Friends of Alice
March 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
I learned the notion of celebrity like shoe-tying, like praying. I learned distance. Names, not people, create what we imbibe, construct what we consume. Let’s take poet Kenneth Koch. The name Kenneth Koch is two disembodied words made of poems and essays arbitrarily dubbed Kenneth Koch. Can one speak to a Kenneth Koch? Just as DaVinci = Mona Lisa and Edison = light bulb, Kenneth Koch = “One Train May Hide Another.” Intangible Kenneth Koch does not tie his shoes. He sits on a cloud, sleeping with women.
Or rather, in my reverence, I mythologize these individuals, sculpting the equivalent of Greek gods or Catholic saints. Kerouac as Dionysus. Brautigan as St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Or I ascribe these creators with the abstract concepts they embody. Nick Flynn is childhood pain. Ann Carson is intellectual experiment. Philip Levine is blue collar work. Frank O’Hara is an afternoon carefree.
Conversely, I am a shoe-tier, the people I know: shoe-tiers. Take Gabe Kruis. Though he creates, he ties his shoes. I’ve seen it, and my ideology leads to this problem: the work of those I know or could feasibly meet seems intrinsically of a lesser quality. There are no living saints. They’re either dead or holed up in Greenwich Village lofts.
This weekend, following a reading hosted by the Poetry Society of America at The 2011 Chapbook Festival, one of these intangible beings, Alice Quinn, struck up a conversation with Gabe and I. She’s the Executive Director of the Poetry Society, editor at The New Yorker for twenty years. Alice, this graying spry accomplished little woman in black, neck knotted in a pink scarf. And maybe she’d stolen a bottle of red for herself or maybe she enjoyed the company of young men, but she spoke with us. We said little. She touched my arm. She gushed over award recipients. We nodded.
I veered the conversation towards an exhibition on The New York School running at Tibor De Nagy Gallery. She’d seen it, of course. She knew them. Each one personally. I mentioned a farcical collage by Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch about beds, which sparked her to speak of Kenneth’s delicate soul, how he was jealous of not receiving the recognition bestowed on his cohorts Frank (O’Hara) and John (Ashberry), how he contracted leukemia suddenly, as if one day he awoke with his life in two halves, how during his weeks in the hospital he collected poetry to critique from neighboring patients. “Always teaching, always a sweetheart,” said Alice, little lips maroon with wine.
Alice doesn’t know my taxonomies, the line delineating my world and that of idols, how sometimes I aspire to write great work not for its own sake, but to someday be mythologized by the young and aspiring. She also doesn’t know that she knelt before me and fiddled her laces to a bow. She was not ghostly, and her friends and their illustrious poems seemed a step away from their assembly in ether by gods and elves, and a step closer to the honest labor of jealous sweethearts.