kentucky, might turn up, sprung from Fort Ord on a weekend pass. Gurney had made his way to Stanford and Perry Lane a couple of years earlier (it was he, in fact, who’d spotted the original breathing lampshade), and had then gone into the army to complete an ROTC obligation, and promptly bounced back to California in the guise of a first lieutenant, running recruits through basic training down at Ord during the week and expanding his horizons at Perry Lane on the weekends. The military was doing great things for Gurney’s organizational skills; within minutes of his arrival, he’d have a squad of giggling beardy-weirdies and stoned Perry Lane–style Wacs in muumuus hut-hoop-hreep-hoing up and down the street with mops and broomsticks on their shoulders, in an irreverent gloss on the whole idea of close-order drill.

Eventually, the party would assemble itself somewhere, more than likely around the corner at Chloe Scott’s house, to take on victuals and cheap Chianti. Chloe is at all odds the most glamorous woman I’ve ever known. A professional dancer and dance teacher, redheaded and fiery, a real knockout and a woman of the world, Chloe Kiely-Peach of the British gentry by birth, daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, she’d come to America, to New York, as a girl during the Blitz, and had stayed on to become, in the early
fifties, part of Jackson Pollock’s notoriously high-spirited East Hampton social circle. Along the way she married a dashing young naturalist and spent a year on the Audubon Society’s houseboat in the Everglades, fell briefly under the spell of a Reichian therapist and basted herself in an orgone box, and at last, divorced, made her way west to settle in as one of the reigning free spirits on Perry Lane. At Chloe’s anything could happen.

And, as they say, it usually did. For starters, Neal Cassady might fall by, the Real Neal, Kerouac’s pal and the prototype for Dean Moriarty of On the Road, trailing adoring fallen women and authentic North Beach beatniks in his wake, looking like Paul Newman and talking as if he’d been shooting speed with a phonograph needle—which, come to think of it, he probably had: “Just passing through, folks, don’t mind us, my shed-yool just happened to coincide with Mr. Kesey’s here, and all that redundancy, you understand, not to mention the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the worst of the poems of Schiller, huntin’ and peckin’ away there as they did, except of course insofar as where you draw the line, that is, but in any case I believe it was at, let me see, Sebring, yes, when Fangio, with the exhaust valves wide open and the petcocks, too, that you’ve sometimes seen, starting with Wordsworth, you see, and working backward, in the traditional fashion, straight through Pliny the Elder and beyond, though it’s much the same with the fusion of the existential and the transcendental, or, if you will, the universal and the transmission, as in the case of the 1940 flat-head Cadillac 8, why, you naturally get your velocity mixed up with your veracity, of course, and who knows what that’s cost us? So I’ll just say how-d’ye-do to my friend Mr. Kesey, and then we’ll be on our way, have to get there in plenty of time, you understand . . . ” Neal never stuck around for long, but he was terrific while he lasted.

Then there was Lee Anderson, a roly-poly, merry little apple dumpling of a PhD candidate in some obscure scientific discipline at Stanford, who could sometimes, at very good parties, be prevailed upon to . . . play himself! Bowing to popular demand, blushing bashfully from head to toe, Lee would strip down to his skivvies (an effective attention-getting device at any party), wait for silence, and at last begin rhythmically bobbing up and down to some inner tempo, as though he were about to improvise a solo on an invisible stand-up bass, now lightly slapping himself with his open hands on his plump little thighs and roseate tummy—slappity-slappity-slappity-slap—now cupping one hand in his armpit and flapping the arm to produce a small farting sound like a tiny tuba—slappity-slappity-poot-poot, slappity-poot, slappity-poot—now shaping his mouth into an oval and rapping on his skull with the knuckles of first one hand, then the other, then both, making of his mouth a sort of reverb chamber—pocketa-pock, pocketa-pock, pocketa-pecketa-pucketa-pock—picking up the tempo, working furiously, sweat flying, the whole ensemble tuning in—slappity-pock, slappity-pock, slappity-pocketa-poot, slappity-pocketa-poot, pocketa-poot, pocketa-pecketa-poot, pecketa-pucketa-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot . . . It wasn’t the New York Philharmonic, maybe, but Lee’s was a class act just the same—as Dr. Johnson might have put it, the wonder was not that he did it well, but simply that he could do it at all—and it always brought the house down.

