My grandmother taught me to read in a cemetery in southeastern Massachusetts. She would read the headstones and I would be asked to repeat what she had read. Finally I began to lisp the contents of text, of names, of birth and death dates. So engraved obituaries were my birthright of literacy. This grandmother was Irish and Welsh and related to the Welsh poet Thomas Thomas, no relation to Dylan, and heavily anthologized in Welsh poetry volumes but never translated into English. From gravestones I went on to children’s books, everything written by Anonymous, but soon enough discovered Poe. Into the cemetery again. That wasn’t all she wrote, as it’s said, but the writing was on the walls. I began reading every story that contained descriptions of ravens, pits, pendulums, and casks of amontillado thereafter. Then began the sightings:
I was a scrawny, 92 lb. bodyguard for Clive Barker in a DC bookstore, a week after he had been attacked by a zealous fan with a straight razor. A few years later, Irish writers started making their mark and taking their tolls. Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney “forced” me to drink whiskey while chauffeuring him to a reading. Medbh McGuckian flirted with me when her husband was asleep on her shoulder. “What I could do with you,” she whispered. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and I taught a class together and were depressed together for a full four months. Ciaran Carson visited the class and, later, after downing a few glasses of poteen, the illegal, death-dealing whiskey, said over and over again, “This city of New York, New York City, it is fucking strange, man, this city.” Michael Longley told me that I had the “keen eyes of the dead” and was amazed I had recognized him in mid-town Manhattan, a self-described “fat poet from Belfast, like Walt Whitman in appearance anyway.” Tom Paulin arrived at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin for our interview so drunk that he demanded I carry him up to his bed instead. I pitched a script to Neil Jordan and am still waiting to hear back, ten years later. I used to see Martin McDonagh walking in downtown NYC with various Asian women. Paul Muldoon asked me if I thought I looked Curley. When I approached Tom Murphy in The Floating Tide pub across from the Abbey Theatre, he backed away. “I thought you were from Florida or Utah. Definitely a Yank, though.” When Emer Martin showed up at a reading I threw in Soho in a cowboy hat and a blue sequined dress, I finally realized that the Irish are capable of style. At seventy five, John Montague walked down Thompson Street arm in arm with a woman no older than twenty five. In Paris, Beckett had told Montague that there was no such thing as love, that “there was just fucking.” Samuel Beckett died on December 22, 1989, the same day I began reading him.
On to the non-Irish. Over coffee, Richard Hell told me that I could be at the vanguard of a punk rock renaissance. Alas. I saw John Updike walking in Brooklyn Heights and fled like a rabbit. I’m not a fan. And then there was poor John Ashbery, walking without an umbrella during a downpour on 6th and 55th. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair was at a tipping point at a Xmas party several years ago. When I saw Chris Leo at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble, I saw art and fiction aligned like urinals against the wall. Re-read the opening of White Pigeons and you’ll know what I mean. Seeing Billy Collins and C.K. Williams at a Starbucks wasn’t surprising, as their work is both franchise-friendly and disappointing. Gypsy James O’Toole recited a poem for my birthday and then gave me a gypsy tattoo. When I met Samuel Menashe (1925-2011) the first time, he told me I was a drunk. I am. Michael Heller, whose party it was, said I wasn’t. And he is also correct. Eileen Myles and I almost shared a drink in New Orleans with her attractive girlfriend. At a West Village loft, Jonathan Lethem glared at me because I had stolen his girlfriend. I wish I hadn’t. On the phone from Florida, William Gaddis told me he couldn’t talk with me anymore because what they did to Clinton because of the “goddamn Lewinsky fiasco.” I arrived in Barcelona the very day the great Roberto Bolano died of liver cancer there. Sam Shepherd asked me where the restroom was once, and Michael Harper told me that anyone who didn’t understand jazz, didn’t understand writing. How true. I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at a reading in NoLita—he read with a self-promoting