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Two more (cups of coffee then I’ll go)

By Anselm Berrigan

Why do so many readers at poetry readings announce having two poems left to read? When I signed my contract to become a poet there was no clause as to this matter, and I have in fact made a point of simulating repulsion in mind whenever I hear the words “two more” uttered from stage or podium or wobbly body. Is it an ineffable urge to put the spotlight on that next-to-last work, the one packing all the subtlety your typical finale passes up in having complete attention from an audience that knows it will shortly no longer have to work so hard at listening? Or do some poets secretly flip the last and next-to-last poems in order to get the attention on what should be the epic concluder because they know in fact the last-poem-slot is often drowned out by waves of relief from that portion of the audience able to look like they listen (the way I know that eventually I’ll make a great Senator because I’ll look like shit and like I know how to listen simultaneously, a by-product of having hosted hundreds of poetry readings in my short existence)?

I guess looking like shit is a matter of opinion, or taste, or preference, or fixation, or habit. Senator Harry Reid, who is from Searchlight, Nevada, a town I’ve been through many times as it is the one stop on the 111-mile route between Las Vegas and Needles, CA, home of my grandmother Beulah, who will be 91 in February, may not look like shit – if televised press conferences and talking head style interviews (sans rhythmic fear of air) are any indication he seems to possess a vigorous sheen no doubt succored by the folksy austerity borne of communing with creosote bushes while speculating on the nature of dialect and avoiding the speed trap that is the other major feature of Searchlight (pop. 562) along with a few casinos and a little gas station/McDonald’s/convenience store triumvirate that wields a large portrait of the Senator himself in its connective tissue between businesses and the oddly over-mirrored restrooms. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that a political son of Searchlight (there’s a great song by the late band Mule called “Searchlight” / which might / if I recall with any accuracy / which I do not typically / when it comes to memory / be about being pulled over / in the existential manner) may stake claim to a wholly archaic relationship with the notion of dialect – regular trips to our nation’s capital notwithstanding; one’s professional life and one’s speculations on human speech patterns in solemn collectivity should be separated by a near-impenetrable magnetic shield, as any creative commenter will tell you -– given that one may go very long periods of time in Searchlight, decades even, in isolated contemplation. This can produce a personal diction of curious historical range and one no doubt difficult to contextualize rapidly, as would be required on a word-by-word or even syllable-by-syllable basis. Serious reframing. Who can know from one word to the next if passing terms are from last year, last decade, or last century?

At any rate, to solve the two-poems-left mystery I decided to turn to K. Silem Mohammad’s book Breathalyzer and read only the next to last lines in all of his poems. The book was kindly just sent to me by the publisher in the same box as many copies of old books of mine that I didn’t even have to pay for because our publisher is too broke to charge me for copies in the first place and there’s a great deal of generosity to be found in a situation that can’t afford the integrity of a large scale distribution apparatus, much less a staff to keep track of shit, which I will nonetheless look like eventually before I get elected Senator (“I’d be a terrific Senator / because I’d love it”). In looking through one of my books I came across a poem I wrote in 1999 with the title “The banana peel is an important part of the eco-system,” which is something my brother Edmund said to me and which I even attributed to him out of some momentary moral failure (or else I was sub-consciously predicting the next century’s waves of attribution). But what got my attention was the following stream of words: “In the Iceman’s days nicknames / Were prevalent: Annie Annie Oakley / Ansy Slem Arnold Anton Ralton Leston / Selmton Tonton Selmselm Fuckton Cuntton Asston Workton.”

Seeing all those monikers again lit within me a burning urge to identify their sources so they might not get misunderstood as operating within a type of white dialect that could prevent me from getting elected in the future. I used to get e-mails from the Harry Reid folks that were part of a “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” general campaign of political schlock and aww, and if I take that example and run with it I want people to understand just what “Give ‘Em Argh Asston” is all about. Anselm can be a difficult name for you Americans to pronounce, and the above “lines” are actually a list of nicknames conferred upon this body across a roughly twelve year period that began at the age of nine in fourth grade when a few classmates decided it would be easier to call me Annie than try and deal with the tongrobatics required to utter the lm combination in Anselm. Christian Ortiz discovered a little biography of Annie Oakley in a pile of books at the back of the classroom one day, having been ordered there to mull over his loquacious bouts of inattentiveness, and his punishment gave way to the realization that it would be far more entertaining for our class to refer to me as Annie Oakley than just Annie, and so that stuck for several years.

