Online Edition: Spring 2006

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“WE LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH MAYBE THE MOST DELICIOUS LOOKING FLAG OF ANY NATION”

an interview with SPARROW

Photo of Sparrow Violet Snow

Photo by Violet Snow


By  Thomas Devaney

Sparrow is a poet and prose provocateur best known as a folk hero and poet-journalist in New York City's East Village and the Woodstock area of the Catskills, where he currently lives with his wife and daughter. Publishing in local newspapers and smaller magazines such as Chronogram and The Sun, and occasionally crossing-over into mainstream publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, Sparrow may be one of the most touching and elusive writers in America.

His recent book America: A Prophecy—The Sparrow Reader (Soft Skull Press, $15.95), edited by Marcus Boon, is a rip-roaring collection of Sparrow's various political, cultural, literary, and spiritual writings. In Sparrow's brief essays, and even briefer poems, his originality and persistence is clear. He writes proverbs, bumper stickers, essays on the charms of spam email, and oddly insightful political commentary. Among his notable stories, Sparrow recounts his tilting jousts with The New Yorker magazine, whose editors ultimately published his poems.

Robert Christgau in The Village Voice called Sparrow “one of the funniest men in Manhattan.” He is funny, but his humor often feels like humor about humor as much as playful fun, coming from his directness, simplicity, and endlessly surprising sensibility. Sparrow's vitality and elasticity reminds me of Cervantes, Rabelais, and Borges. He is a master of contemporary haiku in its most heroic and true sense, the best example which is found in his collection of poems Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! (Soft Skull Press, 2002).

Even Sparrow's essays are infused with a haiku-like sensibility. In his autobiographical article “My Career in Bumper Stickers” published in The New York Times (February 13, 2005), he writes: Bumper stickers are the haiku of the American highway. Could one such slogan actually be a haiku? I turned this thought itself into a haiku: Why Can't a Bumper / Sticker Be a Haiku? No / One Can Quite Explain.”

No one can quite explain Sparrow's work either. Writers I associate him with include Yoko Ono, Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving, Ted Berrgian, and Basho. It's an impossible mix, but it is a grouping that resonates with Sparrow's life and work: Ono for her Fluxus performances and her writing in Grapefruit; Lincoln for his humor, political philosophy, and grip of his prose style; Irving for his eccentric characters and unforgettable dispatches from upstate New York; Berrigan for his expansive personality and poetry mixed with facts, flair, and gossip; and Basho for his legendary mysticism setting the little life in the circle of the greater life of the Tao.

Since 1992, Sparrow has run for President in the last four elections; his book Republican Like Me (Soft Skull, 1998) is a diary of his first presidential bid. In addition to running for President, it's also important to note that Sparrow is a substitute teacher. At his best, Sparrow has a tender intelligence and a radical modesty which sets the tone for many mild shocks of surprise in his dedicated and exuberant essays and poems.

This interview is a selection from three interviews conducted between 2002 and 2004. A number of pieces in Sparrow's current collection America: A Prophecy were written around the time and referred to in the interview. The interviews were conducted in the kitchen of my third floor apartment in Philadelphia above the Chinese take-out restaurant Jade Garden. 

TD: Okay, I am going to say a series of words, or names, and you say what comes to mind. The first is Tennessee Williams.

S: Tennessee Williams. Hahahaha. I'm thinking of Indiana Jones, because I'm middle aged I can't remember anything so I'm thinking Indiana Jones—but it comes out Tennessee Williams.

TD: Okay, here's a big one: work.

S: Play. Because my work is to play. I always have a job where I'm playing, like I'm a substitute teacher, so I represent the absence of authority.  When I enter the room, it means there's no teacher—there's only me.  I'm like a Shakespearean fool. I'm the person that exists to be harassed, to be funny, they can put on their headphones and listen to Jay-Z. I'm like a walking vacation! (Laughs). That's my job. For that I get sixty dollars a day, which is not much. 

TD: So, vacation.

S: Sober. Then I think when I go on vacation, I'm extremely sober.  That's the way I am. I have this countervalent personality. When I go on vacation, I spend the whole time meditating, reading, as if I'm in the Bahamas. Then, when I'm at work, I'm completely drunk (laughter), metaphorically.

TD: How about Robinson Crusoe?

S: Robin Williams; they're the same. Robinson Crusoe is the eighteenth century Robin Williams.

