Poets Online Talking About Coffee: XVII - XXIII
by Russell Bennetts
Remind us a coffee you’ve shared with a lover.
A single coffee? I’ve shared several coffees a day for the last 24 years with my lover, who has also been my husband for the past 15 years (anniversary this week). I think my marriage is pretty much about coffee. Right now we are putting a scoop of Illy, ground for auto-drip, in with whatever organic coffee beans we use for our morning coffee. It darkens and deepens it and that’s good for a marriage. We’ve had stove-top espresso makers and plunger pots too, but we always come back to auto-drip, except when we are travelling in Europe when it is all about the latte or café au lait or café express or espresso or macchiato. On several trips to Paris we had coffee problems because I would drink coffee and then we’d go out and I’d immediately have to pee so to use a bathroom, we’d go into a café and buy an espresso so I could use the bathroom and then a few blocks later, same problem, over and over all the way to the Louvre. We were drinking coffee and peeing all over Paris. Eventually we figured out that if we aimed our walk past a McDonald’s we could use the bathroom without buying anything because in Paris as in America the McDonald’s workers don’t give a shit and why should they? So we could make it to Musée Marmottan or the Orangerie with only one pit-stop. I’m really stupid without coffee. My husband is less so, being a very flexible personality, and he has a thing about quitting things. He likes to do it to see if he can. Not me. I need my coffee in the morning, a tea or coffee in the afternoon and wine at night. All else is chaos. I never quit anything, or no, that’s not true, I quit smoking about 23 years ago, and never started again. But that’s probably enough quitting for me for a lifetime.
You’re well known as a promotions man for Coca-Cola. Does this impact on your coffee consumption?
No, I wear the Coca-Cola sweatshirt because it’s the most American piece of Americana I own. And that’s what I want to represent right now. I love phase-wear. I used to always wear some iteration of black and pink to represent Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Then I would always be sure to wear a pink shirt and sort of tattered up suit when I wore. I wanted my look to be representative of the way that I was feeling about my place in the world. Irony to me are like the tables the fell on me; when I was 13, I was helping my mom set up her work for an event, and I needed to move some plastic folding tables. Little did I realize these plastic folding tables were actually made out of some version of heavy wood and steel and I pulled one off the wall and the next one fell and then the next one on top of that and then the next one on top of that until they crushed my legs. I’m extremely lucky that it didn’t break anything, but I had some nasty, nasty purple-green bruises for months.
I wear something American because it’s goofy and I love America, and I hate America, and I am America, everything I do is America, and hating America, for me, is like asking the fish to damn the water it swims in. Coca-Cola as a brand is pretty disgusting and pretty sinister and all that stuff people with reasonable intelligence and above seem to understand effortlessly. But it’s also a celebration of objects an object could, and that’s being a human being to me, and that’s American. We are pleasure maximizes for sure. I love the taste of coffee. If I don’t drink it, also, I’ll get a headache like I’ve been teleported to the bottom of the sea and my head is crushing under the pressure. And I work with junior high kids and have a baby, so I extra bonus need it to lubricate the mind sprockets. The headthink wheels. I do drink coffee because of the pleasure maximization, but I also spend a shitload of money on good coffee because I think that matters. I like to spend money on things I like. It’s like paying tribute! Especially if I think those things matter.💤☕️☕️☕️💥🐔🔨
Tell our readers who may be unaware about Write. Poetry. Right. Now-
