Charles Harper Webb
Nostalgia's Not What It Used To Be
I'm well aware it's problematic to miss the ice cream trucks
that clinked and tinkled down Candlelight Lane. The name
"Good Humor" privileged bourgeois affability, and valorized
consumption. Songs the trucks played-"Daisy, Daisy,"
and "Dixie"-legitimized patriarchy, women's oppression,
and the Mariana Trench of slavery. My memory of Sterling
Roig, Bobbi Jo Smith, Carol Kamas, Clarkie Lauderdale
blasting from houses, clutching dimes and clamoring,
present as facts subjective impressions of friends who may
have cared nothing for me, or cared because of under-
theorized notions of neighborhood and kinship-of-the-same.
The products sold reinforced a Capitalist hegemony-
Fudgesicle (racist), Eskimo (not Inuit) Pies, Torpedo
(military-industrial imperialist), Popsicle (no Momsicle), etc.
The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities,
obesity, diabetes. The (always) man in (always) white-
who pulled, from the back of his condensation-smoking-truck,
products iced with polluted air which our tongues melted,
loving the cold jolt-may have been a child-molester,
exploited immigrant, or untreated dyslexic. What I remember
as a smile, a laugh like Santa's, could have been a sneer,
leer, or consumptive hack. The bond of signifier / signified,
which I thought solid as Galveston's seawall,
was slithery as New York City slush. No one involved
understood anyone else, which explains the time I asked
for a red Torpedo, and got green. Red, by the way, evokes
strawberry (a bruise), and farting raspberries, as well
as Communism, which evokes the rapacious USA, its sacred texts
indeterminate as the location of electrons in a quantum world
where "truth" shifts like ants on the Klondike (raped
environment) Bar I dropped, so the vendor gave me (liberated
from his corporate slave-master) another one. Maybe
he cursed me covertly as the spoiled spawn of world-despoilers.
Still, I picture how he climbed back in his truck, waved,
and drove off, grinning, as dusk sifted gently down,
while we exploiters of the proletariat, bellies stuffed with Mom's
counter-revolutionary cooking, licked our pelf, and resumed
our games of jump-rope, doctor, Who's the Prettiest?,
or Grand Slam, and on the last pitch of the day, I sent the ball
sailing over Clarkie's house, through the warm suburban dark
into a black-hole future that had been always already sucking
what I thought was happiness away.
Trouble With The Law
-Expect it when you least expect it.
A potato beetle buzzes up the nostril of a drag queen
walking a Shih Tzu. The drag queen grabs her nose
and drops the leash, tripping a bag-hag, whose heart stops.
The Shih Tzu darts into the street, causing a wreck
in which a man loses a leg, a child is paralyzed,
a pregnant witness miscarries twins. The Shih Tzu,
a purebred champion, disappears. The beetle is traced
to Jim's garden, where he negligently used no pesticide.
Soon process-servers mob his door. Several are trampled.
His gate was too narrow; his sidewalk, too hard.
A serial killer/rapist/cannibalistic pedophile is freed
to open up a cell for Jim. His public defender strikes
a deal: Jim pleads guilty to one count of shaving against
the grain, all other charges to be dropped. He agrees,
then learns that, under the New Crime Bill, punishment
for his New Crime is to be hanged, flayed, cut down
while still alive, gutted, drawn, quartered, and burned.
He turns state's evidence against his neighbor who,
without a permit, added a door to his toolshed,
and his other neighbor, who called a white man niggardly,
and his other neighbor, who canoed without life vests
for two stowaway thrips. Jim's sentence is reduced
to quadruple amputation, then to one hour on parole
because his cell is needed for a man who wrote a bad
novel with someone else's pen. Lawyers relax
outside the courthouse like Sugar Baby melons, growing
fat and red-ripe in the legal sun.
Nerves of Titanium
Handcuffed and chained,
he uses a concealed
lock-pick to escape
a coffin buried in hot
sand. The chain-
wrapped cage dropped
into Arctic water
through a hole drilled
in three feet of solid ice
can't hold him. But
what yanks me upright
in my motel bed
he's shoved out
of an airplane. If he
can't pull his parachute
cord in ninety seconds,
he won't need
to find a new career.