bitch/bastard named Nuala O’Faolain (R.I.P.). Just before he died, Armand Schwerner gave a memorable reading. I cried. At the same reading, Mark Rudman tried to convince me that my Iranian girlfriend’s name was Scottish. It’s not, it’s Iranian. Reportedly, Gunter Grass liked a story I published about Artaud in a German lit journal. I insulted Michael Connelly when I told him I liked his book, Bringing Out the Dead, but that the screenplay was rot. “Really?” he said. “I wrote it.” I used to drink Talisker with George Plimpton, for whom I worked. We’d shoot pool and he’d have to go on and on about that mediocrity, Truman Capote. R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet, had Parkinson’s so dire that the podium from which he spoke shook like an engine. Amiri Baraka told me to keep the struggle going and his wife, Amina Baraka, told him to cool it. When I saw Robert Creeley on the street he looked thirty years younger than he was. Creeley introduced Bill Matthews at a reading and Bill died two weeks later. Sharon Olds was as spurious as Erica Jong and her friend, Galway Kinnell, had gin blossoms by the bushels. Keith Waldrop wrote experimental verse and taught my class on 18th century English poetry while his wife, Rosemarie Waldrop, quietly conducted translations on 71 Elm Street . I caught Ed Sanders wandering around the east side of Providence with his piano tie. Legs McNeil told me to “fuck off,” and George Bernard Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holyrod, mentioned that since I was a socialist, vegetarian, and have red facial and pubic hair, I should grow a beard to look more like Shaw. A beard where? I used to live with Matt Bernstein Sycamore and edited his stories after he’d come home from servicing Edmund White. Gg Re a.k.a. Grey Space is is a queer street poet in Texas and I think about him all the time. Edwidge Danticat and I used to exchange smiles and nothing else. Stanley Kunitz never answered my query about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial that he covered when he was a teenager. I was too intimidated to knock on John Hawkes’s door and he died before I had the courage to do so. A groveling letter was sent to Thom Gunn and I have no idea what spurred me to write literary fan mail. Never again. I used to write only one Christmas card a year, sending it to 44 Joy Street, Boston, MA, where the hermit poet John Wieners lived. He died in 2004. Donald Hall never invited me to his farm in New Hampshire but sent me funny postcards that were typed. I used to chat with Jacques Derrida during his office hours because no one would show up, too intimidated by the pipe-smoking deconstructionist. Jacques failed to hold the door for me the week his book, The Politics of Friendship was published. Martha Nussbaum, who wrote The Fragility of Goodness, once laughed hysterically when my backpack burst open, dispersing its contents on a busy street. Harold Bloom never looked me in the eye when I talked to him or tried to talk to him. Ian McEwan was astonished when I recognized him near the Knitting Factory. His teenage son seemed impressed. Fly used to roller blade through Battery Park and shoot me nasty looks, while Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels looked like a homunculus at a reading in Utica. I once collaborated on a script with Simon Kinberg. The script and our friendship were aborted and he went on to write the Brangelina screenplay, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Jim Carroll seemed to be reading a Dickens novel on the subway a decade ago and Susan Sontag whispered across me that she didn’t know the work of the author she was supposed to introduce. The writer was the Australian poet Les Murray, who sent me an angry letter after a poem of his I published omitted one word: “the.” Tom Savage tried to pick me up in Tompkins Square Park when I was reading a Coleridge biography. Rick Moody waved to me in the downstairs lobby of the Angelika even though we don’t know each other. When I tried to get in touch with Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, his girlfriend said he was not dressed and couldn’t come to the phone. The only financial contribution I’ve made to another writer was to Kathy Acker, to defray expenses for her funeral arrangements after she died of breast cancer. And when I shook hands with Arthur Miller and a mutual friend introduced us, he started laughing hard. “Curley,” he chortled. “What kind of name is that?” The man whose hand caressed Marilyn Monroe began to cry tears of laughter.