So this was a very special thing in my life that ended up morphing a lot. I worked at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Huge school, third biggest in the entire state. Imagine this school like the Death Star—they’re surrounded by tons of little busted-up looking fleets of campuses, but the main shebang is this huge floating monolith in the grass. That’s where I worked, the main campus. And I think it was a “perk” offered to main campus adjuncts that (instead of, you know, more money) we got to take a free Continuing Education department class. I wanted to take “Pies Pies Pies,” but it had a materials fee. So I looked for a poetry workshop. But there was none. That’s when I saw a form to propose and offer a new class. So I pitched this idea for a class—Write. Poetry. Right. Now! People would sign up and pay $50 for 5 weeks, and I’d get something ridiculous, like 20% of this or something. They loved my pitch, a class that focused on reading (mostly contemporary stuff) and writing poetry, as well as publishing in print and online and learning about journals. It would be my way to squeeze a little cash blood from the stone of my MFA and teach more of the shit I wish I’d learned. I put up fliers and I ran this class in 5 week iterations for years, and the same few people kept signing up. I hope you see their poems around—Justine Retz, Chris Eck, R.C. Davis, Eric Roalson, and a few others who took it once and never again. One was a 14 year old girl with a lot of trouble at home, and her poems were really brutal and powerful…one was an old farmer who HATED when people said “have a nice day” to her! She was like, “HOW DARE PEOPLE TELL ME WHAT KIND OF DAY TO HAVE!” That was a fun class. Well, this class never had more than 6 students at a time, and they want you to have something like 8 to keep it going. But luckily, former NBA player and clueless department head and nice guy Greg Stokes (used to play for the Kings) took over Continuing Ed and let me slip through the cracks. We found ourselves moved from room to smaller, shittier room, then to a creepy junior high after hours (there were actually clowns painted on the halls, what a sensual nightmare), and then finally I just quit, and I told the students, how about we just meet at a bar and you pay me directly? By then, it was the same repeat 5 people, the ones I named, and Adam Edelman, who is now getting is MFA in Austin, When I met him, he was reading Blake and Keats, He really embraced the class. By the time Carleen moved in with me, we were meeting at my house having potlucks/booze lucks. And no one paid me shit. I couldn’t charge them anymore, they were my friends! Some of the best poetry I ever read came from these people. This reinvented poetry for me—these were all adults with lives and no formal poetry educations, but here they were reading contemporary stuff. The workshop was so fun and cathartic and made me think about poetry less as a community or hierarchy and more as this energy pool we were all sitting right on top of, dipping in our ladles as it ran beneath us. Like in Tron! I would like to restart these classes in Chicago.
Sounds fun. And this is an energy pool you’ve channelled in your live poeming sessions for QMT.
Yeah man, those live poeming things are such an iceberg tip. I could talk about the live poeming forever. The fact that they’re being used pretty much just for MMA content right now is what I see as the equivalent as movies being invented simply to settle a bet about whether or not a horse has all 4 legs in the air at any point while it’s running. One concept is an iceberg tip of what centuries later is THE vanguard of human documentation, if you measure vanguard success as making shit tons of money and having shit tons of eyeballs deeply affected across the world all the time! Live poeming is anthemic, I think, in this time when we’re so focused on right now and our place within it, which I hear all the time is bad, but that’s because a lot of who is deciding what is bad is a different generation measuring good vs. bad against their own familiar times, and in fact it’s just the natural change of how people communicate and relate to each other in their surroundings. So yeah, I’m a pretty high energy guy. I find the poetry is a good Interzone for me. I get super excited about concepts. I think that the live poeming thing lends itself to so many brilliant, fantastic, strange and beautiful opportunities for poetry. For the longest time, poetry has served as an indirect, abstract expressive way to respond to and reflect on the world. Now, it’s time to go backwards.
Jennifer L. Knox
At what time must one start drinking to be drunk by noon?
It depends on what you’re drinking. Tequila Rose shots: 11:30. Champagne: 11. The book’s actually named after a Handsome Family song: “If my life was as long as the moon’s I’d still be jealous of the sun. If my life lasted only one day, I’d still be drunk by noon.”
Have you ever experienced days of shame and failure?
Every 15 minutes.
What are you wearing?
Tube socks, scuba suit, crocheted snood.
Should absolutely everybody read your poems?
People who don’t speak English, children, and the elderly should be forced to read them, then be tested on their mastery of the topics. Regular adults can read the cliff notes or watch the movie.
