I was with some poetry friends in a pub near Holborn, shooting the breeze before a reading two of us were participating in. The breeze was fairly dark on that day, for various reasons. It was the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration for one thing; it was January in London for another. Let us hope that it was genuine curiosity, at least as much as the need to keep the conversation going, that caused one friend to ask which poet I thought of as the main background presence for my own writing. He did not quite phrase the question in terms of influence. I did not have to think to know that the answer was John Ashbery. But for some reason, the name felt a little flat on my tongue, as if this was an important fact about myself that I had not been nourishing or had grown inattentive to. Further comment seemed called for, and what I found myself saying next was that, for me, Ashbery was the sky. It was true, and of course it remains so. The sky is not something that just goes and dies one day.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently enrolled, doesn’t require you to do much of anything. Time is largely unstructured here; as long as your writing gets done, you barely have to get out of bed for two years. When I first realized this, I panicked, and then I registered for an undergraduate course in elementary Latin. I don’t even get academic credit for it. I just wanted something in my life, amidst the subjective muck of the creative process, that I could be objectively good at—the occasional dopamine rush of a check mark, an A grade, a scribbled Great job! from an authority figure—and I remembered being good at Latin.
It had been almost two decades since I last looked at a Latin textbook, but I was optimistic that I’d retained a lot. My seventh-grade Latin textbook left a vivid impression on me. It followed the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Pompeian household (vocab words for the final chapter included volcano, to erupt, smoke, ashes, in despair), and to this day, I remember the whole cast of characters: Caecilius, a banker; Metella, his wife; Grumio, their cook; and Cerberus, the dog, who stays by his master’s side to the very end (RIP, little buddy). I’ll never forget the passage in which Melissa, a newly purchased slave girl, is first presented to the household: my translation was “Melissa pleases Caecilius. Melissa pleases Grumio. Uh-oh—Melissa does not please Metella!” It was pretty juicy material, by seventh-grade standards. (I just Googled these names, so I can tell you that the book was The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1, and that it has a surprisingly robust fandom on Tumblr.) Read More
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When you get bored, and you’re so bored you don’t even want to do anything to break up the boredom—it’s that creeping, infectious boredom that’s kind of like an anger—how do you avoid drinking too much?
Tipsy in Texas
Boredom has a hard time letting go of the remote control, so the secret is to get your body out of range so it can’t reach you. The remote control that boredom holds is your phone. Leave it behind, and sneak calmly out the back way. Get a ride to a bar that is about ninety-minutes walk from your place then go in, (phoneless!) and order your favorite drink and pound it. Drink it really, really fast. Then have one more really, really fast. Tip your bartender and head out, thinking of a question that you’d love to know the answer to, big or small. As you begin to walk home (possibly getting a little lost along the way as you are buzzed and phoneless) tell yourself that you will encounter three clues to the answer to this question in the next ninety minutes. Read More
The 1980s was the decade of the black-and-white comic boom—and the inevitable bust. The boom was started in part by three successful self-published comics: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, and Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark. A comic-reading public that wanted something besides the same tired superhero formula or the sex-and-drugs heavy (and often misogynist) underground comics snapped them up. The black-and-white pages were cheaper to print than color, and soon new publishers with new titles were springing up like toadstools after a rainstorm.
At first it seemed as though any black-and-white comic book would sell (and at first they did), and there were some pretty bizarre but briefly successful books with titles, like Cold Blooded Chameleon Commandos or The Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos, riding on the armored coattails of Ninja Turtles, but along with the silliness came some good comics that are still with us, like Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Max Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree, and Joshua Quagmire’s Cutey Bunny, and some good comics that unfortunately didn’t last, like Bill Messner-Loebs’s Journey, and the subject of this essay.
In the midst of the hysteria of the black-and-white boom, along came Neil the Horse, tap dancing his way into the hearts of America. (Well, mine, anyway, and enough others to keep the comic going for fifteen issues.) Five parts Donald Duck artist Carl Barks, five parts Fred Astaire, and a hundred percent Arn Saba, the banana-chomping, rubber-legged equine’s comics were a refreshing change from the dark, grim and gritty, ultraviolent mainstream comics that seemed almost de rigueur during the eighties. His Art Deco–looking characters sang and danced their way through some pretty wacky adventures: inspired by the manic adventures of Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck, along with a healthy dose of surrealism à la Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Neil got caught in a photocopier, producing hundreds of Neil clones; he met Mr. Coffee Nerves and consumed a gallon of the stuff, with expected rubber-legged results, and he and his cigar-chomping pal, Soapy the Cat, went to Hell (not as a result of drinking all that coffee!). Read More
On a Friday night this spring, I reported to the inaugural show at Fisher Parrish Gallery, in Bushwick. Some awfully cool looking folks were packed into the small white space. The table was laid with 117 new examples of paperweights. Almost none of them resembled the office accoutrement of last century, when open windows and fans sent paper sailing through reeking cigarette fog. These were objet d’art. They ranged from the purely ironic (a furry outgrowth) to the purely beautiful (chain links encrusted in sherbet crystals). Many were ineffable abstracts, and a few were just satisfying (animal figurines drilled into each other). “My life doesn’t justify a paperweight,” a girlfriend remarked. “My life isn’t settled enough. You don’t buy one until you think you’re not going to move.”
Paperweights had never struck me as markers of stability. But a month later, when I was laid off from the legacy media company where I worked for a print magazine, I surveyed my desk, picked up a stack of our branded notepads and a handle of whiskey and thought, At least I don’t have to lug no paperweight.
Then Saturday came without Saturday’s feel. In a vintage shop, I drifted from taxidermy pheasants to a shelf staged with dusted curio, and there was a Murano blown-glass paperweight. At its center, the softball-size bubble had a clear tubular ring, inside of which was a clear finial shape from which streaks of red sprayed in arches at 360 degrees. The thing was maybe five pounds? My fiancé found me cradling it to my heart. “You’re going to bring that home, aren’t you,” he said, meaning: Did my foolhardy troth to paper in the age of new media know no bounds? The paperweight seemed to englobe our opposed perspectives: he thought it looked like a nasty vortex; I thought it looked like a wine fountain.
In 1495, a historian from Venice remarked, “But consider to whom did it occur to include in a little ball all the sorts of flowers which clothe the meadow in Spring.” He was referring to the glasswork techniques the Romans had picked up from the Egyptians. The results were not paperweights, not least because the bottoms had not yet been shaved flat to prevent rolling. That was an evolution Paul Hollister, the late authority on paperweights, likened to “turn[ing] the Venetian pumpkin into Cinderella’s golden coach.” (As a bonus, grounding the base removed the pontil mark, the scar from a glassblower’s iron rod, and without a belly button, the orb seemed to come into the world by magic.) Read More
Chalk it up to synchronicity, but within an hour I opened a package in my mailbox and found a patch I ordered for my baseball cap that says, BECAUSE FUCK YOU, THAT’S WHY. Then I drove half a mile into town and saw a new store about to open. It was called the Little Shoppe of Positivity. I wanted to throw a brick through the window.
I have no idea what kind of merchandise they will carry in the Little Shoppe of Positivity, so I asked some friends having coffee at that café next door what a positivity shoppe would sell. “All kinds of angel paraphernalia I would imagine,” one said. “Needlepoint pillows with positive thoughts,” said another. “I don’t know, but every time I drive by it I feel happy,” said a third. Now I needed a second brick. Read More