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I have never met Kent Johnson, but I feel like I have, since writing these pieces inspired by his book I Once Met*. After reading I Once Met I wrote to Kent. We corresponded somewhat and eventually I told him that he’d written a fantastic book which I and many others greatly admired, and sent him a few examples of my own I Once Met entries. He wrote back to say “That was good news in your email. The bad news is that it looks like your I Once Met book is going to be better than mine… Thanks a lot :~)”
Don’t believe it for a second. Kent is prone to obfuscation, shameless flattery, and hyperbole, which probably explains why he is such a good poet. The wit here does not match Kent’s, nor his ability to capture the voice of other poets, as he’s done extensively in his book Epigramititis.
These entries are intended more to compliment the existing I Once Met collection, and as homage to the excellent idea of capturing glimpses of poets and the things that they say to each other.
* Kent Johnson’s I Once Met was published in a beautiful hand-set edition in 2007 by Longhouse Books, Vermont: http://www.longhousepoetry.com/. It is also available online at Almost Island: http://almostisland.com/archives/2007-monsoon/prose/i_once_met.php
As a young man, I came back from several years living in a mud hut. I’d had only a few poetry books with me during that time, including one by Charles Simic, and one by Michael Ondaatje. I wrote letters to them both, thinking also about applying to study writing, of which they were both teachers. I got back two handwritten postcards, neither of which I could read.
Poet and translator Alistair Noon organizes the Poetry Hearings in Berlin. He came to perform in Amsterdam and crashed on the couch. In the process he left his Pokémon towel at my house, which was funny because he’d been telling me how this ridiculous frayed towel had accompanied him around the world. The towel was washed / folded and stayed in my closet until a few years later I went to read in Berlin. I incorporated the towel into the reading, as a prize for a pop quiz, because Alistair was in the audience. There was a brief silence as I held up the towel, before someone at the back protested “Hey!, that’s my towel.”
I’ve never met poet Scott Pierce of Effing Press, although we’ve corresponded. He once sent me an email with “cralan, owls are shitting on my house!” in the subject heading – possibly the best subject heading I’ve ever received. My last message to his mail account bounced. I hope we get in touch again. The last time he sent me an envelope it included beer mats that he’d letter-pressed with Effing Press on them.
I once met Susan Howe, we’d both just had books out from Coracle. She is perhaps the nicest poet I have met in person. I wonder if Susan Howe would object to being called “the nicest poet I have ever met in person”?
Gwyneth Lewis and I we were reading together at Todd Swift’s Oxfam series in London, Todd being “a real gentleman” in Johnson’s terminology. In between poets Gwyneth mentioned to me that she was the Poet Laureate of Wales and that one of her poems had been printed on what was thought to be the largest known printing of a poem ever - on a banner outside the national library in Cardiff. Two impressive facts. Chris McCabe was also at that reading. I couldn’t interpret the inaudible reaction of the crowd that night. I had made small illustrations to accompany my poems on yellow post-it notes during the plane ride over, and held them up between poems for the audience to see. Afterwards Chris told me “You took some people with you and left some behind. Not a bad thing.”
I once met Simon Cutts and Erica van Horn. I visited their home in Tipperary where Coracle Press lives. Erica was weeding Rucola [Rugola, also known as Arugola, Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa, family Brassicaceae. — Ed.] which the British mysteriously call Rocket, out of a gravel pathway. Simon said – you could weed the grass to spell out Rocket, to which Erica responded by speaking to herself out loud; I am not Ian Hamilton Finlay, I am Erica van Horn.
I once met Chrétien Breukers, who’d just edited an anthology of Dutch poetry. We were reading on the same evening for the Utrecht Literary Society. Chrétien’s new anthology was launching that night. I was invited around the theme of poetry on the internet, and started by mentioning Dutch Poet Martijn Benders, a friend of mine who lives on an island in the Bosphorus Straits outside Istanbul, and uses the internet a to participate in the poetry world. I noticed some commotion after I mentioned Martijn, but continued reading in a strange atmosphere until somebody came up and interrupted me to say they were short on time. Later somebody explained to me that Chrétien and Martijn were arch-enemies, which was news to me, and hence Chrétien having stormed out complaining that I was ruining his launch. Afterwards I made to speak to Chrétien about it, to clear the air, but he turned away, and didn’t respond to my email in which I apologized for ruining his night.