TD: Next one is Peter Jennings.

S: Jews for Social Inadequacy.  I guess when I think of the media, I think of the Jews.  I like the idea that the Jews control the media.  It's an important American invention.  In Europe, they thought the Jews killed children and turned them into matzoh, they were moneylenders, they were Christ-murderers, but in America there's this interesting pairing of Jews and movies—that we couldn't have movies without the Jews.  It's really important.  It's almost as important as jazz. 

TD: The recent Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature is awfully impressive, not to mention including fascinating people in it like SJ Perelman and Groucho Marx…

S: Plus every novelist after 1960 is a Jew. I'm thinking of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer.

TD: I love the lonely and lovely stories of Max Apple. At one point I was reading all Jewish authors—not on purpose, but I realized that the last ten novels I read were all written by people who were Jewish. So I wanted to read an Irish-Catholic, someone mentioned Mary Gordon, and I started to read through her books. I read about four books and then I find out her father was Jewish, he converted to marry. I had no idea, and otherwise it wouldn't matter, but at the moment it threw me.

S: That is the biggest embarrassment to the Irish in American literary history.  When I found that out, I wept. 

TD: Yes, a good a Irish-Catholic girl from Queens. Who knew?

S: And she's like the most modern Irish-Catholic writer in the modern American world.  She's Irish to the max!

TD: Her book The Other Side is wonderful. All of her books are pretty good and have a certain quality.

S: Yeah she's an interesting writer.  Although now that you know she's Jewish, doesn't she seem a little bit like a Jew looking at the Irish from within?

TD: Well, yeah, it probably makes her more interesting actually, but she was raised Catholic. Moving on, I'm just going to ask: what's wrong with America today?

S: I was saying that to someone. Was it you?

TD: No.

S: That people don't sing anymore?  This Indian Ayurvedic doctor I met in Jersey City said to me, "I came to New York City in 1969 and I've lived in America till now.  When I first came, you would hear people laughing in the street.  Now the only people who laugh are Negroes and the insane."  [Laughs.]

TD: I heard you laughing.

S: "I Hear America Laughing."

TD: On Friday night at Bob and Barbara's [a bar in Philadelphia] I saw you dancing, which was a joy to see.

S: Oh that's right…Like an American drunk. 

TD: Someone picked you out of the crowd.

S: More than picked—dragged.

TD: You were both getting along pretty well, I think.

S: Happens a lot.  Someone who is extreme, homeless, visionary, will pick me for their next conversation.

TD: Are those your constituency—your people?

S: Last time I was in New York City, heading towards my 31st high school reunion, as I was walking across the street at the Fashion Institute of Technology, this homeless guy and I locked eyes.  And as I walked toward him, he looked at me and said, "I'm going to kill you."  I'm terrified that I'm going to be shot.  I live in this little town in the Catskills, surrounded by patriots with rifles. Luckily they don't read. (Laughs, doorbell rings, more laughter.)

TD:  They're here to get us; or you at least!  [Poet Elizabeth Scanlon enters and sits down at the kitchen table to join the conversation.]

ES: Did you and Tom talk about your New Yorker poems? They published a few, but not all of them. Was there ever any explanation as to why they took them and did not run them?

S: Well they bought them, intending to run, they quickly ran two of them in the spring of '95, then a few years later, Alice Quinn bought a fifth one that she had left lying on her desk for two years and had been undecided about.  It was a really bad poem.  It was about my wife peeing.  It was called something like, “Morning Poem,” here it iS: “The sound of my wife peeing: / Like straws dropping.”

TD: Simplicity and surprise—I don't know, sounds like haiku to me. More haiku than 99% of most haiku getting passed around. Let's ask Robert Hass! 

S: I got $250 for that poem, which is less than they normally give you.  According to the New York Times, they usually pay $350.  Of course, it's a short poem.  So, they were about to publish the third poem about two years ago, when I received an email from Alice Quinn explaining that David Remnick, the new editor, had looked over her shoulder and suddenly realized they were heading down a path of doom.

TD: I thought Remnick was sufficiently schooled in the ways of the raw and the cooked. But it sounds like you're on the very raw end of it. Has anyone ever commented on the high-end scraps of contemporary poetry? The adoration of the beautiful among the scraps of everyday existence I mean.