Wait. I mean yes.
How often do you tend to revise a poem before publication?
Seriously: A lot. For months. Sometimes years. Including after it’s been published.
How often in your life have you switched favourite coffee shop?
I have no affinity to any coffee shop. The super snotty slow ones drive me nuts. I’m very impatient. People talk about Good Coffee—I don’t care about it. I can tell when coffee is watery and weak, or so strong you can skate on it, but anything in between those poles is all fine to me.
Shall we finish up there or is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
I always want to discuss food. Recently, one of my colleagues decided to give me his thoughts on teaching—a kind of mini lecture—as I was waiting for the microwave to heat up my soup. He was eating a microwave corn dog in a paper sleeve decorated with circus drawings. Crunching into it. Talking about paradigms and benchmarks. Corndog. Evaulations. Corndog. User outcomes. Muuuuunch munch-munch. Like a scene fromInherent Vice.
Do you eat, like, three meals a day or are you more of a snacker?
I get 8 full meals per day plus snacks and tips.
Share the wealth!
I made you a crock pot full of vegan tofu Polynesian pineapple balls. It’s on warm out in the garage. Used toothpicks go in the trashcan. That’s important.
In “How to Speak to the Dead” you mention the current cycle of cicadas. These are not common in the UK, at all, and now I’m looking up pictures of their red eyes.
Oh, you’ve never been with cicadas? They’re around for about three weeks (either on the 7, 11 or 17 year depending) and are what one imagines when one thinks of plague. But they not menacing. They live, they fuck and they die. But for that moment, they also sing and the world hums and thrums with their song. Afterward, you sweep up their bodies in piles like leaves. I feel very sorry for those who have not experienced the world just being itself without taking you into account.
Like coffee beans swept up across the Bean Belt.
Well said. Spent coffee beans.
What do you miss most about coffee?
Coffee, much like smoking (and I love the two together), is a process. I love getting the beans and grinding them. I love putting them in the coffee maker and the smell of it across the house. The making of coffee has punctuated my life. A few weeks ago, my best friend and I went to Italy. She is allergic to coffee, but it’s so much a part of her morning experience that she made me coffee when we were on vacation. And I drank it, even when I know I shouldn’t. When I think of Italy, I’ll remember padding downstairs, getting a demitasse of Italian coffee and watching the sky in the Italian countryside.
When I think of college, I think of the long conversations in the Hoop (the Wellesley campus cafe). When I think of Denver, I think of the Muddy. When I think of Boston, I think of the Trident. When I think of Cambridge, I think of Algiers. When I think of my home coffee shop, I think of Fido in Nashville. You get the picture.
But I’ve never considered this before until I had to interrogate it—I think of coffee as something that is better shared. I don’t drink coffee alone. So, I guess I don’t really miss coffee that much, I just cut out my extracurricular coffee drinking. When it counts, I’ll take it. It’s just really infrequent these days.
You didn’t ask this, but what don’t I miss about coffee? Insomnia. Sleeping feels better than how coffee tastes.
How has writing punctuated your life?
I find writing to be more intrusive than coffee. I never really mean to start writing, but I get an idea and need to explore it on the page. It all starts so innocently. Then I’m not sleeping for three weeks at a time because I have characters to develop and poems to complete. Each poem is a relationship: there’s the first flush of interest and then the first argument. You settle in and start working out understandings of how you work and how the poem works– we are often striving toward cross purposes. And then there’s the final moments: the poem has become itself without you and wants to be out in the world.
The writing is disruptive. Every sentence leaves me changed even as I shape them. I think it’s supposed to be this way, where the literary striving dovetails with our intellectual and emotional growth. I’ve discovered that once a new project comes to me, I’m always pushing the limits of my craft. I don’t want to do the same thing twice and I never, ever want to make the same mistakes. I’ll make mistakes, but let them be new ones.