I once read a poem by poet and translator Mark Terrill, in Paragraph magazine. The poem was so good I invited Mark to come for a reading. Mark came to visit and played with our daughter, who was just barely talking but kept saying “mooi hoed, mooi hoed” nice hat, nice hat, about his large-brimmed hat. This visit and his buddhistic approach to writing were in great contrast to his days 15 years previous coming through Amsterdam partying with chicks and coke as road manager for the American Music Club and various other bands.
I once met Christian Bök, at RGAP – the Small Publishers Fair in London. We were both reading, he performed an amazing piece of sound poetry from a score; Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate”. Afterwards the audience exploded with applause and leapt to their feet. A tough act to follow. We drank a pint and Christian told me about numerous prizes he’d won. His book Eunoia had sold the most copies of a poetry book in Canada ever. Ever! Geraldine Monk was there too; she drank me under the table before we even got to the Italian restaurant in Covent Garden. The total bill at the end was something like 700 British pounds. Yes, there were 20 of us, but ￡700! Vincent Katz was also visiting RGAP that year. He gave me the first three issues of Vanitas magazine, very beautiful books. I tried to give him some money because I didn’t have any books or magazines with me to trade. After an awkward minute or so he said “Look, I’d like to give these to you – do you want them or not?”
I once met Xaviera Hollander – she invited me to read poetry as entertainment before a play she was producing. I sorted some work out and showed up with a few poems, which I read to the assembled audience. I remember one of the poems had something about sex in it and afterwards Xaviera said that if I came to read again I should read something a little less racy. That surprised me, this being the author of The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, and a Penthouse columnist for 35 years.
We used a poem by poet and teacher Julian Stannard in a magazine I was editing, a great poem about a trip to Rome which involved buying a statue of Mussolini’s head. He came to read the poem at a launch party, and it was just as good as I thought. These are my favorite lines from the poem: “They wanted three thousand Euros for the Duce / but―hah!―I beat them down, I beat them down!”
I once read poetry in an ice cream parlor in Utrecht during the Culture Days. This was probably due to a misunderstanding on my part. The ice cream parlor was open for business as usual and there were a lot of children present. I don’t remember meeting anybody in particular although at one point a group of motorcycles revved by and this allowed me to transition into sound poetry and screaming for ice cream.
I’ve never met Naomi Shihab Nye, but I send her occasional poems in an emailing called “1 minute for poetry” to which she responds with the most enthusiastic and kind words of anybody I share poems with. She seems to be an incredibly kind and energetic person, peppering her communications with exclamation marks. She inscribed a book for me with “5,000 minutes for poetry!” I bought one of her children’s books for my daughter. I hope they meet one day.
I once met poet and scientist Toby Kiers, she was the most beautiful girl ever. Now she is my girlfriend, we have two kids, Fern Crash and Linus Rocket. It can be tricky to remember all the things we said to each other. Toby first showed me Richard Brautigan books. We both wish we’d met Richard Brautigan.
I’ve never met Tess Gallagher, although I did write her a letter, asking permission to use a poem of Raymond Carver’s in a magazine. She responded with the address of a publisher who would organize permission. I wrote back explaining that this was a small literary magazine without commercial interest, the kind to which Raymond contributed extensively during his lifetime, and included a copy of a rebuttal one of our editors had written defending Raymond Carver against a disparaging review. I received back a letter from her personal assistant asking for $175.00, to which I have not yet responded.
Artist Ian Whittlesea and I were at the Vinyl installation in Cork. I asked him how he was doing. He told me he’d been feeling depressed that day and so had sought out the company of the loneliest-looking person he’d been able to find. That person turned out to be an Italian grad student who’d been in Cork for 6 months and hadn’t spoken to a single person that whole time.
