Poets Online Talking About Coffee: XLIV - IL
by Russell Bennetts
What are you top three memories related to coffee?
THE JAVA JIVE: THREE MEDITATIONS ON COFFEE
I remember the lid on the tin of my mother’s coffee being very gummy and fun to pull back. The inner walls of my nose would pucker into little harbors for the coffee powder flakes. The flakes were like the fireships you’d get in level three of Age of Mythology. I imagined them waiting in line in the air, lethal and silent and orderly. And then they would, one-by-one, dock and blow themselves up into smell in my nose.
I never saw my mother actually drink the coffee, which she did every breakfast. When I eat with people, I tend to look away from their mouths as they physically ingest. Seeing them eat reminds me that I have to put food in my mouth too, which fills me with anxiety.
So, not seeing my mother ever put the coffee in her mouth, I would just see tired Mom and a full cup of coffee, and then an empty cup of coffee and a changed Mom.
Before her coffee, my mom was all body and no voice. She’d walk to the kitchen in silence, looking extra thin. Like many people, she wouldn’t make eye contact, and only spoke in a grumble. My mother was very sick when I was a child, and I felt this most strongly in the morning. Her little body was never the source of her strength—it was her voice, the vowels pricked open with a bright Israeli hook, that would pull the entire day out of thin air, as she’d dictate play tasks, writing and drawing projects, the meals I ate, and the pretty clothes I wore. I’d sit with her at the table, silently gazing into the eye of my egg, and then suddenly the coffee cup was empty and Mom was flushed with color, the arms of her cloud pajamas waving like flags under a magic wind.
This was my first experience with a chemical changing a human being. And the chemical was perfect. She never suffered as a result of the coffee, the transformation took place instantly, and lasted all day. I think I thought all chemicals would work like this.
When, at age sixteen, I was diagnosed with cancer, and told I would undergo chemotherapy—I think I thought it would work like my mother’s coffee. Not that it would feel good—no, this would be more of an “anti-coffee.” A green super villain potion instead of an earth-colored shaman elixir. The suffering would be horrible—but it would all come on instantly, and leave instantly. My hair would pop off all at once, like a light bulb filament bursting. I’d wake up with vomit bursting into my hand like a cuckoo out of a clock for six months, and then this would cease completely. And the tumors would be scrubbed away, like Oxyclean foaming on a shirt.
I think, had I realized how chronic chemicals work, I would’ve been more scared. I kept saying to myself, as I gradually slipped into infirmity, well this is bad, but it’s yet to really get intolerable—the water isn’t quite boiling around this little frog. I’m not screaming in pain, and every three weeks there’s a week where I don’t vomit daily.And when I eventually realized that I was already enduring the intolerable, that the intolerable was just this degree of suffering, plus time, plus the horrifyingly indeterminate nature of that time—by that time it was too late to be scared—or anything much other than busy and confused. I watched the cells in my blood run out on the lab reports. I held the tubes going into my body like stuffed animals.
When I suffered from mental illness a couple years later, I again thought the anxiety medication would work like coffee. It didn’t. The same with antidepressants. The same with anything in my life that I thought of as a ritual—be it falling in love, or taking the SAT’s, or writing a poem. I believed these things would transform me, instantly teleport me to a happier country, and make me fluent in its language, which I had been mangling my whole life without ever noticing, because there was no one in the sad old country to point it out.
My father rarely drank coffee when I was a child. He was an athletic psychiatrist, elderly but young-looking, who had a ton of heart attacks, and needed a heart transplant when I was in second grade, but never any sleeping aids or stimulants. As he aged into his mid-eighties, and his naps got longer and longer, he started to supplement his day with coffee. It went from one cup of what he would vociferously insist was decaf, to three or four regular cups a day. He has lost a lot of weight in the past few years, but it’s more likely from age than coffee. Now he says “Boy I love coffee!” He sings a few lines from the song “Java Jive,” by the Inkspots:
I love coffee, I love tea,
I love the Java Jive and it loves me,
Coffee and tea, and the java and me,
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup,
He tells me the song is by the Mills Brothers, and when he sings it, it’s in his imitation of Al Jolson, whom he saw perform in his childhood, and he smiles a leery grin over his cup.
The Mills Brothers Wikipedia page quotes Herbert Mills saying this about the band in WW2:
“We left England for the last time just three days before war was declared on Germany and the only boat we could get was to Australia. We were overseas from then on except for two months in 1940 and then we went back to South America. We didn’t get back until 1941. In the meantime the Ink Spots were coming up, and people had sort of forgotten us.”
Java Jive, released in 1940 by the Inkspots—was coming out just when the Mills Brothers were starting to feel replaced by them.
During WW2, my father was rationed a bicycle since he lived more than two miles from his school. The Ritvos were also rationed extra gasoline, since my grandfather was a medical doctor. My grandfather’s name was Max and he died from a heart attack, after which I was named to replace him. I wonder if the coffee ration affected us in any way, so I text my dad:
“Did Grandpa Max ever drink coffee?”