Writing is too much of my life to merely punctuate it. If writing were a friend of mine, it’s the friend who has a key to my house and is free to come over and see if I have ice cream in the freezer. (Then it eats the ice cream and leaves the carton on the counter. It’s not a good friend, just a beloved one.)
How’s the literary scene in Nashville?
Nashville is a special place that respects artistry in all shapes and forms. It’s an artist’s town. But if I had to choose the one defining characteristic of Nashville that keeps me here, I’d have to say that Nashville respects work. The ethos doesn’t really think much on promise, but the realization of promise. Some of my musician friends call it a 10-year town. We learn to play nice with one another. We collaborate, we work our craft, and we cheer the success of our compatriots. The literary scene is hard to separate from the music scene. My best lessons have been learned from my musician friends who know what it is to cross the country to read some work to five people in Fort Wayne Indiana.
But the writers of Nashville– we’ve all met. There’s Christina Stoddard (winner of the Brittingham Prize), Kendra DeColo (winner of the Saturnalia Prize) and Gary MacDowell (winner of the Orphic Prize)– we’ve actually all workshopped in one another’s kitchens. Beth Bachmann and Kate Daniels live less than a mile from me. Stephanie Pruitt (another amazing poet) hosts a reading series called Poems and Pancakes in her backyard. (Marilyn Nelson came last summer.) Chet Weise worked with Third Man Records to launch Third Man Books. This is a vibrant and growing community that makes me prouder every day. First, I left this town to find my people. Then I moved home to find that my people have been here all along.
Do you see many similarities between programming and poetry?
Two things have to occur to write software: You need to understand the requirements and you need to design a structure that is extensible (capable of being maintained and enhanced over time) and durable (something that will have a firm model that needn’t be refactored to accomodate future maintenance). There are existing algorithms for many things that we do and we follow design patterns that don’t just make sense to us at the time of design and code, but something that would make sense to any other developer. One never codes in a bubble.
Poems often require that kind of up-front design, although the content of that design is fluid. We have traditional forms (sonnets, villianelles, whathaveyou) and some forms we make up as we are writing the poems. Many poems I write are not sonnets per se but use many elements of the sonnet to function. Many of my longer poems leverage some of the characteristics of ballads. And often, without even thinking about it, I write syllabics. It feels right and then I start counting and realize it feels right because it’s symmetrical.
And to be honest, there are plenty of times I code to satisfy the functionality and THEN start working on form just as I do in poems. I don’t even think about the poetic line until I have a functional model of the sentences that I want there.
I think they come out of the same organizational part of my brain. Just different languages and purpose. The creative process is exactly the same.
@ellipticalnight What is an appropriate subject for a poem?
— Russell Bennetts (@RussellBennetts) June 12, 2015
@ellipticalnight Why not “A piece of coffee”?
— Russell Bennetts (@RussellBennetts) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts The sensation made by the language built around a piece of coffee or the object itself. The words as their own subject.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts It’s probably better to eat roastbeef or smell it. That makes it an inappropriate subject for a poem, so maybe a good one.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts Outside of the definitions of appropriate poetic subjects are so many interesting poetic subjects. Concepts wear out.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts Doing that, the word itself becomes the subject, not the object it refers to. I guess a word is an appropriate subject.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts So a mouth in that moment just before the words come out. A tension of silence that becomes bliss. And accident. Accident.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
@RussellBennetts Something unexpected, from an inappropriate subject, a surprise that catches me off guard. I prefer to be on guard.
— Aaron Boothby (@ellipticalnight) June 12, 2015
Switch off the current, will you?
When you’re a kid your body produces its own caffeine. This is the experience of poetry. There was a television commercial, something like, “Relax with a cup of coffee,” pure propaganda, a buzz phrase. They did cigarette commercials on TV in those days too, “Come where it’s Kool,” stuff like that, pure poetry, like no one would notice the characteristics of poetry at work.