I once met poets Kyle Schlesinger of Cuneiform and Charles Alexander of Chax press at RGAP – the Research Group on Artists Publications. This was in Conway Hall, the birthplace of organised Humanism. Kyle and Charles, who in Kent Johnson’s words would undoubtedly be gentlemen, were the two nicest people I met in London. Having sort of teamed up as the American contingent Kyle and Charles read together, and so I got to man their book tables and “be” them for 30 minutes. That was enlightening. During that time my friend Chris McCabe came by and purchased pretty much the whole stock from both presses for the Poetry Library for maybe a thousand pounds and I didn’t even get a commission! At least I can lay claim to having furthered the cause of Poetry through commerce. Chris is a very fine poet and wordsmith. He showed me around the Poetry Library where he has worked for five years, even though it was closed for renovation. That was a kind thing to do. The Southbank Centre Poetry Library on the Thames has the largest collection of little magazines I have ever seen, housed in these tremendous rolling metal tiers which have submarine-hatch spinning wheels.
I have never met the gentleman poet and botanist-librarian Jeffrey Beam, although I am looking forward to it very much. We’d been writing letters to each other, and he sent me a beautiful package containing Jargon Society books, which was especially exciting, the Jargon Society being what it is. Jeffrey was their official historian and compiled an addictive collection of Jonathan Williams quotes called A Hornet’s Nest after his death in 2008. One package contained CDs of Jeffrey reading his own poetry and I was struck by how perfect his voice is for the task. Such a relief when my friends turn out to be good at what they do.
Clark Morgan playwright and Crispin Bonham Carter actor. What can I say about people I’ve known for twenty years? Their constant need to ridicule me is probably based on professional jealousy. We recently reunited for a poetry performance at the StAnza Festival in St. Andrews, the fishing village in Scotland where we met at college putting on plays. I was unable to attend at the last minute due to an imminent birth. Clark and Crispin replaced me with an up-ended mop.
I once met Les Murray at a reading in Glasgow, he leaned his stomach over the lectern making it a part of his body and delivered a wonderful reading. There were two short poems in particular I liked, a love poem and a poem about an ampersand as a rocking chair, I think. Afterwards I asked him if we could use them in a magazine. He said sure, of course. Several other people nodded, acknowledging that he was an enthusiastic supporter of small mags. I sent a sample copy off to Australia, followed up with a few emails asking for the poems, and never heard a thing back.
I once met Gary Snyder. Bob Arnold and I went to Northampton to see Gary read. After the reading I was telling Bob about a class I had taken 5 years earlier with Snyder at UC Davis. Bob said “you should go up there and say hello”. I hesitated as there were a lot of people waiting to have books signed. Bob was insistent, he thought Gary would like to see a familiar face from California. Eventually we went up on the stage to where he was sitting and I introduced myself. Snyder replied “I never taught that class.” Pretty good as far as awkward moments go. I must have turned red. I definitely felt my ears burning. I’d just met Bob for the first time and he’d published a book of mine and here I was being made out a fool. I said “Yes, you did,” Snyder said “No, I didn’t,” to growing discomfort. Eventually I lost my cool and rattled off a few things to jog his memory, including that his son and I were both doing research in the same region of southern Africa, and that the ms I’d submitted for the class had been published as a book which I’d then sent to him. Eventually he relented and said “Oh, yes, I remember, I heard you were working in Australia,” which was a reference to somebody else in my ecology cohort. The rebuke was especially heartbreaking because at the time of the class my head had swollen with pride when Snyder told me that I would turn out like Nanao Sakaki eventually if I kept on the same path.
I never met Alan Ginsberg, but I heard Gary Snyder tell a story about him: when they were both young and Alan was staying at Gary’s rented cottage in Berkeley, Gary came home to find Alan having opened and reading his mail. “Alan,” Gary said, “what are you doing? That’s my mail. Mail is private.” Alan responded by telling Snyder that if he wanted to be a writer he would have to learn that nothing was private for writers, who have to explore everything in the search to understand and write. A few years later Louise Landes Levi showed me a video recording of Ginsberg giving a reading. It struck me that Ginsberg was sitting down. After that I noticed that everybody used to sit down when giving poetry readings. When did we all start standing up?
I’ve never met Italian poet Walter Francesci, with whom I correspond. He was in Amsterdam once and didn’t look me up, explaining afterwards that he suffered from shyness. Another time he wrote an email to me, apologizing on behalf of Italy, for the behavior of an Italian bus driver in Amsterdam. The driver had almost run my bicycle off the road, and I had written a poem about that which Walter had seen.
Tibetan poet Tsering Wangma Dhompa and I met in San Francisco. We had lunch in Front Street park, where the wild flock of parrots hang out. She told me that America made her feel lonely through the lack of contact people have with each other. In order to remedy this, she’d started a new initiative at her office, by encouraging her colleagues to walk to work together. She lived the furthest away and would pick up two other colleagues on the way to work every morning.
I’ve never met Kent Johnson, but I’m pleased for him that Sarah Palin denounced him by name as being un-American.
Louise Landes Levi is a poet, translator, & musician. We met in Amsterdam in the Red Light District, at a poetry BE-IN she hosted for a week. Louise is very worldly and lives at times in Amsterdam, New York, northern Italy, and Venezuela, often in attendance of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. The last time we met we wrote a poem together, documenting our plans to travel and meet in Italy, at the Franco Beltrametti Foundation. She’s working on my favorite book: Louise and the Cruel Buddhists. Louise told me a great story about Ira Cohen parading around the Red Light District 25 years ago in a cape and top hat. She also hung out with Michaux, but that’s a different story. Did I mention the purple sunglasses she always wears?
I once met Simon Vinkenoog, the elderly spokesperson of Dutch poetry who recently passed away. We were both performing at the House of Poetry Festival in Utrecht. He was reading a newspaper in the dressing room. I introduced myself, saying that we had a friend in common, Louise Landes Levi. We small-talked a bit, I mentioned I’d traveled to London to see Louise play saranghi the previous week. “Are you a musician?” he asked, “No,” I said, “I“”m a poet.” “Oh, you’re a poet… How do you know Louise?” “We have the same publisher,” I said. “You have a publisher,” he said, looking up from his paper “Yes,” I said, “we have the same publisher in America,” whereupon he looked up at me for a moment, peering over his reading glasses, “you have a publisher in America!” he said, before returning to his newspaper.
Tsead Bruinja is a fine Frisian poet. He came to our poetry series in Amsterdam and read a wonderful poem likening poetry readings to staff meetings, which made me laugh out loud.
I once met Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon on the same night. This was about ten years ago, a reading in a cultural center in the Haight, I’d been reading a book of Alexie’s poetry and wanted to hear him read it aloud. Michael read first, an early chapter from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a compelling piece about his brother jumping into the Vltava river in Prague in winter, whilst practising a magic trick. Next Sherman read a piece about a old Indian hitchhiker getting picked up by a younger Indian on a business trip, and an awkward rendezvous in their motel room. Both writers had pieces in a recent edition of the New Yorker, America’s 20 most promising writers, or something similar. After the reading, all 23 people in the room, mostly American Indians, got up and stood in a line to have books signed by Alexie. I walked to the other side of the room, to talk with Michael. “That was great,” I said, “I grew up in Holland and visited Prague in the 80s. I was there the weekend of the Velvet Revolution. When were you there?” But Chabon wasn’t listening to me, he was watching Alexie and the line of readers across the room. “That’s why they call him the Sherminator,” his publicist, or the organizer, was telling him. I got in line to meet Alexie as well. When I got up there I somehow forgot anything I had wanted to say. “I really like your poetry it’s very funny humor is hard to write in poetry,” I blurted out. Sherman didn’t say anything, what could he say? I handed him a copy of the New Yorker to sign, “I don’t have any work in this issue, they are just giving them away, but I’ll sign it for you if you like.” he said.