He texts back: “Very rarely”
I text him: “What did you guys do with the coffee rations you got in WW2? (I’m writing about coffee)”
He responds “I don’t remember getting any rations for coffee only gas and my bicycle.”
He then calls me, but I turn down the call and text him that I’m busy writing.
I listen to the voicemail he’s left and he says “Your writing? You know what you should write about?” and tells me Ben Carson is saying that if the Jews had guns there wouldn’t have been a holocaust. Dad calls this “Old blame the victim shit” –and says Ben Carson doesn’t realize that Hitler’s rules said Jews couldn’t have guns. I think this was Ben Carson’s whole point—that gun control laws allow Hitlers. But I think my dad thinks Ben Carson was just calling the Jews pussies. My dad ends the message by repeating “Write about this. This would be a great article.”
But my voice is like my mom’s—not like my dad’s. My voice talks about politics when it’s important to those I love. My voice concerns itself with sensual data: sparkly bangles, kimono, and my bloody nose, and my blood tests and stool samples, and the blood tests of other people and their stool samples. The best thing about my voice is how it orders my loved ones into being happy.
And that’s why I get so upset when people offer me biscuits after I tell them I very rarely drink coffee. It happens a lot. I’ve always found the substitution weird—really it’s just another thing to put in your mouth: the similarity between coffee and biscuits ends there. Coffee is a liquid stimulant that gives you diarrhea. Biscuits are a solid food used as a sleep aide and binding agent to facilitate constipation. Why offer two such radically different things as substitutes for one another? Aren’t they supposed to work in concert to provide you with a balanced stomach and palate?
I think people just like having food in their stomachs, but I don’t. I don’t like the sensation of starving, but I hatethe sensation of overfullness. And the sensation of normal hunger is so rare in me. It’s an inappropriate sensation. It’s a selfish, boorish sensation that doesn’t mind all the labor and murder that goes into making food. Eating is a moment where I have to remind myself of my frightening origin as an abuser of the vegetable and animal world. It’s a moment where I plug up my speaking orifice and can’t defend myself nor defend anyone else. And I have to be silent and alone with a flavor. And if it’s a gross bite, I can’t even scream, because my mouth is full of what is disgusting. The people who say ignorance is bliss, and silence is golden, are saying so because when you eat you are ignorant and silent, and those who say it are gluttons who are comfortable shutting up and stuffing themselves and being happy. When people tell me “have a biscuit!” I feel like they’re saying “Shut up” and also “Strip.” I feel naked without my voice, truly naked and without armor, in a way much more upsetting than anyone seeing my body without any of my pretty clothes.
Unfortunately, rumination like this does not cure cancer. Writing does not cure cancer. Food cures cancer, they say. And some people say coffee enemas cure cancer. And other people say chemo. But nobody says writing. I have cancer and writing. I have been trying for a decade now to fit the square peg of pretty words into the round hole of physical illness. I even shave the edges of the square peg by making my words about my body, but I wonder how far this can get me.
I’ve let myself write to you in exchange for making myself finish a bowl of rice—so perhaps that’s how I’ll stay alive. I’ll be a mom saying to a son: “One more bite, and you get to write one more sentence!”
How long have been poetry editor at Asymptote?
Since July 2011. Before that I was a contributing/nonfiction editor. The journal was founded in January 2011 by Lee Yew Leong.
What shapes your decisions about which poems to publish?
The first question I ask is: is the poem a translation? (Asymptote is a journal of translation.) Then I think about whether it is a good translation and that involves many complicated and also intuitive things. The most important factor is whether the translator attends to the form of the original and finds a way to re-imagine it in English, even if that means making up a new form. I care less about apologies for “losses” in translation than the strange excesses generated by this very noble but also dirty work. Walter Benjamin called them “ample folds” (trans. Harry Zohn). I also think about what kind of English a poem has been translated into: what idiom, what dominant/marginalized aesthetic of Anglophone poetry. This has everything to do with whether a translator reads a lot of poetry in English and is aware of their formal choices rather than simply translating “meaning.” There is a lot of guesswork, pretending to understand German just by looking at it, and Google Translate involved in what I do, and this is its joy. But I also I get to consult my brilliant Asymptote colleagues, most of whom know multiple languages and are translators themselves.
We like to publish foreign poets/texts that have not appeared in English before or that challenge popular notions of what, say, Japanese poetry is “supposed to be like.” Also: recovery projects, especially of very old texts; weirdly religious or erotic poetry (often they are the same thing); folk traditions; poetry from endangered languages or any language we have not been able to feature before; non-Anglophone avant-gardes and conceptualisms.
Also! Experimental Translation! I am curating a special feature of texts created through unconventional practices for our January 2016 issue (submission guidelines here).