I’m not exactly sure what Vic means by “sexual mayhem,” so I won’t try either to confirm or to deny it. I’ll just say that during one party I opened the door to the darkened bedroom where the coats were piled on the bed and heard a muffled female voice say from the darkness, “Close the door, please, Ed. We’re fucking in here.”

Basically, though, the parties were just good, clean, demented fun. At any moment the front door might burst open and into the celebrants’ midst would fly Anita Wolpman, Jim’s wife, with the collar of her turtleneck sweater pulled up over her head, hotly pursued by Jim, brandishing an ax gory with ketchup. Or Bob Stone, a splendid writer who has also done some Shakespeare on the stage, might suddenly be striding about the room delivering, with Orson Wellesian bombast and fustian, an impromptu soliloquy, a volatile, irreproducibly brilliant admixture of equal parts Bard, King James Bible, Finnegan’s Wake, and (so I always suspected) Bob Stone. Or Lorrie Payne, a madcap Australian jack-of-all-arts, might wander in with a skinned green grape stuffed halfway into one nostril and part the horrified multitudes before him like an exhibitionist at a DAR convention. Or one might find oneself—literally find oneself—engaged in one or another of the goofy conversations that would be ensuing in every corner of the house, as did Gurney and I the night we determined that behind the peg-board on Chloe’s kitchen wall lurked an enormous baby chick, ready to pounce on us, bellowing, in a voice like Bull Moose Jackson’s, “PEEP! PEEP!” Or somebody might cut open an old golf ball and start unwinding the endless rubber band inside, and in moments a roomful of merrymakers would be hopelessly ensnarled in a rubbery web, writhing hilariously—a surreal tableau that, to my peyote-enchanted eyes, was astonishingly beautiful, and was entitled “We’re All in This Thing Together.”

At one party, Gurney maneuvered ten delirious revelers into the backyard, looped Chloe’s fifty-foot clothesline about them, and endeavored to create the World’s Largest Cat’s Cradle. “Awright now, men,” he kept bawling at his troops, “I want all the thumbs to raise their hands!”

Well, okay, you had to be there. No denying there was plenty of unmitigated adolescent silliness in all those hijinks—just as there’s no denying the unfortunate similarity between my experience at West Side Story and that of the celebrated Little Moron, the one who beats himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good to stop. But like the man in the aftershave commercial, we needed that, some of us, to wake us from the torpor of the fifties. To be sure, there were casualties—those who couldn’t put the hammer down till they’d pounded their poor heads to jelly, those who blissed out or blasted off, those for whom dope was a purgative and every trip a bad trip, an exorcism. And I’m also perfectly willing to concede, if I must, that there were just as many others who successfully expanded their consciousnesses to wonderful dimensions through the miracle of chemistry.

But for weekenders and day-trippers like me, psychedelics were mostly just for laughs; they made things more funny-ha-ha than funny-peculiar. And for me at least, the laughter was a value in itself. I hadn’t laughed so unrestrainedly since childhood, and the effect was refreshing, bracing, invigorating—aftershave for the psyche. Nor had I ever in my life allowed myself to fall so utterly in love with all my friends at once. And there were several occasions, in the highest, clearest moments of those high old times, when I caught a glimpse of something at the periphery of my vision that shook the throne of the tyrannical little atheist who sat in my head and ruled my Kentucky Methodist heart.

