Essay

In the Realm of Cool Eyeglasses

John Yau and Doug Nufer read to Seattle's literary elite.

by Anna Maria Hong
A crowd gathered on a recent summer night at the JewelBox Theater in Seattle’s Rendezvous bar and restaurant to hear Doug Nufer, a local purveyor of word and wine, and John Yau, a poet and art critic from New York City, read from their new books.

I chose a seat in the back row of the tiny, tiered space. A theater inside a bar, the JewelBox was once a screening room for feature films where distributors, stars, and reporters would gather for drinking and viewing. The JewelBox still reflects the glamour of the 1920s, with brown vinyl banquettes lining the back and flattened columns topped by semicircular lamps emblazoned with little gold eagles. There are peeling damask wall coverings in silver and what one fiction writer called “swinger green.”

Nufer, who read first, sat at the edge of the stage as the house lights went down. A novelist, poet, and owner of a dusky wine shop, he looked a bit forlorn in his cartoonish oversized black-rimmed glasses. The crowd, mostly white and older, represented the indie cream of Seattle’s lit scene, with mature experimentalists bunkering down the banquettes. Lots of really cool eyeglasses. On seeing me taking notes, a nice brown-haired guy with a ponytail leaned over and whispered, “All of Seattle’s literary scene is here.”

As an old film noir soundtrack faded out, host Chris Putnam took the stage. Noting that the night’s event had no title, he proposed several based on anagrams of the readers’ names, including “A refund guy—oh, Juno!” and “Donahue, fungo, jury.”

Nufer began by reciting an absurdist mono-/dia-logue by heart, which he dedicated to two of the audience members, John Marshall and Christine Deavel, the owners of the all-poetry bookstore Open Books. He continued with an excerpt from his Never Again (Black Square), a novel in which no word appears more than once. His reading style was over-the-top, showmanlike. Before he read from his new book, a double novel in the old Ace Doubles flip-over format called The Mudflat Man/The River Boys (soultheft), he introduced an absurd cast of characters:

Captain Webster
In May of 1941, the war had just begun for him when the Navy made him test-pilot a new medication, and in August of 1965, it still raged on.

Noreen Webster
She was a girl who’d be a woman soon. . . .

Jill Clayton
“Anytime, big boy” was her promise and her threat.


Commodore Whitehead
He was a mixer and a master, even if he wasn’t all there.

Emphasizing phrases as if they made narrative sense, he mimicked the hard-boiled voices of pulp fiction characters, sang a little, and occasionally squinted and raised his eyebrows or threw both arms straight to his sides, tilting back his close-cropped, oval-shaped head. Certain phrases, such as “child’s play!” “the drift of her beef,” and “fucking books,” drew big laughs from the contented, buzzed audience, now jammed into the aisles.

Following a 25-minute intermission I returned to my seat in the JewelBox, which was now a bit warm and smelled of French fries and sweat. “Welcome back to the Fay, an honored jug reading series!” declared Putnam ecstatically. “Our next reader is John Yau.”

“Yow!” yelled a long-haired brunette next to me.

The rest of the crowd behaved as Putnam continued his brief introduction, speaking in an exaggeratedly slow manner. “Cinematic . . . dream . . . ride . . . ,” he said, quoting a real or imaginary review, before sitting down again, partially blocking my sightline.

As he took the stage, Yau removed his black jacket, pointed to his white T-shirt with black characters on it, and said, “This is Chinese. It says, ‘Make love, not war.’” He began by reading poems from Ing Grish (Saturnalia Books), a recent collection with artwork by Thomas Nozkowski. “I got an award for this book, but they gave it to a book with the wrong title,” Yau noted wryly before starting with “Even Now,” a riff on retirement speeches.

As he read, he held his books and sheafs close to his face. In spite of his disclaimer of having been up since four a.m., Yau exuded a calm assurance as he read “Screen Name,” also from Ing Grish—a self-referential poem he claimed to have not remembered writing, “which is scary.”

Next was “Review of the Author,” which he professed to have written in order to spare “someone the trouble of reviewing this book. . . . It’s not completely positive either. I didn’t want to seem subjective.” It turned out to be pretty much entirely negative—a droll self-portrait replete with surrealistic, self-mocking alliteration:
and his style, while not
unintelligible, is a ceremony
from which a heckled
inventory of vanities and vices
fails to yield to indignity’s zoo,
heaped by a stack of badly
frocked frauleins who dine on
strings of succulent specimens
made more tender by
their nude effusions of premium stickiness.
Yau interspersed his poems with succinct, dryly delivered asides, maintaining a rhythmic, even pace. His voice was pleasantly flat, almost Midwestern in its amiability (which he’s not; he hails from Boston originally), with a burr beneath the ringingly clear tones. He read several poems from Paradiso Diaspora, which also happens to be an excellent anagram.

Highlights included “In the Kingdom of Poetry”—a provocatively bossy ars poetica after Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which catalogs everything one should not do in order to write decent poetry—and two new poems he seemed excited to read: “The Ventriloquist,” for and in the words of Jasper Johns, and “Revised Guide to the Ruins of a New City,” which was followed by ardent applause and whistling.

Cheerful 1960s lounge music came on as the lights went up, and the crowd immediately filed outside to drink and smoke.
Originally Published: August 6, 2006

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 Anna Maria Hong

Biography

Anna Maria Hong earned a BA in philosophy at Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Her poems have been published in many journals and anthologies, including 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology (2012) and The Best American Poetry 2013. Hong served as a Bunting Fellow in Poetry at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2010-2011 and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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