I, who get dizzy
on a curb, watch
his thin hands
probe and pluck
while skydivers film
his every twitch. I,
who absorbed calculus
with Hendrix twanging
and my roommate
banging his girl behind
a glass-bead door,
have attention deficit
disorder compared to
this freak: lock-picking
while he falls twice
as fast as if he took
the standard limbs-
spread starfish pose.
What if he breaks
his tiny pick? Or
drops it? What
if his hands shake,
or get too cold
to work a lock? (Mine
do, just watching.)
Keats, bent over
his odes; Newton,
Beethoven, his Ninth-
Tiger on the green,
Kobe at the line,
Rice snagging a pass
howitzer at his head-
all were hysterics
next to this nut
"He never hung out
much with girls.
He'd ruther play
with his handcuffs,"
his mother drawls.
"Wish he had his old
job back at Burger King,"
sighs his wife
as he begins to spin.
He's toast, I think-just
as he lifts his hands,
his orange chute
down to crowds
who praise him
from the ground,
or (ignoring spousal
snores, as well as sex-
squeals from next
from motel beds
across this land, a man
apart. Unlike us.
Lock-pick in hand.
-from What Things Are Made Of
BIO: Charles Harper Webb is an American poet, professor, psychotherapist and former singer and guitarist. His most recent poetry collection is What Things Are Made Of (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). His honors include a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2006. His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. Webb was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in Houston. He earned his B.A. in English from Rice University, and an M.A. in English from the University of Washington, and an M.F.A. in Professional Writing and his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. He teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he received a Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award and the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, and he lives in Long Beach, California.
An Interview with Charles Harper Webb by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Nostalgia" tracks through a number of referents, both from your childhood and from the more recent language of critical theory. Did you start with lists to make sure the poem would be as rich with detail as it is?
Charles Harper Webb: I wrote this after teaching a class that dealt a lot with critical theory, so I had a kind of list already in my head. I may have jotted a few notes beforehand; I don't remember. I'm sure, though, that I composed the first draft in my usual way: a quick outpouring, a gush. That's the best way for me to capture the initial energy that sparks my poems. Once it's out, I go back and start crafting them, trying my best not to edit out the rush.
SD & AMK: What is it about sextets in this poem? How did you arrive at this structure when it just as easily could have been one big stanza or tercets?
CHW: I work with my poems until I get a form and shape that appeals to me, and paces the poem well as it moves down the page. I revise a lot, and try out many different things. For a poem as dense as this, I wanted some white space. One big stanza seemed off-putting, as in, "My god, do I have to read all of this?" At the same time, I wanted a sense of mock weightiness, so tercets would have looked too light. Sextets, when I worked my way to them, seemed right.
SD & AMK: What's with that final, short line? I know I'd be wracking my brains over how to keep the integrity of the poem and its lines while somehow lengthening that line a bit more to match its brothers and sisters.
CHW: After seven lines of iambic pentameter, Keats' ends "This Living Hand" with a 5 syllable, half-pentameter line which brings me up short, a lump in my throat, every time.
Last time I checked, I wasn't Keats; but I like the contrast between my last line's relative succinctness and the elongated elaborateness of what's gone before. When I read the poem aloud, the short last line seems to pack an extra wallop. This is intensified, at least for me, by the fact that it's iambic pentameter, and thus not only sounds resonant, but harkens back to a time long before the literary theory that the poem sends up.
SD & AMK: Discuss parentheticals with us, the syntax of interruption? Why these little asides? Why place them within parentheticals in particular?
CHW: I know that use of parentheticals is discouraged in many writing classes-and often for good reason. In this case, though, the parentheses mirror the way the speaker's mind works in this poem: have a thought, then qualify / clarify/ undercut it. Parentheses allowed me to get in more ideas without going on even longer than I did. I don't see any other grammar / punctuation that would have done as well. If I had, I might have used it.
SD & AMK: "Trouble with the Law" is a hilarious poem packed, line by line, with little jokes. Two questions, might it also be read as one extended joke? If so, what's the stated or unstated punch line?
CHW: I've never thought of the poem in those terms. However-if the poem is an extended joke, it's probably about the often-illusory sense of cause / effect that comforts us and allows us to assign blame via a "justice" system that pretends to be logical, and is, to those ensnared by it, a most unfunny joke. Lawyers are the punch line, I guess, happily fattening on others' misery.
SD & AMK: As someone who regularly employs humor in poetry, who are the poets you've been most influenced buy in that regard?
CHW: Way back in grad school, Edward Field showed me the way. Then James Tate, Russell Edson, and Ron Koertge (whose editorial scalpel has helped me for years). Plenty of other fine poets use humor, and have influenced me, but these were the first. William Trowbridge, with whom I regularly exchange poems, is a very funny poet, and in the course of our exchanges, influences my poems in very concrete ways.
AMK: Charles, this question comes specifically from me (Andrew): I'm always suspicious of humor in poetry and, now that I think about it, humor in anything "literary." That doesn't mean I don't like it... I think it means I often find it diversionary... more silly than serious. And there's something about silliness that makes me start to lose trust in a writer. What say you?
CHW: T.S. Eliot himself said, "Humor is a way of saying something serious." It certainly is for me. Though I actively seek laughter in my life, and don't much care how I get it, in my poems, I insist that humor advance some fundamental insight/truth. To exclude humor from literary work is, it seems to me, to exclude one of the most memorable, entertaining, powerful, imaginative, and redemptive means of expressing our humanity. As I've said elsewhere, humor lifts our spirits even as it brings us the bad news.
I find it hard to trust a writer whose work lacks humor. Something fundamental is being held back in the writing, or is missing in the writer. To exclude humor from my writing would not only be to lie to my readers, but to limp into the verbal arena with my hands cuffed and my legs in a potato sack. Shakespeare uses humor even in his tragedies. If it's good enough for him . . .
As for I silliness-I think it's in the eye of the beholder; ie, people call humor "silly" when it seems to them to be more stupid than funny. (I find some French humor-the venerated Jacques Tati's films, for instance-silly, and not in a good way.) Sometimes "silliness" is an expression of high spirits that may seem forced to those whose spirits don't rise so high, or not in the same way. James Tate's work is a case in point. I'm delighted by its exuberance and imaginative play. I've heard other people call it silly, and even an affront to poetry. Personally, I think that Monty Python's Minister of Silly Walks is a more devastating commentary on government than even Anthony Weiner.
All this being said, the issue of humor in writing may be largely temperamental. I can give you plenty of intellectual reasons for using it; but basically, it just appeals to me.
SD & AMK: There's the short final line again....
CHW: Yep, and it's iambic pentameter too.
SD & AMK: Would you talk about the decision to go with short lines in "Nerves of Titanium"? It really sticks out in this book.
CHW: Since the poem is about a man in free-fall, I used as long column of short lines to give a sense of speed and a long fall. I hoped that the longer-lined poems in the book would make the statement even more emphatic.
SD & AMK: How much do you "enjoy" writing poetry? It's hard to read your work without a smile on one's face. How do you manage to keep that sort of joy in your work and in the doing of that work?
CHW: I believe that the creative act--whether it's science, sex, or art--is, if it's done right, inherently joyful. Writing poems, for me, is just great fun. Musicians "play" when they make art. I played hard when I was a musician; and I play hard when I write. I write to make discoveries; and I love at least some of the discoveries I make. I get frustrated, discouraged, tired, chagrined, even enraged; but overall, writing is fun, and writing poems is the most fun of all. If it weren't, I wouldn't do it. The money's not great; and the last thing the world needs is more poems to ignore.
I also try to write poems that are fresh, entertaining, energetic, and in some way or another, life-affirming. A few years back, I wrote an essay with the premise that contemporary American poetry, taken as a whole, was clinically depressed. If anything, it's more depressed today. I'm far from a Pollyanna; but for me, morose poems are just too easy-and for the most part, uninteresting. Poems of delicate beauty are fine; but do they all have to be SO delicate, so tinged with gauzy sorrow? Life's unfair, pain is rampant, loss is constant, time grinds forward, we're all going to die, and maybe horribly-what else is new? For some reason-Puritan roots?-a doleful or at least unsmiling poetic countenance is seen as evidence of intelligence, sensitivity, and depth. But any 13-year-old can find a million reasons to be bummed. For me, at least, it's far more challenging, as a person and a writer, to celebrate-or if I must say no, to say it (with thanks to Melville) "in thunder."