Do you always write in English or have you ever written Hindi poetry?
I learned Hindi (among other languages) at school and sometimes spoke it with my friends, but English is my native language, so that’s what I write in and translate into. Mainly I translate from French, but I’ve been learning Old English and Latin. If you learn a new language you get to take over a small country; that’s my theory. A small country is born in your head.
What’s your favourite coffee?
South Indian filter coffee.
What’s the vibe in Ottawa tonight?
On verge of federal election…. We’re angsty.
Stephen Harper not that popular amongst Canadian poets?
He says with a smile.
Would you say that you’ve always been a fan of whimsy or is this a recent thing?
For as long as I can remember. I blame Lewis Carroll
The coffee says: DRINK ME.
& I become invisible.
Oh, oh— which celebrity bedroom would you sneak into?
is to eavesdrop on peoples’ conversations for writing fodder.
drat, i should have said time travel. i’d probably find celebrities
tiresome. i wouldn’t mind a peek at Jean Cocteau’s bookshelves, record
collection. or just to sit quietly & nurse my absinthe while Kiki played
at some boite in Montparnasse…
What was the last poem that you had published?
last poem i had published is one from my manuscript, the Gorey Subtext:
There Is A Creature More Powerful Than The Quiingawaga
who can snap the neck
of a youngster or abuse its mind
Emma visits a so-called friend
in her tidy suburban house
but avoids the basement
and the attic for good reason
the flowers in the garden
are well tended
but Emma pricks
her finger on a thorn
& wonders if like Briar Rose
she will sleep
for many years only
to be woken by a
handsome sycophant riding
a giant stallion to compensate
What was the last poem that you wrote?
last poem i wrote is one for my birthday today, which i posted on tumblr…
Soliloquy On A Dark Frosty Morning W/ Promise Of Lightning
hummingbird drunk on red synapse
vibrato galore kindred heartyearn
shoefaded wanderlust no grandiose
bubbly fete required just a moment
of breath say a prayer of gratitude
cue cellos & autumn leaves pink
sunrise crisp solo morning caprice
of the chef black feather lake glass
dried woad shards of bone tarnished
silver spoon sated via illogic leaps
blessing of love & dear friends
an aerie to view the darling city
in slow motion turn from green
to cold twenty four hours painted
in layers of vermilion cochineal rose
madder scarlet & listen….. glisten
Welcome to Team QMT! What are your Thanksgiving plans? Oh, and what can our readers expect from your editorship?
My horoscope for this week is telling me to get extra sleep. Much needed. I plan to be with people I love and drink a lot of wine and go to sleep early. Take care of myself and people close to me. QMT is so cool already. You’ll be seeing more spaces to talk about intimacy and healing, love and how fucked up and brilliant it is. I just did a one pull Tarot reading to answer this question and pulled “The Emperor”. I interpret this as empowerment for the QMT community. Let’s add to it, explore the depths of what language can do, what it fails at and why. Let’s get naked and laugh and cry and get drunk together and feel the roots of where we grow our integrity. Let’s listen to each other. No matter what. More emerging voices, more POC voices, more queer and trans and female voices. Let’s party.
What’s your message for the internet conspiracists who claim that all your poetry is a reaction to all the blue in this video?
Omg. This video is simultaneously so titilating and nauseating. As for the blue, and my poetry, reminds me of a quote from another Blue, a line from Frank Booth in the movie Blue Velvet. “I’ll send you a love letter. You know what that is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin gun! If you get a love letter from me you’re fucked forever!” That’s my kind of blue. I might have to neglect the rest of my day now to watch Up Close and Personal.
If that happens, sales of espresso at Little Zelda on Franklin will surely plummet. Have you got a poem that isn’t about the blue in Céline Dion videos?
Don’t Be Nice To Your Rapist
You’re such a dorky celestial mess.
I’d like to give men something else to jack off to.
I’d like to write, emancipatory, unapologetic
Feminine poetry for men. For little boys.
How do I get rid of this grime?
Real, live, naked, horny girl!
We know what you want before you do.
Feeling bloody is a normal response to it.
We’re pornographers of your inner light
Goddess, and of your biggest fears.
We’re pleasure seekers who dwell in
The deep depths of boy and girl.
I am not shaking like a rabbit hole,
Or like your ex-boy-friend’s missed call.
And I promise I won’t be nice to you if you
Promise you won’t be nice to your rapist.
Have you been following today’s debate on bombing Syria?
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER.
в нашето име u naše ime naším jménem
i vores navn in onze naam in our name
Meie nimi meidän nimi en notre nom
in unserem namen στο όνομά μας
a mi nevünkben in ár nainm
in nostre nome mūsu vārdā mūsų vardu
flisem tagħna w naszym imieniu
em nosso nome în numele nostru
v naším menom v našem imenu
en nuestro nombre i vårt namn
About the Author
Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.