A CLERK IN THE HOUSE OF POETRY
by Karen Lillis
from Bagging the Beats at Midnight, a bookstore memoir in progress
There was a moment late in the first decade of the 21st century when people talked a lot about the death of the paper book and the death of bookstores. I realized then that my whole life had once revolved around books and bookstores and friends who were book lovers and bookstore hounds. From 1997 to 2005 I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop. I started there as a part-time midnight closer, added hours as a freelance shelver, and eventually landed a full-time clerk position. The store anchored my life, just as it did for the many New Yorkers who made the bookshop a regular destination—customers who came needing books or people, readers hoping to run into old friends or new lovers. After nearly forty years in business, St. Mark’s Bookshop closed this past February. This essay is excerpted from Bagging the Beats at Midnight, my memoir-in-progress of those years when my life was spent in bookstores.
I asked him if he liked the poet Adam Zagajewski. I was holding up a new hardback I’d been fake-reading when he came behind the register to change the CD from Palace Brothers to Pavement. “Uh, not really,” he replied, thoroughly unimpressed. My coworker swaggered off again, and I was left to face facts. My failed literary seduction pointed to something much bigger: the vast gap between me and the celebrated poetry section at St. Mark’s Bookshop. After all, I was hired for the speed-register experience I’d acquired as third-floor head cashier at Pearl Paint, not for my knowledge of poetry. French feminist novella writers from the ’80s and ’90s, yes. But poetry? Not my area.
I could have chosen to take my coworker’s apathy as a personal rejection; instead I took it as a challenge. Here he was, a poet, who frequented poetry readings, who published in poetry journals, who discussed poetry with his poet friends who came by the store to see him and our illustrious poetry shelves. When he scoffed at my selection, it suddenly dawned on me that there were worlds within worlds totally unknown to me. There were whole realms of New York poets I knew nothing about, starting with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project down the block. This notorious stage had spawned metaphorical rock star Kathy Acker and actual rock star Patti Smith, but it also fostered writers in a category much more slippery—those poets who were acclaimed without being household names. Superstars in a three-block radius.
When I arrived at the bookstore in my late twenties, poetry, as a word, still held contradicting connotations for me. On the one hand it contained the promise of the avant-garde, the new, the possible, the unprecedented, the naked, the subtle, the daring. On the other hand there were the associations that still repelled me: pretentious, precious, elite, cliquish, holier-than-thou, hopelessly obscure, endlessly self-referential. These connotations seemed to stem from the fact that poetry was exchanged between people, at readings, in scenes: books were not necessarily the primary currency of living poets. Fiction writers, screenwriters, journalists—I understood what these people wanted in the world. To end up in a book, on a movie screen, in a newspaper, influencing a broad audience. But poets, I was starting to notice, seemed content to read to each other, to influence each other. It began to bother me to the point of fascination.
Soon, I wanted to be on the inside of poetry, at least long enough to understand it. Writing poems wasn’t enough by half. Any long-distance lover, broken-hearted betrothed, or alienated teenager could write a poem. Even an outsider like me had written twenty poems one full-moon night (when I fit two of those categories).
With poetry, there was only inside and outside. The whole genre seemed so impenetrable. I didn’t know what would prove to be the way in. Certain customers came to my register with stacks of books by people I’d never heard even a mention of: Lewis Warsh, Harryette Mullen, Bernadette Mayer, Wanda Coleman, C.D. Wright, Willie Perdomo, Jorie Graham, Rae Armantrout, Mahmoud Darwish, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jack Spicer, Jack Micheline, Susan Howe, June Jordan, Pedro Pietri, d.a. levy, Alicia Ostriker, Ron Padgett. And who the hell was this Ted Berrigan dude whose titles were always so prominently faced out? There was something maddening about the constant promotion of such a hopelessly average name that was totally unknown to me, further proof of this parallel world hiding in plain sight.
At that time (this was in 1997, soon after I started working at the bookstore), I didn’t enjoy reading poems at all. I only noticed that they made me feel self-conscious and confused: “What am I supposed to be getting out of this?” This mentality could have been the last vestige of an undergraduate English major, which ruined my pleasure in reading for years by implying that there was a Right Way and a Wrong Way to read books. I’d long since re-learned to read fiction for pleasure, curiosity, delight, desire, comradeship, and writing instruction. But with poetry, I always felt there was some context I was missing.
Among other anxieties, what was I going to do when I had a crush on another poet? It seemed inevitable—the East Village was lousy with them. A poet could walk around disguised as almost anything: a bartender, a bus driver, a trust-funder, a ticket-taker, even a musician or a painter. Any customer or coworker might pull out their poetry trump card at any turn. No, if I was going to work here, this ground zero bookshop of avant-garde literature, I had to comprehend this—poetry.