I have met the evolutionary biologists Ashleigh Griffin & Stuart West. We went to their garden plot in Edinburgh and harvested salad for lunch. We had a great time making fun of Creationists and making jokes about a town in the Netherlands called Rectum, the existence of which we had discovered on a map. It would perhaps be giving the game away to say that my wife is also an evolutionary biologist. For dessert we made a pie with a base of salty caramel which I will never forget. It all started because we were eating salty caramel balls from a chocolate shop.
I once met Bob and Susan Arnold who are Longhouse Publishers. Longhouse published the original I Once Met book. We read poetry with Greg Joly on the sidewalk in Brattleboro, ate burritos, and went to their beautiful home, built piece by piece and stone by stone, to house one of America’s most interesting poetry collections. Bob is the Real McCoy. To my astonishment and inspiration, Bob told me that since he and Susan had been married they had not spent a night apart for more than thirty years!
I went to visit Richard Aaron, of amhere books. I knocked on the door of his poetry warehouse in Philo. He opened the door quickly like the White Rabbit, and asked me what I wanted. When I explained that I wanted to look at the more than 40,000 poetry and books and lit mags housed there, he asked me why. He once had a job to compile a library with a copy of every poetry book published in English in North America and the UK in the twentieth century, which ended up close to a million books. My dad is a bottom-line kind of guy. He once visited Richard, without telling me, and asked him if I could write. Richard looked at some of my poems and said “yeah, but you can’t make any money writing poetry.” Later Richard told me about typing up a Berrigan manuscript for publication and feeling blue light fly from his fingertips.
I once met Ira Cohen and Richard Aaron in the same night. I was visiting Richard’s home and he was puzzling over Ira Cohen, who (he said) was supporting the war on terrorism in some New Yorker way, when the phone rang and it was Ira Cohen of course, from 3,000 miles away, basically wanting to know why Richard was talking shit about him. I was pretty surprised. Richard wasn’t surprised by his old friend’s apparent telepathy.
I’ve never met Ron Silliman, but I was reading N/O one night in bed and switched on my computer to send him an email, he responded immediately and thinking how amazing internet was, I sent him a copy of a magazine I was editing. I never heard back from him. Why does enthusiasm wane so quickly? Email seems to be a sort of electronic blurt that may or may not hold the other person’s attention.
I once met Sunnylynn Thibedoux, in Berkeley, I hadn’t understood that she was a real person. I thought that Kevin Opstedal and Michael Price invented her for Blue Press, and made up her poems themselves. Sunnylynn is very real and nice! What a cool name!
Kevin Opstedal and I were reading in Berkeley. Micah Ballard came along with Sunnylyn Thibadeux and Patrick Dunnagan. They sat in the front row and Patrick heckled Noel Black’s poems which Owen Hill was reading from the lectern. Owen was Noel Black for the day because Noel’s flight was delayed from Colorado. After the reading Micah was looking at the books I had to sell, and picked up a small pile. He offered me $6, all the cash he had, saying that he thought books should be free. Fair enough, as he’d given me a large pile of books from his Auguste Press for free that day already. I said “That’s poetic,” taking his money, and Kevin laughed.
I’ve never met Russell Edson, but I once asked him for some poems for a magazine I was editing. I called him on the telephone, turns out you can find anybody’s details in the Directory of Writers. He said sure, and sent some poems, recalling that he’d once come to Holland for Poetry International, which he recalled with some annoyance that it’d been a rather big production and a long way to come for a fifteen-minute reading. To thank him for the poems, I sent him a copy of my first book to which he responded: “Congratulations, your first book! Don’t worry, it will be a number of books after this first one before you start to think of them as baggage. It’s something that has to ripen over the years: ‘Time, the bringer, finally ruins everything.’ Meanwhile, one’s first book is a wonderful time.”
I went to Kevin Opstedal’s house in Palo Alto and dropped off a box of Encounter magazines from London in the sixties I thought he might enjoy. His house was empty except for piles of books and magazines everywhere. What a great guy! He’s got “The Poems” tattooed on his arm. He gave me his last copy of Augustus Truhn’s Magazine, which he had published. I had shown my copy to Gary Snyder who saw that Joanne Kyger had a piece in it, and kept it, giving me ten dollars, which I immediately spent on lunch.