Ansy represents a sadder tale, if you can believe that, for it was the teasing nickname my wonderful half-sister Kate used to call me and which I pretended to detest but secretly didn’t mind hearing until her abrupt and tragic death in 1987. No one has been allowed to call me Ansy since, though no one else really knew about it so its circulation was a little easier to control as opposed to the viral spreading of Annie Oakley around the halls of P.S. 19. Pointing out that Ms. Oakley was a crack shot with a rifle did not advance the cause of my true name. Slem was a kindlier nickname in that one of my track coaches in high school, Mr. O’Neal, simply could not pronounce Anselm without swapping the e and l and decided to shorten Anslem to Slem, thereby making things easier for the whole team. This worked until I got to college in Buffalo and starting being called Arnold by my three horrifying roommates who heard me do an imitation of the Hans and Franz “pump you up” characters from late-eighties SNL and decided Arnold was more apt for my then-130-lb. geek frame than Anselm. Finally came the –ton years. A very drunk but generally genial bass-throated gentleman named Mac started loudly calling me Anton one day from a balcony in downtown Buffalo during a massively attended street festival and that stuck. Shortly thereafter a new housemate (one of seven) revealed that some friends in his hometown, three brothers as it were, went by the names of Anton, Ralton, and Leston. Suddenly I found myself with a modular nickname, thus begetting, depending on the nature of an evening’s activities, Selmton (for those who could do the lm combo), Tonton, Selmselm, Fuckton, Cuntton (never sure if that should have one t or two), and on and on. It also became situational: Workton was what I was called leaving home for any job; Schoolton when threatening to study; Foodton I remember as well as Peanutbutter Foldton (a Buffalo delicacy) during culinary moments. One guy refused to call me anything but Ralton, thinking it the funniest thing he’d ever heard. No day went by during which I wasn’t referred to by a half-dozen different nicknames, a condition which, as one might imagine, had cause to infect my humor with a brooding idiosyncrasy.

When I left Buffalo in 1994 for San Francisco I left behind that whole world of –tons as well, and the poem in question was written during a flashback on a return visit to SF after having left that cuckoo joint for New York some sequence of trips later. The names poured back onto me and would have drownded me with their peculiar histories had poetry not been my ally and filter. Speaking of poetry, the experiment with Mr. Mohammad’s next-to-last lines in regards to the two-more-poems phenomenon (I have even, myself, felt the phrase ready its frame in my larynx for articulation wholly unprovoked by my own intentions, such as they may be, as if the words were their own act…which is why I only read from single long poems at readings now) have led me to isolate the following line as potentially useful in the classic ambiguous-yet-vitally-internal fashion of replaceable reference as practiced by Mallarmé, early Polvo, and the old weird America: “in a way love is all there is.” In order to finish the experiment I will from this moment forward choose to hear “in a way love is all there is” at any instance a reader is forced by mysterious compulsion to state “two more poems” near the end of their reading (I already ignore the awful apology implied by the occasional inclusion of “just” ahead of “two more poems” or “two more”). If you do it too then we can get together some day, and we’ll have a good time, for I will not report the results of our experiment here.

Comments (20)

  • On January 11, 2010 at 3:44 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    I like that one of your tags is “banana peel.” On the subject of banana peels and ecology, I once threw one ( a banana peel) into the bushes behind a bus stop, in Coalville, deep in the Midlands between Nottingham and whatever is above Nottingham, which I forget, and an old lady in a nylon headscarf knotted between her chin against the bitter cold, said: “You should be ashamed of yourself, you dirty little Paki.” Then a whole crew of elderly English people, the other people at the bus stop, started murmuring/muttering and nodding in agreement. I was attempting to visit a renowned medium who lived in the area, and had come up from Loughborough, where I was studying English with the Marxist critic and poet John Lucas. It was a terrible day, and I remember trying to say something about how the peel was biodegradable. Hmm. Er, sorry. Rambled on a bit there. Your post was brilliant, and sort of epic. You sound like you’re ancient, with these vivid memories of leaving a place when, from what I know of you, you must have been a very young man in 1994. Have you always had an epic sense of time?

  • On January 11, 2010 at 3:47 pm Joshua wrote:

    Thank you blogton.

  • On January 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    You can read your next to last poem now, Ms. Oakley.

  • On January 11, 2010 at 6:49 pm Anselm wrote:

    uh-oh

  • On January 11, 2010 at 9:30 pm nico vassilakis wrote:

    beside the 2 poems left
    cause you might be bored
    and would be happy to know
    im nearly done

    there’s the shuffle through paper
    or flipping through pages
    cause im not as prepared as i should be
    version

    these are all classic distractions
    meant to do what exactly?

  • On January 11, 2010 at 10:30 pm Jonathan Skinner wrote:

    My approach is to say I’ll read “x more” (any number above 3) and then forget the number a few poems later . . . in a way love is all there is!

  • On January 12, 2010 at 11:39 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    I’m happy when a reader does this, because it lets me know the torture will soon be over. God I hate poetry readings.

  • On January 12, 2010 at 11:41 am Jordan wrote:

    Poetry readings are an acquired taste, with all the deleterious effects that usually come with acquired tastes.

  • On January 12, 2010 at 11:56 am Matt wrote:

    a brave and original stance

  • On January 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm Anselm wrote:

    I like poetry readings, and I hate cats. Oh, wait, wrong thread.