It was all too good to last, of course. Quick as the wink of a strobe light, Kennedy had fallen to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietnam issue was as hot as a two-dollar pistol, the country was aboil with racial unrest . . . and Perry Lane had gone under to the developers. The times, they were a-changin’, and not for the better either. The first day of the rest of our lives was over.


Copyright © 2011 by Ed McClanahan from I Just Hitched In from the Coast. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.


Back in August, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on NYC and New England, Brooklyn singer/songwriter The Reverend John DeLore tweaked the lyrics to the old Leadbelly classic, “Goodnight Irene,” to give it a timely Gotham City theme, a musical plea to spare the island metropolis. DeLore recorded a solo acoustic version around 3pm on August 28, emailed it to a number of his musician friends across the city’s five boroughs, who in turn recorded additional parts and emailed them back to him. DeLore (a part-time sound engineer with WNYC’s Studio 360) then mixed the 19 tracks (there’s even a Glockenspiel!) for the final version, all of it conceived, recorded and produced within a ten-hour span.

Hurricane Irene (NYC 2011) by The Reverend John DeLore & Friends

DeLore’s inspired 2009 debut recalls, among other things, the loneliness of the road and the oddly absurd give-and-take inherent in relationships. His latest release, Little John The Conqueror, is an extremely well-crafted take on the hero’s journey. DeLore represents the new breed of DIY artists doing all they can to put their work out there. DeLore is most definitely not the singer/songwriter Art Edwards was talking about at the Portland TNBLE. So far, DeLore’s work, in my opinion, surpasses most of, say, a band like Wilco’s efforts.

I recently spoke with John about the craft of songwriting, poetry, the resurgence of vinyl music releases, what he’d do if he ever met Leonard Cohen, the magic of train travel, and the history of Voodoo Viagra.

So poetry, what the hell is that all about? No one in our family was particularly literary, unless you count Dad reading us “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon.”

It was Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”, during our second go at college, that clinched it. It was similar to listening to the Stones and desperately wanting to lay my fingers on some guitar strings and become part of that tremendous force of rock and roll. Komunyakaa transported new and revealing thoughts and feelings into our body, mind, and soul. Afterwards, I wanted to learn how to give everyone that same magical experience that Komunyakaa had just given me. Harness the power of the muse, I suppose.

If I remember, you and I had our young hearts set on playing linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.

Yeah. You were too small and I was too slow, but together we won Most Improved Player of the Year on a tiny backwater high school football team. It really was a lot of fun.

So, now you write poetry. Can you imagine our old linebacker buddy A. J. Young’s face if we told him we’ve become a poet?

He’d laugh his ass off.

Exactly. And call us a pussy.

If I remember A. J., he never took anything too seriously—that’s one of the many reasons he could run over people like a mad bull. He also always had our back—in every circumstance. He’d have fun with the poet thing, but in the end, he could care less.

So you don’t feel bad for disappointing A. J., our good, old, dependable friend, and becoming a wuss?

You are truly a moron. Ask some questions you really want to know the answer too.

Okay. So what has your poetry done for us?

Understanding and empathy – of ourselves and the people we write about. And, if the poems are any good, the people who read the poems might get a little of the same.

Sounds like a colossal waste of time. Okay, what has poetry done for me?

Did you forget about the women? The ladies who respected and rewarded our poetic talents.

We got women before you started spending three hours deciding whether to use the word “drops” or the word “falls” in a poem. We were in good shape before this poetry nonsense too. I blame our double chin on you.

Those pre-poetry girls weren’t much fun in bed. And neither were we.

True. But dating some of them artistic ladies is like carrying a sack of mountain lions through a butcher shop.

We’ll find that lady who loves us, not our skill sets, but for just us—a lady who is both complex and balanced.

Just like us right?

Ha. Yeah, exactly. We have met a lot of amazing and interesting people through poetry.

I’ll give you that. But we’ve also met a lot of interesting and amazing people as an electrician, bartender, furniture mover, etc… Come to think of it, I also blame you for not being able to hold down a real job.