I once met Beau Sia, and asked him about a book of poems he wrote making parody of a book of poems by Jewel. He told me that he’d seen her some years later at an MTV awards festival and she wasn’t really angry anymore, because she’d said "hey, motherfucker."
I once met the artist and bookseller Jan Voss, this was at his first birthday party. He’d dropped dead and been resuscitated a year earlier, and was celebrating the event. That was three years ago and I still attend those parties. He can often be found manning the ship at Boekie Woekie bookstore on the Berenstraat in Amsterdam.
I never met Emmett Williams, but we recorded a Videoschrift on the occasion of his 80th birthday at Boekie Woekie in which we took turns reading from his work, and sent to Berlin on a VHS cassette for him to watch. He came to Amsterdam shortly after that, but to great sorrow had to be medivaced out of the third story of Jan Voss’ house on the Geldersekade and went home directly, as his health was deteriorating and he passed away not so long after that.
Julie Johnstone had kindly invited me to read at the Scottish Poetry Library, an architectural marvel, a bright glade of glass in a well lit place. Julie said we could invite any Scottish poets I could think of… so Alec Finlay and Thomas A Clark were both invited. Alec came up from Newcastle with his dog, and read a poem by Creeley, something about driving cars in America, and as he read a line about speeding away, a real car revved its engine outside the building and sped off. Thomas came down from Pittenweem in Fife, said something about Alec and I being young whipper-snappers with whom he couldn’t keep up, and then read the most incredible set of poems he’d written just for the occasion, about a boat journey out to an island.
I would have liked to meet Raymond Carver and Mac Hammond, both of whom wrote poems about going mad and getting drunk in Palo Alto before they passed away. I would’ve also gone mad in Palo Alto if my family hadn’t moved away when I was a teenager. Other people I wanted to meet before they passed on were Ted Berrigan, Ross Feld, John Weiners, Nanao Sakaki, Philip Whalen, Cid Corman, and Paul Blackburn. I realise they might be more accessible in their books than in real life, but I would be willing to take that risk.
I once met Cralan Kelder, in northern Wollo, Ethiopia, where we pulled up at a USAID World Food Programme distribution site, where people receive food drops in return for labor. The compensation is $0.60 a day in return for hard labor on roadworks & irrigation projects. Every adult can work for 5 days p/month, meaning $3 per month hard cash and a kilo of grains, cooking oil, pulses, maybe details don’t matter, to hungry people food is food. So we pull up as grain distribution is getting underway, people from miles round with donkeys, some waiting since dawn for their share, to take back to villages and divvy out, hungry people, the delays have been months, and even today, it’s already after noon. Hundreds of white 50kg sacks are piled by the road, containing cereal meal; wheat / sorghum or barley. We pull up the vehicle, my friends Kiran & Teddy head off to find the manager, conduct our research about distribution strategies, logistics. I get out a minute later, want to follow, but I am the white man, whereas Kiran is Indian, and Teddy is Ethiopian… and thinking I am the one responsible for the food, people begin to follow me, hundreds and hundreds of them, crowd around waiting for me to say something, but crushed I realise that I am not Jesus, and at that crucial moment, have absolutely nothing to say, can only think Life of Brian, and inappropriate jokes. I stand looking back at the crowd surrounding me, pressing in, staring, expectant. At thirty yards I can see Kiran and Teddy, whom I am trying to reach, can see that they are clearly enjoying my predicament. Eventually crowd control is necessary — scuffles ensue, a lot of shouting, apparently the crowd thinks that I can speed up distribution, a situation exacerbated by the Kalashnikov-wielding guards who shout, I am later told, “Back off, this is the donor and if you don’t back off you’ll get no food,” until I am whisked away into the warehouse, like some kind of teenage pop star.
Cralan Kelder pictured here with daughter Crash in Amsterdam where they live. Recent publications include Autobahn Children (Blue Press Books) and French Pastry (Coracle) which documents a trip across america as seen through the eyes of a politically-minded croissant, and includes lovely illustrations by Erica van Horn.