  • On January 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm Anselm wrote:

    Hi Bhanu. That’s a rather frightening story. I’ve never had a clear idea about my sense of time, but I am attempting a kind of study of digression as a way of actually honing in on details I am not, perhaps, typically able to get at….and this can lead to bouts with “epic time”…..or else a way of jumping around that lets me be in time in writing with more fluidity-as-feel than I perceive otherwise. I worry about time moving too slowly when I write prose, and I feel decidedly on my heels working within sentences, which, I think, is why I’m prone to writing long sentences….that and the fact that details come out in surprising fashion if I let the sentence go on. I’m not sure if that is clear at all, but I am finding the process of keeping a blog to be in part a further study of what happens in sentences.

    The shorter version is I sometimes think I have no memory. Writing at length lets me undo that thought. I also pack odd details into lines in poems that are not meant to be read in terms of the “source”, which is typically some aspect of experience. Going back into the poems occasionally reminds of of that source experience, and it’s often something I haven’t remembered in a very long time.

  • On January 12, 2010 at 7:41 pm Edwin Torres wrote:

    I used to say, I have a few more left, as a sort of release-valve for the audience…you’re going home soon don’t worry…or…the magic will end soon I’ll miss you too. But it’s more fun to just end it, let the air continue vibrating after you split. The ‘two more left’ rouse ranks up there with the between poem chatter that goes longer than the poem…but, in a way, love is all there is.

  • On January 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    “God I hate poetry readings.

    IMHO, authors reading poems even they couldn’t be bothered to memorize is an insult.

    Poetry recitals or performances can be another kettle of fish entirely, depending on the material and presentation.

    -o-

  • On January 13, 2010 at 12:00 am Steven Fama wrote:

    People — be they poets, musicians, whatever — announce “two more . . .” (or, the variant, “this’ll be the last one”) maybe due to insecurity. They want that applause at the end.

    To engage in less arm-chair (folded metal chair) psychologizing, maybe the poetry reading has no natural performative curve (like, say, a theater production or rock show) that signals “mid-point” or almost done, or something like that.

    It’s a “performance” type event (somebody up fornt, the rest watching), without a dramatic arc. So telling the “crowd” it’s about done at least imposes some sort of structure, at least at the conclusion of the thing.

    And I still want to know that you’re getting paid to do this.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 2:11 am nico vassilakis wrote:

    maybe a kitchen timer.

    when it rings – youre done.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 4:12 am john wrote:

    Eileen Myles posted that the bloggers get $500 / month for 8 posts.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/08/political-economy/

  • On January 13, 2010 at 11:28 am Anselm wrote:

    Just to be clear: I was having some fun with the two-left thing, but i do, in fact, enjoy poetry readings, generally speaking, and have hosted and attended hundreds, probably over a thousand readings, and thereby find interest in them from countless different angles. That may sound, I’m sure, like some form of freakish self-flagellation to those who don’t like readings. But I mean, I’ve been to a lot of awful musical performances, and seen plenty of shit movies, and I detest going to museums in NYC at this point because they are so crowded most of the time you can’t look at anything for more than two seconds. I’ll take a reading over these other things a fair amount of the time, and a good reading – and I’ve experienced tons of good readings – can be rather transcendent, for this one. So the I hate readings thing, yeah, sure. But I hate movies. I hate rock shows. I would rather brain myself than go see a musical. I like to hear a person alone with their voice and their work, come what may. I did hear a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers from 1610 a few weeks ago that was absolutely amazing.

    Steven: yes, I can verify the $500 per month figure.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm Matt wrote:

    “IMHO, authors reading poems even they couldn’t be bothered to memorize is an insult.”

    this makes sense how? do you expect classical musicians to memorize their music?

  • On January 14, 2010 at 11:58 am Steven Fama wrote:

    Thanks Anselm, for the further thoughts. I can’t believe you hate rock shows! Some rock shows I can understand not liking: forumlaic and cooked to nothing, meaning it’s the same show, night after night. But (and this is long-time gone) a good one by the good ol’ Grateful Dead? Or (still possible) a messy, swirling, totally improvised set list, too long, pummel you like a monster set of swells by the psychedelic-surf instrumental trio, the Mermen? Oh well . . . .

    (And thanks for confirming that the poets here are paid. I’m glad to hear it. Given the number of poets who have accepted the offer it would appear the rate is seen as appropriate by those who do the work. Still, I think it ought to be $750, but of course, it ain’t my money that’s being spent….)

  • On January 14, 2010 at 12:07 pm Ol' 333 wrote:

    It takes me about five hours to memorize a poem (of my own)(with reasonable reliability although my brain will often pull slipsies during recital, some of which even find there way back on to the page and nest there in a scrawl of questions). At the end of the process, I’m burned, and can’t read, often don’t write anything else for the rest of the day, and go around feeling very proud (followed by a lot of red wine, but that’s my cross to bear and that’s MY bottle i don’t like to share). It also takes me about five hours to write a few poems, or grind off and emerycloth a chunk of prose. I can usually work for about seven hours, unless I’m very manic (we’ll see how the new-style pills do for hat – the old-style ones were fucking soul erasers, which is not all a badness really but certainly kept me on the run for twenty years)(run to earth like a fox in a log better than)
    anyway you get my drift

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 11th, 2010 by Anselm Berrigan.