Nov. 3, 2005
Interesting People of Newfoundland
Poem: "Interesting People of Newfoundland" by John Ashbery from Where Shall I Wander: New Poems.© Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission.
Interesting People of Newfoundland
Newfoundland is, or was, full of interesting people.
Like Larry, who would make a fool of himself on street corners
for a nickel. There was the Russian who called himself
the Grand Duke, and who was said to be a real duke from somewhere,
and the woman who frequently accompanied him on his rounds.
Doc Hanks, the sawbones, was a real good surgeon
when he wasn't completely drunk, which was most of the time.
When only half drunk he could perform decent cranial surgery.
There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw.
There was Walsh's, with its fancy grocery department.
What a treat when Mother or Father
would take us down there, skidding over slippery snow
and ice, to be rewarded with a rare fig from somewhere.
They had teas from every country you could imagine
and hard little cakes from Scotland, rare sherries
and Madeiras to reward the aunts and uncles who came dancing.
On summer evenings in the eternal light it was a joy
just to be there and think. We took long rides
into the countryside, but were always stopped by some bog or other.
Then it was time to return home, which was OK with everybody,
each of them having discovered he or she could use a little shuteye.
In short there was a higher per capita percentage of interesting people
there than almost anywhere on earth, but the population was small,
which meant not too many interesting people. But for all that
we loved each other and had interesting times
picking each other's brain and drying nets on the wooden docks.
Always some more of us would come along. It is in the place
in the world in complete beauty, as none can gainsay,
I declare, and strong frontiers to collide with.
Worship of the chthonic powers may well happen there
but is seldom in evidence. We loved that too,
as we were a part of all that happened there, the evil and the good
and all the shades in between, happy to pipe up at roll call
or compete in the spelling bees. It was too much of a good thing
but at least it's over now. They are making a pageant out of it,
one of them told me. It's coming to a theater near you.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally, born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939). He's best known for his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together.
McNally started writing plays, but then put it off to take a job as a tutor for John Steinbeck's children. He thought maybe Steinbeck would give him some advice, but all Steinbeck told him was that playwriting was the worst existence in the world. McNally stuck with it though, and had a series of off-Broadway hits. Then his career hit a slump. He stopped writing and supported himself working on radio shows. He said, "I guess it hadn't occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write playsI thought you could be a playwright and sulk."
Then, one day, someone recognized his voice, and asked him if he was that guy on the radio. He realized that if he didn't keep writing plays, he'd be remembered as some radio personality. So he got back to work and produced Frankie and Johnny, which became his first big hit and was made into a movie.
It's the birthday of the humorist and cultural critic Joe Queenan, born in Philadelphia (1950). He's one of the angriest and funniest contemporary critics of popular culture. His working-class background inspired him to become a critic because, he said, "Blue collar people like me have zero tolerance level for the problems of celebrities."
He had been working a series of manual labor jobs, loading trucks and selling tennis racquets, when he decided to become a journalist. The first thing he published was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal called "Ten Things I Hate about Public Relations." He has gone on to write a series of books criticizing various aspects of American culture, including Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (1992), and Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Selfish History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2001).
Joe Queenan's advice to aspiring writers is, "Don't write until you're 25. Don't write for the high school yearbook. Don't write for the college literary magazine. Don't write that stuffyou never had any experiences, you don't know anything, just shut up."
It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in fancy boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at the Sylvia Beach's bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn't meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn't amount to much. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."
He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure. And then one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures was of the parade honoring Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.
He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why there it is."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®