We’ve had the same 9 to 5 job for four years. Pay’s decent. And it’s a writing job. I’m getting better at writing, and you’re getting your sense of security and status stroked with a solid paycheck and health insurance. Wasn’t that the deal?

It was, but when do you have time to write poetry? We could be using that time for financial schemes and hollow gratification.

Selfishness isn’t going to fulfill us or anyone else.

Don’t get high and mighty with me. What does poetry do for the greater good?

It reaches out and asks to share experiences and dreams and sentiments. It’s proof we’re not alone, and that knowledge is comforting and nourishing. Poetry is also a celebration of and a contribution to the evolution of language—humankind’s greatest gift.

Congratulations. 0.0001% of America is proud of you.

Although your statistics are skewed, that’s sad and true. We should probably talk about the poetry we write. This is an opportunity to get our poems out there.

Yes and then we can become one of the three poets in America who make a living wage on their poetry. All right, let’s do it. Who are your influences?

Here’s an uncomprehensive list: Jane Kenyon, Phillip Levine, Michael Ryan, Whitman and Dickinson of course, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo, James Wright (I am an Ohio boy at heart), Stephen Dunn, Edward Micus (mentor), Richard Robbins (mentor), Terrance Hayes, and many others.

Why these poets?

I think they’re all compact (excepting Whitman) and incredibly potent. Their poems are so much larger than the time it takes to read them. They linger and expand as they sit with you after you’ve taken them in.

What about you, outside of writing, do you make use of in your poetry?

We were, and still are, very physical in nature. We respond to movement and touch deeply. I think the poems try to reflect that. They aspire to be as visceral as possible. And that comes into the poems through the subject matter (describing the physical) and the sounds. All those deep and long vowels and chunky consonants, those single syllable Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words, they help to make a physical music. Robert Frost’s poems are wonderful for those words.

What do you hope your readers get out of the poems?

First of all, I thank them for picking up the poem. I’m grateful for their time, which is precious. I want them to get what I get from the poetry I love: a door to a bigger world, a shared experience, beautiful (or interesting) language, and an indescribable understanding of the human condition.

Good luck with that brother.

Thanks. Good luck back.

Like most women whose hopes and passions reside in this business of the written word, my friend and fellow Nervous Breakdown contributor Arielle Bernstein and I have been following Franzen-gate with interest. In chat after chat, we wondered if this was merely sour grapes on the part of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, if their criticism of gender-bias within the “literary establishment” (as represented by The New York Times) would’ve had greater heft had it come from a woman whose talents might be considered more on par with Mr. Franzen’s (like, say, Mary Gaitskill, Marilynne Robinson, or Jhumpa Lahiri). We had no real answers, but our questions lead us down the rabbit hole of gender parity in popular media.

Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:

Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.

Having graduated from Evergreen State College with plaudits from a wide range of teachers, I was exposed to all kinds of theory. Feminist theory, film theory, Marxist theory, cultural theory, sexual theory, Marxist feminist cultural film theory; theory wrapped in iceberg lettuce and swallowed with Ranch dressing. There is a lot of theory in an institution like Evergreen, and I read scads of it.

Is the novel dead?

Simon Smithson waxes metaphysical…and David S. Wills waxes Poe-etic.

Justin Benton vanishes…and D.R. Haney returns.

Ducky Wilson fights the law (the law wins).

Jessica Anya Blau runs the bad-neighbor gauntlet.

Quenby Moone has the 501 on Whitman…and Thomas Wood gets to the bottom of it all.

Brad Listi can’t get off.

JM Blaine‘s Christmas carol…and Irene Zion‘s Christmas gift.

The epistolary adventures of James D. Irwin and Greg Olear.

Plus new posts by Rachel McKibbens, Elizabeth Collins, and Dawn Corrigan.

Oh, and…

Got Boobs?