Would you like a cup, ma’am?
How can a kid growing up in such an atmosphere not aspire to poetry? I had an eighth grade nun who actually encouraged poetry. I don’t think she drank coffee. Those were the days of the big habits and cloisters though. A cloistered poet. She was cool. A cool nun.
Where are you from? London?
All these poor poets going into the advertising business. Madison Avenue. The characteristics of poetry used to sell stuff: soap, cigarettes, automobiles, hair spray, ant spray. You ever heard of the beehive hairdo? JFK was the first US poet president. McLuhan was very popular on Madison Avenue.
Have you cash for a short time?
Starbucks is the gentrification of the back street café, of measuring out one’s life in fives and tens instead of coffee spoons, in a clean, well-lighted place instead of a greasy spoon. You won’t find sawdust covered floors in a Starbucks. In China, the teens go on dates to the local Starbucks, hang out. I heard Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, say that in a Charlie Rose interview. Growth opportunity. I thought of Van Morrison, “And she brings you tea and oranges, all the way from China.” Who knows, maybe Starbucks is just what China needs, if they go with poetry readings.
But it has a Hellenic ring, hasn’t it?
Tom Standage wrote an interesting book, “A History of the World in 6 Glasses.” He claims French coffeehouses were the seedbed of revolution, of existentialism, I would add. People do talk over coffee, socialize. But if you are alone, waiting, but you’re not exactly sure for what, a cup of coffee provides a sense of purpose.
Why aren’t you in uniform?
We had just come out of the water, got handed black coffee in a foam cup, the start of a solid gold weekend. But we never drank coffee before a surf session. And we didn’t start out in wetsuits. Wetsuits and coffee, the sea close by. Camus drinking coffee in Paris signing autographs and longing for the poverty of the sea.
What ails it tonight?
The best coffee is the simplest, an Americano, for example. This is true of poems too. You read William Carlos Williams over an early morning black cup of coffee waiting for when it’s time to leave for the bus. You read Wallace Stevens over a glass of zinfandel and an espresso sitting out under the arbors in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, as if you can afford to be on vacation. You don’t really understand Stevens or wine or the wealth of vineyards, but the language is intoxicating, especially on a hot day.
Is it French you are talking, sir?
Sense comes from sound. You read Bukowski on the bus on the way to work, sipping simple coffee from your stainless steel thermos. On the way home from work the thermos is empty and you’re tired of coffee and poetry and you stop off at the bar and fill the thermos with beer and you feel a little better and you pen a poem on a napkin to take home for your girl for the icebox door and suddenly it’s a swell evening and after some pasta and stewed tomatoes you have an espresso with vanilla for desert and the night is on: bright lights, big city, transistor radio, a baseball game under the light in the street.
You do make strong tea, don’t you?
For a time I drank tea all afternoon studying out in the garage behind my folks’ place. At some point I read “The Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzō, which influenced my poetry at the time. Tea is more delicate than coffee, no mud, no oil. I was drinking tea like a madman. But all a guy needs in the afternoon is one cup.
Were you in a funk?
Susan and I moved into our own place on Oak Street. We reused our tea bags. I’ve since thrown out all those poems I wrote with blacklight ink on tea bags.
Where gold from afar?
In the Army in the field the cooks made coffee by filling a 10 gallon pot full of water, bringing it to a boil, then pouring in a gallon can of bulk ground coffee. Turn the fire down and let the grounds slowly sink to the bottom. Hang a ladle on the pot. You get in line and ladle a cup off the top, a bit greasy and oily, like the floor of the motor pool, a blackish brown, and poor it into your tin cup. This was really good coffee.
And more’s mother?
