John Tranter: A Week in New York in 2003
I had spent a week in Britain while my wife Lyn, a literary agent, was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. We met up in Paris for two weeks’ holiday, and then went to New York (my seventeenth visit) for ten days of meetings before we returned to Sydney.
Monday 27 October. New York. It’s a relief to get away from Paris. The French are all so well-dressed that you wonder if there isn’t perhaps a secret municipal regulation: in every city block there shall be four large pharmacies with their identical garish green neon signs, and a pile of dog shit in front of each one; every adult male shall consume one hundred cigarettes and one litre of wine per day, and all adults and children shall be well-dressed and polite in public.
Here in New York, no two people are dressed alike, and everybody is loudly unique. Like sugar in all the food, talking to strangers, and not bothering to vote, it comes with the territory.
7 p.m. A book party at Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Salt Publications from Cambridge England (http://www.saltpublishing.com/) launches three poetry books: English poet John Wilkinson’s new book Contrivances and two books of my work: Studio Moon, a new collection, and Trio, an omnibus compilation of three of my early poetry books from the 1970s, now out of print in the original editions.
New York poet John Ashbery had kindly agreed to say a few words, and as it happens he chooses to read a poem of mine. It is a strange choice, an elegy for Ashbery’s friend Frank O’Hara (he died in the late 1960s), the last word of each line of which is the same as the last word of each line of ‘Buried at Springs’, an elegy for O’Hara by his friend the late James Schuyler. The material in the poem is specifically American, and it felt spooky to hear Ashbery reading out in his American accent my words about two of his dead friends. For a moment the room seemed haunted. In a few days it will be the eve of All Saints’ Day: Allhallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.
Tuesday 28 October. 8.30 p.m. Salt Publications hosts a dinner for fourteen British, Australian and American literary types. There are restaurants in New York whose thick carpets and linen napery muffle the murmur of satisfied diners; this was not one of them. The packed crowd of patrons and the hard walls and tiled floor made conversation with your neighbour a test of the vocal chords. Half way through the evening, perhaps to drown out the sound of four hundred diners shrieking at each other, the disco music was turned up to jackhammer volume. No one was smoking: it’s banned nearly everywhere now, and New Yorkers seem to have given up nicotine overnight. I left with my head ringing and my voice raw. I managed to catch up with old friends and make a few new ones, and talk about lively San Francisco poet Carl Rakosi, who is one hundred next week, a Jacket conference planned for 2004 in England [which never happened: they never do. J.T. 2015], and the competing poetry schools in Britain over the last thirty years.
Wednesday 29 October. 1 p.m. Lunch with young Russian poet Philip Nikolayev, visiting New York from Boston where he is a student. He knew a lot about Australian poetry and wanted to know more, a rare interest in America; but then, he’s not American.
On the sidewalk a block from our hotel someone had scored a word into a slab of freshly-poured concrete a year or so ago, and now it permanently admonishes the public: not a heart with an arrow through it, nor an obscenity, but the Sanskrit characters for the Hindu mantric word ‘Om’, an expression of Brahman, and the symbol of waking, sleep, dreams, silence and fulfilment. As they say here, go figure.
Checking the news from Australia on the Internet, Lyn discovers a minor drama that the local news here glossed over: a recent commuter train delay in New York was caused by a man getting his arm caught in the train toilet while trying to retrieve a mobile phone.
7p.m. Our long-time friend Deborah Treisman, now fiction editor of the New Yorker, invited us to a party at the Housing Works Bookstore (for second-hand books) in Greenwich Village. All the guests brought a book to donate. Profits go to help homeless people with AIDS and HIV. To be homeless in New York in the freezing winter would be awful, and to be mortally ill as well would be unbearable. There are hundreds of mainly young people at this event, all there to help. An auction of signed first editions was started with a speech by Irish-American author Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), who took the opportunity to tell us, in a loud and unsteady Irish brogue, how great it felt to be famous.
Thursday 30 October. 7 p.m. Chinese poet Bei Dao in conversation with Eliot Weinberger at Poets’ House in Greenwich Village. When a poet’s works are not published in his own country, whom does he write for? Lyn and I lived in Singapore for two years in the 1970s, and she pointed out that one issue was not raised by the rather lame audience questions: there is a vast Chinese diaspora, and has been for centuries, most of whose citizens don’t care how China is governed. Bei Dao lives in California, but not in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the locals don’t give a damn about modern poetry. He has a position at the University of California at Davis, respected widely for its expertise in modern agriculture.
Friday 31 October. The date is a gloomy one for me: the anniversary of All Saints’ Eve 1873, the night my favourite poet, Arthur Rimbaud, gave up poetry at the age of nineteen.
7 p.m. Attend the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, which began thirty years ago as a demonstration of gay pride. It looks like something a high school might put on: a jazz band in colourful 1920s outfits, a commercial float advertising a Broadway show, some political protest, and lots of gay men in feathers, all cheerfully amateurish. I was surprised at the absence of drunken aggression compared to Sydney’s crowds on New Year’s Eve. There were police everywhere, and like the rest of the huge milling crowd they were ethnically mixed, laid-back and friendly. By midnight there had not been a single arrest.
Saturday 1 November. A friend who had been staying at our hotel told Lyn about a conversation in the elevator. A large gentleman said to her gravely: ‘Y’know, down in Texas we don’t set much store by the Dalai Lama.’ End of conversation.
Sunday 2 November. News item: a US helicopter has been shot down in Iraq with the loss of sixteen lives.
Midday: the puttering throb of news helicopters circling low overhead. The New York Marathon has filled our hotel with Belgian tourists. Nearby Central Park, where the race finishes, is packed with people. The organisers expect two million spectators, many of them visitors: that’s a lot of income for New York City. Later from our window we can see tired athletes wandering homeward wrapped in sheets of silver foil, and the air is shrill with the howling of ambulances carting away the defeated.
7 p.m. I present a poetry reading and a talk at the Zinc Bar, a dimly-lit cellar on Houston Street. Chris Martin reads first; a young poet who has experimented with the rap format, giving it a more complex and surreal edge. He begins by saying nice things about Jacket magazine. I read some poems and then talk about Ern Malley, a hoax poet invented by two clever young conservative poets to mock the pretensions of avant garde poetry in Australia in 1943, the year I was born. As a young man John Ashbery was inspired by Ern Malley’s poems. Australia’s most celebrated military engagement, Gallipoli, was a bitter defeat; (pronounced guh-LIPP-uh-lee), our most widely-known poet was a cruel and reactionary fabrication. What does that say about Australia? Perhaps it helps to explain our laconic view of life. When I mention that Jacket 17 features all of Ern Malley’s poems, together with a vast range of secondary and archival material including a rare photograph of Ern as a boy, the mainly young audience seems to know that already.
9 p.m. Sushi (a type of food virtually unknown in Japan) with Doug Rothschild, a New York poet who is preparing to give up the literary life in the Big Apple for a role as a carpenter’s apprentice in upstate Albany. An odd choice for a poet in mid-career, but I can understand it. The poetry world in the USA is pitiless: it demands everything, and gives very little in return.
To bed, tired but happy.