So my answer wouldn’t be found in writing poems, wouldn’t be discovered by reading them. Nor were poetry cliques the solution. But I started to think that maybe, if I could befriend one poet and look into his skull, see how he thought and how he lived, that might pull back the curtain on poetry. The quest for a poet-friend became a nagging theme in the back of my brain.
In the years it took me to ensnare a poet-friend, I gave poetry all sorts of magical, majestic, post-Transcendentalist powers. I decided that poetry could alter the synapses in your brain. Poetry could wake you up in the same way that TV could put you to sleep. People who could read poetry were more evolved, more conscious, more articulate about emotions, able to see subtle shades of meanings in between meanings. Poetry readers were like the Native Americans of pre-colonial times, who could see a vast array of stars and planets in the sky with the naked eye. Poetry readers could discern the most necessary aspects of humanity because they had practiced the art of looking for them.
I decided at one point that poets certainly weren’t born poets—they were self-made out of a lifetime of small, courageous decisions and patient observations. Another time I thought maybe poets were born with their vision intact; they’d managed, heroically, to preserve their originality in the face of great mediocrity and workaday reality. Or perhaps poets had been able to unlearn the deadly monotony of so many mundane school systems and in the act of doing so, had unraveled great wisdoms. By breaking through to higher levels of individual consciousness, poets were upping the ante for the planet, blazing a clear path through the cosmos to the next phase of evolution. Without poets, humanity itself was in danger of stagnation or extinction.
At long last, I found Kenneth, the poet. Or, he found me, when he accidentally wandered into a reading I was doing for my latest novel. My girlfriend was there when Kenneth and I introduced ourselves in Clovis Press Bookstore and she developed an instant aversion to him. I had never told her about my Poetry Inferiority Complex—maybe she sensed my ulterior motives. He gave me his phone number right in front of her watchful eyes, but after that, I courted Kenneth in secret. I could tell as soon as we met that he was The One: The Poet whose daily life would explain the mystery, whose friendship would crack the code.
Our companionship soon consisted of two-minute phone calls throughout each day, walks down Bedford Avenue from Kenneth’s part of Williamsburg to my block in Greenpoint, and Kenneth popping into St. Mark’s Bookshop to chat with me while browsing poetry, cult crit titles, and literary journals. Already our covert friendship seemed like poetry to me, creating conceptual space in between the hours spent with my girlfriend, to whom I’d previously been glued. “Call me up!” he’d say when we were parting. Our conversation was always ongoing and we’d pick up the next round in media res.
Kenneth’s most overriding quality was his absurdist sense of humor—not so much jokes but his whole outlook. He was a shrewd observer of the futility of human endeavors; he believed in art, thought, and sex but found vanity in most material goals. A sober hedonist who sought pleasure in small moments and intelligent women, Kenneth laughed the loudest watching people who were leading overbearing lives of conspicuous pretension, or conspicuous lives of quiet desperation—both plentiful in the nonstop theater of New York streets.
When I met him, Kenneth was just starting to get serious about publishing his poems while staying carefree about almost everything else. This followed decades of a life dedicated to illegal substances. Kenneth wrote every day and lived side by side with his dead poets. Books were his friends as much as his pet turtle was his friend, bookstore clerks were his friends, and his new acquaintances and longtime friends were his friends. When he called me to tell me stories, he’d mix and match those elements in ways I wouldn’t have predicted: André Breton and the turtle; Fred at Mercer Street Books and finding a good copy of Herbert Asbury; the turtle and the new roommate; the new roommate and the guy twice her age she picked up at the laundromat on Berry; a biographical anecdote about Gérard de Nerval tacked onto a story about the bureaucracy of mental health; René Daumal blended into an anecdote from Kenneth’s less sober days; the pleasure of meeting a new poet and the unbearable egos of the poetry scene that surrounded her; the owner of Spoonbill and the new Exact Change Press edition of Unica Zürn.
Kenneth was a ruthless editor. If I started to bore him, he would get off the phone right away. Boring Kenneth meant complaining about everyday life, or spending too many words on the truly banal—topics like my roommate headaches, relationship woes, or cash flow problems reeked of the cliché and were generally to be avoided. It wasn’t that Kenneth was never negative, but the negativity he allowed had to be funny, totally original, or have a good plot arc. I learned to bring only my best material to our exchanges.
One day I called him up: after a fitful night, I had woken up and written a ten-page poem! It even had a small concrete poem embedded on page three. Kenneth’s reply: “This morning I started writing a novel!” He described his process of coming up with the right skeleton structure for a book he wanted to write. “Then everything relevant that happens for the next few months, I just hang it on the skeleton.” I agreed. It was how I had written my last book. For a moment, the poet and the novelist had traded places, and it’s what we laughed about that day.
KAREN LILLIS is the author of four novellas, most recently Watch the Doors as They Close (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Austin Chronicle, Evergreen Review, Everyday Genius, LA Cultural Weekly, LitHub, New York Nights, Trip City, Undie Press, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, among others.