S: Alice Quinn sent me a letter she received after she published the first of my poems.  Two New Yorker editors collectively wrote, saying: "When we heard that Sparrow was to be published, we feared that his poem would be merely the transcription of a performance, and not a true poem.  When we read the poem, we found that we were right."  And this was literally true, because the poem was called "My Father Was A Snowman But He Melted," which was a song I wrote for my band that later developed as a poem.

ES: So they feared that?  They were dismayed to find that so?

S: They found that it was merely…

ES: Did they go on to explain what they found so disturbing about that?

S: They felt it wasn't poetry.  That if you get up and deliver some provocative spiel and then write it down, that's not a poem.

TD: What about the other project you were involved with? Actually doing translations?

S: That's why we picketed The New Yorker. I invented the idea of translating the poetry of The New Yorker into English (laughter). 

TD: I love the idea. You should note that in future bio statementS: poet/ substitute teacher/ translator.

S: "New Yorker poetry translator."  And then I created an anthology of poems translated from the New Yorker into English, mostly by The Unbearables, the group I'm in, and we presented it to the New Yorker.  That was our purpose for arriving there on Pearl Harbor Day of 1994.  The problem was the New Yorker had just published an entire issue exposing a plot by the CIA in El Salvador, and they were receiving death threats from Cuban mercenaries.  So then we arrived and occupied their offices.

ES: Sounds dramatic. What happened?

S: Well, I like to say we occupied their offices.  In fact, we just went in their waiting room, demanded to be given this manuscript by Rollo Whitehead, the fictional progenitor of The Unbearables, which we claimed had been lying there since Pearl Harbor Day of 1941.  And we were also videotaping.  I just sat in the corner writing poems.  I wrote 28 poems, submitted them to the New Yorker, and one of them was published in the New York Observer in the midst of this.  Then, Alice Quinn rejected the poems very warmly, saying, "I know these poems were dashed off in the heat of your merry spree, but I am much more open to Downtown poetry than you imagine."  What could I do?  I was asking to be published in the New Yorker, I sent her my poems, she published me.  It's hard to complain.  They outfoxed me.

TD: You were taken into the fold and then promptly folded! Do you think the same thing could happen if you ran for President again?

S: American politics doesn't work like that.  Look at fucking Ralph Nader.  They anti-coopt you.  They use you to elect them.  They don't make Ralph Nader the Secretary of Transportation.  The media covers his campaign when the race is close, and they can sway people from the Democratic Party to the Green Party.  The minute the election ends, they never speak to Ralph Nader again.  People said to him after the election, "Why don't you give a press conference?  Why don't you discuss this Bush dictatorship?"  He answered, "I'm always giving press conferences.  No one comes to my press conferences."  So, American politics in the presidential arena are extremely focused.  It's some kind of bilateral war. So people like me that are running for President exist as a kind of garnish, like a parsley next to the steak.  [Laughter.]   Nobody eats the parsley.  Which might be beneficial, in my case.

TD: I eat parsley, but I don't eat that parsley usually.

S: Last time, in 2000, there were more weird candidates than ever before.  So I'm part of a movement.  I think people should run for president—it's important to run for president.  I always tell people not to vote for me.  I think you should vote for the Democrats.  I've always been explicit about this, or at least implicit.

TD: How about complicit? Did you vote for yourself?

S: No, I always vote for the Democrats.  Even though they're jerks.  In American politics you have to vote against, you don't vote for.  That's the mistake that Nader made.

TD: Earlier you mentioned you have the opposite problem of regular people, you said: “I have anti-vices instead of…”

S: I was saying my problem is I don't eat wheat, I don't eat dairy, I can't eat any of the stuff you bought for me.  And lately I'm getting these allergic reactions, I think, from only eating rye.  If your diet is so extremely limited, you end up getting allergic to the thing that you're obsessing on, to avoid the other obsession—because people need variety.  Probably as chimpanzees we had a varied life of eating.

TD: What about the poem where you want to eat the flag? Could you read that?

S: I just wrote it, on the 9th (5/9/02).  That's like three days ago, right?  It's called "Thursday morning": “An urge to eat the American flag.” I explained that I was eating a rye cracker while substitute teaching in the morning, and I'm supposed to salute the flag—or at least stand and look solemnly at the flag—and while eating the cracker and looking at the flag, I developed the confused feeling that I wanted to eat the flag.  [Laughter.]

ES:  It may taste better than those crackers.

