May 19, 2009

Mingus at the Showplace

by William Matthews

I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat

literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,

casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.

So I made him look at the poem.
"There's a lot of that going around," he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn't look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
if they were baseball executives they'd plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children. Of course later

that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.

"We've suffered a diminuendo in personnel,"
he explained, and the band played on.

"Mingus at the Showplace" by William Matthews, from Time and Money: New Poems © Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult, (books by this author) born in Nesconset on Long Island (1966). She said, "I had a ridiculously happy childhood growing up in the suburbs of New York City. I think I'm drawn to writing about dark subjects because I have this wonderful safety net in my home life and family — I don't live these things, so I'm willing to walk on the wild side. I also think that superstitiously, if I attack a subject fictionally, maybe I'm immune to it personally." She studied English at Princeton, and she wanted to be a writer but she didn't think she could earn a living at it, so she worked at an ad agency, as a financial analyst, a textbook editor, and an eighth-grade teacher.

When she was pregnant with her first daughter, she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992). She has published 15 novels since then, averaging almost one a year, including Mercy (1996), My Sister's Keeper (2004), Nineteen Minutes (2007), and her most recent, Handle with Care (2009). Two of her novels made their debut at #1 on the New York Times best seller list.

She said, "I write quickly, but I also do not believe in writer's block, because once I didn't have the luxury of believing it. When you only have 20 minutes, you write, whether it's garbage, or it's good … you just do it, and you fix it later."

It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Nora Ephron, born in New York City (1941). She has written and directed movies including When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You've Got Mail (1998). Her newest film will come out later this year: Julie and Julia,about the life of Julia Child, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Nora Ephron said, "What my mother believed about cooking is that if you worked hard and prospered, someone else would do it for you."

It's the birthday of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1930). She's best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago. She wrote it when she was 28 years old, and it was the first play produced on Broadway that was written by a black woman.

It's the birthday of Malcolm X, (books by this author) born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925), one of eight children. In 1946, he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was 21 years old.

An older inmate at the prison told Malcolm to take the time he was in prison to educate himself, and so he started to read books from the prison library. His vocabulary was too limited for some of the books, so Malcolm copied out an entire dictionary word for word.

Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam through his siblings, and he started corresponding with its founder, Elijah Mohammad. He took on the name "Malcolm X" to symbolize his lost tribal heritage.

But in 1964, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam when he learned that Elijah Muhammad was having affairs with many women at once, completely against his own teachings and rules. That same year, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. For the first time, he related to people of all races, and he came back to America with a new message. He stopped preaching separatism, and instead called for people to work together across racial lines.

At the end of 1964, throughout many conversations, Malcolm X dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley. The book was almost finished when, in February of 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed by members of the Nation of Islam while he was speaking at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. A few months later Alex Haley published The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). In 1992, Spike Lee directed Malcolm X, based on the book.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »