My first impulse to write came from my mother, and from poetry. She would recite poetry aloud as she did housework – Yeats, Frost, Dylan Thomas, you name it. That got into my head and eventually it started to come out again, in my own words.”
How did you discover that you were a writer?
My parents were both aspiring writers. My mother aspired to poetry and my father aspired to humor. I grew up in a house filled with books, many of them quite strange to be made available to young children. Would you let your pre-teens read Henry Miller? They did. Nothing was forbidden. It doesn’t seem to have damaged me. My first impulse to write came from my mother, and from poetry. She would recite poetry aloud as she did housework – Yeats, Frost, Dylan Thomas, you name it. That got into my head and eventually it started to come out again, in my own words. I began writing poetry in my teens after discovering some contemporary poets on my own (James Wright, Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin were the first) and when I managed to get published in some decent magazines that published some of my idols I knew I was a writer, or could be if I stuck with it.
Describe your writing process.
For much of my life I have made a living as a comedy writer, and during those times I wrote on deadline, usually starting early in the morning, at first light or before. At that time poetry was a personal pastime, not a profession, and so I would only jot down poems when I was inspired. Now that I have returned to poetry as my main focus, it is humor that I only write when I am inspired. Every morning I sit down and try to write poems, whether I feel inspired or not. I have no rituals as such. I do have a few ongoing projects that I turn to when the poetry is not flowing easily. For example, I have a series of sonnets about the Beatles called Fab Sonnets, and I’ve slowly been trying to learn how to write haiku. I try my hand at those if nothing else seems to be working.
What was the inspiration behind what you’ll be reading at Waterline?
The piece “Letter of Recommendation” came to me after reading one too many such letters written by someone who obviously hated the person they were supposedly recommending. It is dangerous legally these days to refuse to give someone a good recommendation, but it must be tempting to try to give some hints and warnings. As many humor pieces do, I simply followed the idea to its logically absurd conclusion. The piece “The Spirit of Christmas” was born out of my own experience in the world of non-profit fundraising. I liked the idea of a fake charity pretending to raise money for Bosnian and Serbian orphans, and then becoming increasingly threatening as the series of appeal letters wore on. I liked the dramatic arc. Interestingly, after the piece was published in McSweeney’s, I got a call from a woman who worked for an agency at the U.N. dedicated to helping orphans. She demanded to know how I could make fun of such pitiable children. I patiently explained that I was making fun of fake charities and the sociopathic personalities behind them, not making light of the plight of real orphans. I then asked her if she had ever personally saved an orphan, and when she said no, I replied that I was two up on her, as I had adopted a couple of infant girls from China.
What are you working on now?
Most of my energy is currently going into poetry. I’ve started sending it out again for the first time since I was a teenager, and in the past year I’ve had 44 poems published or accepted in two dozen literary magazines, most recently in the Sun Magazine, Emrys Journal and Triggerfish Critical Review. My next book will probably be a book of poetry called One of These Things Is Not Like the Other. I am also working on an autobiographical novel called Honey Street, about growing up in a household run by a Mensa mother and a father who was both an ex-Marine sharpshooter and one of the original Mad Men.
What was the last great thing you read by another author?
Mostly these days I read poetry and science. I’ve been reading a lot of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean poet who called his work anti-poetry. He questions everything about what poetry is and can be, and makes you question it too. The science book that most impressed me recently was The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, a physicist involved in multiverse theory and one of the fathers of quantum computing. The chapter on how we can know there are other universes just blew the top of my head off. So I guess Emily Dickinson would call that poetry!
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which writer, dead or alive, do you invite?
If I’m allowed to choose one humor writer and one poet to reflect my two main interests as a writer, it would be Robert Benchley for humor and W.S. Merwin for poetry. Benchley is the funniest writer who ever lived, in my opinion, and Merwin is our best living poet and someone whose example as a writer and a human being has been very important to me.