S: Exactly. Because the flag looks like it tastes better than the rye cracker. We live in a country with maybe the most delicious looking flag of any nation. 

TD: Does “Eat your flag” or “Eat the flag” work as a slogan or campaign rallying point?  

S: It's fucking illegal.

TD: Are there flag eating states and non-flag eating states?

S: You can't—it's illegal to eat the flag. Or it's going to be.  They have laws about this.

TD: What if you have a cake that is an American flag and cut into pieces and you eat it?

S: That's one of the things that's interesting about the current patriotic mania.  Abbie Hoffman was on The Merv Griffin Show wearing an American flag shirt, and they blanked it out, because it was considered a horrible defacement of the American ideals—and now everybody has American flag underwear, slippers, headbands.  Really, it's about capitalism destroying feudalism; because flags are ultimately feudal, and capitalism doesn't give a shit about any traditions.  It's in the world to destroy all tradition.  That's its revolutionary character, as Marx explained.  Once it's destroyed every tradition and reduced everyone to the level of idiocy, then... that's the situation we're in now.

TD: Well, do you think that people who don't get with the program are uncivilized?

S: Who don't become capitalists? Bush says it's a war for civilization that we're fighting now.  And we're fighting, as it happens, against barbarians.  There was a great line in the New York Post about one of the last major battles in the Afghan war, where the Americans were using satellite-powered remote laser weapons to attack Al Qaeda in the caves of Tora Bora.  (It sounds like some science fiction story, when you say it out loud!)  And the New York Post said: "The mysticism of the Taliban is no match for the technology of the West."  Because Osama Bin Laden, in his tape, all he talks about with his friends are dreams—how the dreams prophesy various triumphs for them.  They're working on the dream prophecy level, and our government is working on the electronic weapon level.  So it's a war between those two views. And I think the real problem with the World Trade Center is that it melted just like a vision, that these Islamic mystics were able somehow to materialize their visionary style into our reality.  And that troubles everyone in America.  If God is with us, how could God have let the towers melt so immediately?  It doesn't seem possible.  That's why a lot of these banners say "God Bless America"; we have to reaffirm that God really is on our side.  Because God creates miracles, and this was a kind of miracle.  A horrible miracle, but a miracle.  It was basically exactly what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah—the fire came from above and decimated them for their sins.  I'm not defended Al Qaeda, I don't like Al Qaeda.  I'm just describing the aesthetic meaning of...

TD: Why do you think that people get, even thoughtful people, get so belligerent or unsympathetic to even hearing something like you have just said? 

S: You know, I'm just speaking strictly as an art critic.  I spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum looking at their Islamic art exhibit, which is first class. And I watched music videos in Egypt and I understand their spatial theory.  [Laughs.]  (Just between you and me, I probably don't understand it [laughter]—but in this interview I'm pretending that I'm all-knowing.)  I think it unsettles Americans to believe that they're evil.  Because Star Wars has revived now—this is a central image in modern American thought—that there's the rebel army and there's the Empire. And we identify ourselves with the rebels; we don't think we're the Empire!  [Laughs.]

And also, if you're a socialist and you don't approve of the American Empire, what's your role?  Will you get killed by the terrorists, just like John Ashcroft?  Probably.  So we're in a terrible position.  Besides, we're not fundamentalist Muslims. We don't have the pleasure of believing in some doctrine of Islam.  We're feminists, we're agnostics, so where do we stand in this present conflict?  You know, George Carlin said about the Waco, Texas incident: "When fundamentalist Christians and government agents are shooting each other, I'm a happy man!"  Yet, now that American imperialists and fundamentalist Muslims are shooting each other, we're not so happy.  I'm not happy.  I don't know why.  [Laughs]  I feel that Al Qaeda has made major ideological blunders [laughs] and I feel that the American Empire is vicious, but I also feel that this is a false dichotomy.  That we're all trapped in a false dichotomy, and this is why we're not acting.  We have to see again the path; we've lost the path, we Leftists.  Somehow in the smoke of the current war, we can't see our own…

*****

TD: You're currently working on a book of your collective prose and various published pieces. Are you noticing anything about your work?

S: Yes, Soft Skull Press is putting out my collected prose works America: A Prophecy. So I'm looking at everything I ever wrote.  I realize, in retrospect, that I'm really a visual artist.  I used to put out these little mimeographed books, in '90 or '89, when there was still a mimeograph machine at St. Mark's Poetry Project, and looking at them now, they're this big [gestures with his fingers], stapled—as artifacts they're beautiful.  Mimeograph is all mistakes, you know, like this transcendent collection of little mistakes.

TD: What were you writing back then?

S: For me, a breakthrough that I had—maybe the first good poem that I wrote—was from one of these mimeographed books I did.  They were like your journal; I would just write things I overheard.  I was going to readings at the 92nd St.Y —somebody gave me a free ticket for these readings—and Robert Bly would say something like, "I'm surprised there are so many blondes here," and that would be the poem, that quote.

TD: Lines in journals can either be convincing or inaccessible to just plain boring. You know, like you gave that example which something like, “like summer light on an old blue car.” That is not a good line.

S: Right.

TD: But sometimes when you come across certain lines, in a certain context, you're like God, yes—why is that?  Why can such a simple line come across so well, while others don't hit it?

S: No, a journal is a document, so you know it's real.  In other words, you write a poem, a poem is a performance.  Like with Robert Frost, you don't really care whether his fucking farmers are real.  They become metaphorical farmers, and everything they do is a metaphor, and everything they say is a performance.  It has nothing to do with real farmers.  It's just a philosophical pun that there are farmers in the poem.  I'm not really capable of explaining this...

Like when you're 12, you write a poem about how your boyfriend dropped you and you're miserable.  And you think other people are interested in your life.  But you don't realize that a poem is a public document; it's public art, like a sculpture in the park.  A sculpture is for everyone to look at.  It has nothing to do with you, the artist—it's for them, the lookers!  [Laughs.]  Whereas a journal is for you, the writer: it's you talking to you.  So when someone else is looking in at it, they're looking at Fitzgerald and his relationship to that blue car.  It's very touching, weirdly vivid, this communion between Fitzgerald and the car—and you can't do that in a poem, because there's no privacy in a poem.  [Laughs.]

TD: You have a beard and dress like a homeless person and I could see how some people might say you look like a hippie, but you came of age after the hippies and before punk. I know you have a life-long practice of mediation. Can you talk about how a few of these strands connect in your life?

S: I tried to meditate in high school and I was never able to do it. At a certain point it happened.   I flunked out of college, my parents had more or less disowned me, my girlfriend left me.  I was at the bottom of the universe.  I walked into this meditation, I got there late so everybody was already meditating.  I still remember this vividly—it was the ethereal equivalent of a warm bath.  I just felt, "Oh, I can relax!"  Now in retrospect, I may have been having a nervous breakdown. This was the answer on an experiential level, whether or not I believed in every crenulation of the philosophy.  So I started doing meditation, and all my friends were starting to meditate.  We would chant every week at the Temple of the Universe, out at The Hague, just outside of town.  Mickey Singer, this charismatic teacher, would lead us in a chant for an hour and a half.  Then we would stand in a big circle in a meadow and chant Om, eat cookies and flirt—it was really ecstatic. We were, in a way, a neo-conservative reaction to hippies. 

TD: What year was this?

S: This is late '74.  The hippies started in '66.  But everything happened quickly.  It's not like punk, that's been around for 25 years and still is exactly the same.  Back then there was an evolution.  And the feeling was that the hippies had failed.  Drugs, sex, something was wrong.  Trying to smoke pot and love everybody...  If you smoke enough pot, you just stand there getting scared and nervous, or pissed off, 'cause somebody stole your pot!  If you want real peace, real love, you've got to find a tradition that works, that changes consciousness.  I don't mean to sermonize; I'm trying to explain how we felt.  I must say I don't feel so differently about it at the moment, but I have a very complex relationship with yoga.  I certainly have been practicing it since '74, and that will be—if I make it to September this year—30 years out of a life of 50, twice a day.  I pretty much never fail.  We came home at 3 o'clock last night, I didn't miss my meditation.

TD: So I just want to say, it doesn't have to do with the thing you're talking about right now, but during your time in Florida, is that when you got the name Sparrow?

S: Right, in the spiritual spring of '75.  That's when Muktananda came to Gainesville, the first time I met him—a real and profound, though ultimately probably corrupt, guru.  Also I took acid again (after the first time, on April 5th, '71, when I flipped out at a Grateful Dead concert at what was then called the Manhattan Ballroom; I think it's now the Hammerstein Ballroom).  '75 was a real awakening time for me.  Allen Ginsberg says every decade finds its peak in the middle, and May '75 was when Patti Smith was inventing punk.  My best friend Steve Kronen, who's now an academic poet—literally published in Poetry magazine—he went up to New York, his brother was living in New York, in 1977.  He came back and told me he had been to this place, CBGB's, and had seen this really spiritual band called Television.  It was a spiritual band; that was the first thing I heard about punk!  [Laughs.] 

Then in '78 I moved back to New York to continue my education.  At the University of Florida I sat in on some courses.  I thought it was a terrible university—mediocre, full of tennis players.  Some of the teachers were sort of good but…  So I decided I would go to one of those self-study colleges, either Empire State College in New York or Evergreen College in Washington State.  (And I later realized, "Gee, if I had moved out to Washington, maybe I would have been part of the Grunge Underground.")  I was so alienated from New York.  I'd go to New York and feel terrified—the place seemed so unspiritual, and so crazy and paranoid and claustrophobic—and this is where I grew up!  And I thought: "This is wrong, to be so alienated from your own birthplace."  So I moved back and lived with my parents for a year.  Then I started working with the mentally retarded in a group home.  And I continued doing that, first at the group home and later at the 92nd St. Y, at an evening program for retarded adults that I helped found in '79.  And I've essentially spent twenty years working with retarded people, part-time.  Eventually, when we left New York in '98, I was working about fifteen hours a week.  But it's a great job.

TD: So how did you get your name?

S: The person who gave me my name was named Jennifer.  Jennifer The Princess of Love always wore purple and was basically an acidhead.  I described her recently, in that New York Times article, as looking like a Tarot card come to life. 

TD: Which article?  “Spam I Am?”

S: Yeah, “Spam I Am.” I think.  It probably got edited out.  I think they edited it out. They heavily edited that piece.

TD: That doesn't sound unusual.

S: No, my first piece they didn't.

TD: They didn't?

S: Barely edited.  But then the Jason Blair thing changed the tide. Now they're terrified. Terrified of mistakes. So then, Jennifer had this lady in waiting, Kitty, who was this gorgeous girl from Upstate New York who always dressed in green and never said anything. 

TD: (Laughs).

S: So I said to Jennifer, "I need a new name," and she said, "You be Sparrow; you look like a sparrow."  I think she meant that my head sat on my neck like a little sparrow.  But she never knew she was naming me for all time.  Every day she would give people names.  Like, we'd read the Sunday Comics, and she would point to Isolt and say, "Oh, you're just like Lil' Orphan Annie."  So then I moved back to New York in 1978 and spent a year in cultural shock.  These punks on the subways were terrifying; they just seemed like killers, you know?  My friends and I  were spreading love and joy, and these people were spreading hate and heroin—yet I was attracted to them, fascinated by them.  And I ended up, I had a friend, Meredith Lund, an artist, and she took me into the world of the Danceteria, the late punk scene of '79, '80. 

TD: What in the world was Danceteria?

S: Danceteria.  That was the Great Club.  As scintillant as Gainesville was in '75, it was just as dreamlike at Danceteria in '79.  It was illegal, near Madison Square Garden. And it was just before AIDS.   It was very gay.  It was Halloween all of the time, is the only way I can describe it to you.  Meredith had gone to prep school with someone in the band Human Sexual Response, so we would see them a lot.

******

TD: You have carpal tunnel syndrome.  I think it's worth bringing up since you say you don't write, but you think about stuff, then you don't write it down. The last part is what I don't understand.

S: Then I go write it down?

TD: Okay, so you do write. It's rather elaborate isn't though?

S: Yeah.  Oh, yeah, well, I have this ritual now that I wake up, lie in bed, I try to remember my dreams—which is difficult, 'cause as soon as I wake up I want to start writing a poem.  But I resist that pull, and instead I try to remember everything I can about my dream.  Like last night there was an editor in a publishing company and I was telling him about a novel I was writing, trying to interest him in my novel.  [Laughs.]  And as I told him the plot, I realized, "This plot is really obvious and dull!"  A guy is sick and then I found some medicine and I cured him—that's the whole plot.  And as I'm saying this to him, he's looking at me with a look of pity and confusion.  He's a black guy, a black publishing editor, and you can see he's thinking, "Why would someone tell me such a pointless plot?"  Then I wake up in horror at my own insufficiency as a writer. So I try to stay thinking about that, saturated with that rejection and self-revulsion.  Then words begin to come into my mind.  Today I was thinking, "flower destiny."  I didn't think it; it sort of drifted into my mind.  Then I thought, "Your flower destiny will be sweet."  Then I thought, "Oh wow, that's like a fortune cookie fortune!"  Then I thought, "Maybe there should be more."  And I decided: "Many marigolds and phlox will bedeck your telephone.  Irises will grow in your Mickey Spillane paperbacks.  Even your slippers will spout tulips."  First I had, "Even your slippers will sprout roses," then I thought, "Wait, 'tulips' is funny, because it's like the slippers have two lips, and slippers do look like they're about to talk."  [Laughs.]