I carried a paperback copy of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” in my fatigue jacket pocket. Also remember reading “The First Third,” Neal Cassady’s book, and Andy, an Army comrade, told me that was a rail yard key hanging from Cassady’s belt in the cover photo, and he wanted to read the book, so I gave it to him. He was working for the railroad at the time, out in Barstow. We were weekend warriors, coffee in the morning, beer in the evenings, a little guitar and harmonica as the sun went down over the Pacific. Smoke them if you had them, saunter off and bag down. In the morning, coffee and an illumination. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the Los Angeles Herald Express. We longed for a free press. It was no time for sergeants.
Where bronze from anear?
Well, some say much of today’s poetry is tabloid stuff, but it’s where you go to catch up on the UFO news. Anyway, yeah, and cafeteria coffee. Cafeteria style poems.
I was thinking about that Army chow and coffee line recently standing in a Starbucks in a line of young pups on their way to make some hay out of the day. That’s ok, that’s the red dust, Han Shan’s red dust, business. Every day you gotta get up and make something happen. Guy in the front of the line is ordering, sounds like something out of an MFA procedure manual: “Grande double with a hot lemon twist, spoonful of honey, and 9 ice cubes in case I dump it in my lap on the Line 15 again where it lurches to a stop at the methadone clinic on Belmont.”
The Bi-Partisan Café on Southeast Stark or Tabor Space on Belmont. That’s where poetry and coffee mix well in my neighborhood. Sometimes Albina Press over on Hawthorne, or Division has quite a few cheap dives, though it’s getting city-gentrified as we speak.
What is that? A flasher?
I like to walk. Walking, coffee, a place to go, poetry. But I still have a few promises to keep. Yeah, I carry a Moleskin in my back pocket, unlined. I like to doodle. I have to doodle.
I like Stevie Smith. There you see some fine doodles with poems. Kenneth Patchen used to doodle.
What about mixed bathing
Well, there’s the creative side and the critical side. In twosome twiminds, Joyce said.
Where’s the bloody house?
I’m thinking of Jacques Prevert penciling a poem on a napkin at a table on the sidewalk and he’s a cheap cup of coffee in a white clay cup and there’s a pissing world war on and he’s there and he’s helpless except for the cup of coffee and the napkin and the poem. That’s all he’s got. That’s all he needs. Later he’ll want something more. But it doesn’t hurt to remember where you came from and develop a taste for all kinds of poems, not just the ones you think you want. You never know when you might be drinking thin coffee out of a paper cup again, reusing the same grounds day after day while the rejection slips pile up.
Hey, shitbreeches, are you doing the hat trick?
Yeah, yeah, no, Langston Hughes did not play Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. Neither far out nor close in. You want to be in the break, sure, but surfing and poetry have made some radical moves not everyone is wanting to follow. I’m a long board poet.
Stitch in my side. Why did I run?
The Poetics of Space, The Guttenberg Galaxy, Silence and A Year from Monday, Love’s Body, Walden. But I read anything, everything. You get a lot of recommendations. I recently read through Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, most of them. Changed my writing. Or made me want to change my writing. Saw something I had not seen before. I mean I had seen it, I recognized it, but that was it, the mirror that illuminates your own face. Reading is an art. Writing is something else.
Have you no soul?
Wilson, Edmund Wilson, sure. Louis Menand. It’s all so corny though, the robes, the berets. Give me a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt and point me the way to the beach. But all that stuff’s good, interesting, thought provoking. But who wants to be provoked? Don’t we want to be soothed? I want the poem of peace, the cup that really is relaxing.
For being so nice, eh?
I’m aware that some of my writing, my poetry, might sound decaffeinated, oatmealish. Where’s the grease the B&E? This is deceptive. You never know who might be in the audience. Some folks like sugar and cream in their poems. A soft croissant. The cherry filled pastry. Montaigne apparently enjoyed sherry. Fortified poetry. Bukowski. Some poetry comes on slowly. Some people come on slowly to poetry.