Flower Destiny

Your flower destiny will be sweet.

Marigolds and phlox will

   bedeck your telephone.

Irises will grow in your Mickey Spillane

   paperbacks.

Even your slippers will sprout tulips.

TD: Amazing. [Laughs.]

S: There must be some cartoon I'm remembering where the slippers are actually talking—they have tongues and eyes.  So  I'm thinking about this whole series of ideas.  Like the word "bedeck" comes into my mind: "I've got to use 'bedeck'!"  And I compile these various words that are entering my mind into a mental artifact.  Then I decide, "Do I really care about this, or do I want to let this drift back to its origin?"  It came from nowhere, why can't it go back to nowhere?  [Laughs.]  If I feel it's an experiment I want to pursue, I go to my machine, turn it on, and I talk into my voice-activated computer—Dragon Naturally Speaking program—and the words appear on the screen.  

TD: So you don't write what you write?

S: I'm not a writer, I'm a post-writer.  I'm after the death of writing.  I'm a person that thinks thoughts, like the "pre-cogs" in Minority Report, these psychics who lie blindfolded in a vat of tepid water, having visions of the future.  I lie there, thoughts enter me, and if I think they might be useful to someone—mostly me—I talk them.  Then I have to correct them a little, usually, because the computer doesn't know what "flower destiny" means.  Then I go back to thinking, and I do that until noon.  At the stroke of noon there's a siren in Phoenicia.  (Actually, it's not exactly at noon; the siren is a minute before noon.)  So I look at the clock, and when it's exactly noon, I can stop thinking.  Then I start doing my yoga and all my elaborate middle-age exercises to improve my musculature and maintain my age level at maybe 36.  Maybe I'm physically 36 years old, even though chronologically I'm a 49 year old.  Now hopefully I'm going backwards, and eventually I'll get to 34. 

TD: If I go slightly ahead, and you go slightly back, do you think we might ever meet?

S: Yes, we may meet.  (Laughs).

TD: Well, in this “pre-cog” state, is this where you also write? I mean make a lot of your palindromes?

S: Yeah, this is what I was saying.  The danger... You can also think about sex, but either at my age or my mentality, more often a palindromic undertow will pull me in—and once you start palindroming it's very hard to stop.  It's something you have to fight.  It's like Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree; the demons are tempting him, and he has to fight them.  Also all Catholic saints do this.  And palindromes are strangely demonic: "Devil lived," "God a dog."  Both "tit" are "boob" are palindromes...

TD: And gag is one: elegant as it is nasty.

S: Yes. (Smiling).

TD: Are palindromes bisexual in nature? 

S: (Smiling).

TD: I mean don't they go both ways on their own?

S: Oh yeah, well a lot of them, "racecar," "level," words like that… I was going to tell you, I invented this palindrome: "Yoko Ono -- o.k. Oy!"  But they're useless, palindromes, they seem to have no value besides being demonic and bringing down all higher aspirations.  There's something about how they reverse... You think of God as an Absolute, and then you reverse God and you have a dog.  Palindromes have this power to undo the conditioning of language.  This movie I saw last night, Holes, is all about this guy, Stanley Yelnats, and he's a palindrome.  This is my fate; I'm attracting palindromes.  You want to hear this weird thing that happened to me?  The publisher of Chronogram e-mailed me and said, "Did you know today's date is a palindrome: 10/02/2001?"  And that's my birthday.

TD: Oh my god, is that true?

S: Yeah, you attract palindromes once you palindromify.  Palindromize.  But I do a little palindroming.  I'm not like a Buddhist; I'm not going to kill myself every time I palindromify.  You just have to accept it and try to move on.

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Spring 2006 Table of Contents