We appear to be leaving the golden age of poetry and entering the golden age of coffee. I recently ran a Google Ngram Viewer search on “poetry” and “coffee.” The results show we haven’t much time. We may already be too late. Coffee became more prevalent than poetry around 2008, according to Ngram. Oh, well, not by word alone does man live. If you’re drinking good coffee, you should probably avoid Google. And academics. A good cup of coffee and a napkin, that’s all you need.
Can I raise a mortgage on my fire insurance?
Well, yeah, a bit of hyperbole with the Moleskin.
When will we have our own house of keys?
A poet should know something about plumbing.
Chum o’ yourn passed in his checks?
Stick to poetry that makes you cry that makes you laugh that makes you want to get up and rock and roll or run out in the street and dance jazz or blues it up and folk coffee that makes you happy. The word is not sacred man. Poetry is lingo. It’s tongue and teeth and toothache and missing teeth and bitten tongue and sores on your gums and swapping spit and all that sort of thing, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, too, yeah, and burning the roof of your mouth on a cup of coffee.
Will you come if I can get the aunt to fork out twenty quid?
Move away from the keyboard and put your hands in the air. But seriously, pen and paper, pencil, drawing, words on rocks. Slow down. What’s the hurry? You got your whole life to write poems. There are other things that are important.
Aren’t men frightful idiots?
Dali said, when asked if he painted on drugs, “Why should I take the drug? I am the drug.” I’m not sure that works with coffee, in one’s cups. But yeah, language can work like a drug when it’s poured into a poem. The five senses, you know, they keep more out than they let in. That’s Blake and later Huxley. But these are real people who want real coffee and real poems, and why shouldn’t they try to comprehend the significance of their own experience?
Are you coming into the musicroom to see our new pianola?
I don’t know where I’ll go from here. The Lake Isle of Innisfree sounds nice, but I prefer the ocean, salt water, waves, a sandy beach and a clear reach. So does Susan.
How’s the nuts?
That’s a damn good question. I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to know.
Your poems often deal with spirituality. Does coffee have a spiritual dimension?
Sure, sipping, mindfully, can be spiritual. Tasting, too. And becoming more awake, obviously. These are all things that one can do with coffee. So, in that sense, to really savor the flavor of a good cup of coffee can be both a centering and transporting experience. Coming from Egypt, my proper initiation into the caffeinated universe was Turkish coffee. There, how it is prepared, how much sugar to add, when to remove it from the heat, and how to consume it are near sacred ritual. In coffee shops across the country, possibly with a hookah close at hand, ‘Kahwa’ (coffee, in Arabic) is the impetus for wide-ranging conversations and meditations, from paltry politics to sublime metaphysics. Also, not uncommon, following this centuries-old ritual of drinking Turkish coffee is to submit to having your fortune read. That can be done either casually, or professionally, and involves having your consumed cup flipped upside down in a saucer, swiveled around a few times and set to cool, before the residual coffee grounds – fateful lines and shapes portentous or auspicious – might be deciphered for divination.
By the time I left Egypt, I might’ve consumed five or more of these mini cups of ‘rocket fuel’ to get through a work day. Worse, I was mixing potions, and would often start my day with a shot of home-brewed Italian espresso. All of which might explain why, when I made the US my home nearly a decade ago, I steered clear of that muddy, candied water sold at Starbucks. After such authentic riches, I could not settle for poor impostors. Fortunately, I did not have to. As an honorary Colombian citizen (my wife is half-Colombian) I soon made the rewarding acquaintance of Colombian coffee and was back on good, strong footing, again. Perhaps, it’s sacrilegious to admit this (at least, in family circles) but I also enjoyed Brazilian and Cuban brews for similar reasons. Still, with Prufrock, I found that I had to admit over the years:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Which, prosaically, translated into, eventually, not being able to hold my coffee (palpitations, insomnia, etc…) And, addictive, extremist personality that I have, I could not settle for just a cup or two, so I went cold turkey. Well, that’s not entirely true. Rather, I eased into the world of tea, and eventually, sighed my way into the garden of green tea. And, in the interest of full disclosure, a further humiliating confession: I, now, begin my days sipping warm water with lemon. Ah, the indignities of ageing… Yet, strange to say, I have come to find another clarity in my decaffeinated daze. Which is to conclude that, even at this stage, coffee still offers me (at least, two) opportunities to practice spirituality: renunciation and longing.
Are you there Dana? It’s me, coffee.
I didn’t drink it until I was twenty-one, during a fateful late-night study session during a fateful finals week my junior year of college, sitting around a big wooden table with Sebastian M. (impresario!) and Melissa, his model girlfriend, was she there? Albert A. and Jeanie T. and everyone smoking cigarettes, trying to undo the master thought-knots of literature with our teeth. Everyone was drinking coffee, loads of it.
I sat the coffee-drinking out. When I was three I’d toddled into our kitchen and spied my older sister lifting a steaming cup of chocolate-colored brew to her lips and I’d begged – begged – for a taste. It was likely something 1960s and horrible, like Folgers with some powdered creamer, and I was not yet a coffee snob, lugging my own mini-french press and Ohori’s French Roast to campuses and hotel rooms across the country because I had known them all already (known them all), the weak brews of America’s institutional cafeterias. Back then, at the age of three, the betrayal was not Folgerian but coffee in total: the enormity of my gustatory anticipation – of creamy, sugary, cocoa goodness – made me reach up for the cup like a supplicant, and as my sister lowered it carefully down I took it between both palms as though she were offering a drink from the Grail. Then something bitter sluiced into my mouth, and – Dana! – I spit it out all over the kitchen floor.
For the next eighteen years I refused the bean, but then it was 1am and finals week and we were all trying to write smart papers. About WCW or Calvino, maybe about “Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife,” a William Gass book that had blown each and every one of our minds, though maybe that was the following fall, and we were all mind-blowers in training, or so we thought. I’m not really sure if Jeanie T. was there, but later, at the tail-end of the terrible 80s, I visited her in Seattle and was flummoxed by guys with carts selling espressos outside of banks and supermarkets – who cared so much about coffee? – and Jeanie said, Oh my God, you have to come with me to this coffee shop and try something amazing – and I thought, How could there be something amazing at a coffee shop? But we rolled on down to the wharf and walked into this place called Starbucks, back when the breasts on the logo’s mermaid still had nipples and there were only two Starbucks in the entire world. I kept asking, What did you order? and Jeanie kept saying, Wait, wait― with this twinkle in her eye, and after an inordinate amount of time in which to wait for a cup of coffee, she handed me a tall glass of something frothy and commanded I drink. Oh my God, what is this? I gasped, and Jeanie pronounced, in triumph, Vanilla. Latte.I’d had no idea coffee could aspire to the ranks of my favorite meals of the day, breakfast and dessert.
Anyway, back to the table where everyone was in their twenties and grinding their teeth with nicotine, caffeine and thinking. Who knew thinking could be its own drug? I’d tried many of the drugs known to man at that point, but really preferred weed. Hanging out with amped and speedy thinkers felt like hanging out with citizens of a foreign country, but I’d been doing it increasingly, under the sway of Sebastian M., son of a famous poet, who’d grown up in a milieu as far away from my own Jewish immigrant Southern California desert exile as could be. In his person, preferences, and habits, he revealed daily what it meant to have been raised inside a literati life, some of it pretentious and a lot of it real, and it was heady, this bright eyed talk-streaming energy where you drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and got very jumpy about books and ideas. Plus I was going to have to stay up long past 1am if ever I was going to finish this paper, which of course was due the following day.
Reader, I ordered a cup of coffee.
It was the same year Sebastian introduced me to Thelonious Monk, the year when a visiting editor of some influence hit on me over lunch, the year I started smoking and thinking in earnest. Poetry, jazz and coffee: that was it. It was 1986, and whatever was going on under the fluorescent tents of pop culture, I wasn’t having it.
Originally published at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.