“Lives of the Poets II” is a story from William Taylor Jr.‘s collection An Age of Monsters (Epic Rites Press, 2011). Each of the 15 stories includes a photo by Julie Michelle, as below. There will be a release party on Thursday, November 17th at Space Gallery, with readings by William and a group of his friends/favorite local authors.
Jill was about forty five years old. She used to be a lawyer of some kind, maybe still is, I forget. She had a nice apartment on Grant Ave. in the middle of North Beach. She’d had it for over fifteen years, before the rents went really crazy. She was also an artist and a poet. I don’t remember if she was married, but she was having an affair with Ethan, who was most definitely married. Ethan was about fifteen years younger than Jill. He was a poet, too. He wrote poetry and slept with Jill while his wife worked as a pre-school teacher in Berkeley.
There are a lot of poets in San Francisco, or rather a lot of people who label themselves as such. I suppose that’s because San Francisco is one of the few cities in America that will put up with them. Much like the homeless. I have nothing against poets, mind you; I came to San Francisco to be among them. But it’s generally a good rule not to trust anyone who introduces themselves to you as such. Or has it written on their business card. It usually just means they’re unemployed, self-obsessed and have no skills that make them useful in the everyday world. Of course, I wrote poetry, too.
I met Jill and Ethan at Café Trieste in North Beach. It’s the café where all the North Beach poets have been hanging out for the last fifty years or so. Jill and Ethan had seen me perform at a few open mics, and had read my poems in little magazines here and there. Jill approached my table and introduced herself, telling me she liked my work. She said that she and Ethan ran a small, independent press, and asked if I would be interested in publishing a book of poems with them. I said, sure. We shook hands on it and drank cheap wine late into the evening.
Over the next few weeks I gathered together a selection of my work that I was pretty happy with, and tinkered around with it until it felt like a collection. I gave it a title: I Have No Gun, but I Can Spit. I called Jill and told her I had my manuscript, and on the following day met her and Ethan at the café and gave them the stack of poems. Jill glanced through them and seemed happy enough. She said she’d look them over and maybe do some editing and work out the art design and whatnot and get back to me. She called me about a month later and said she had the galleys all ready for me to look at and that I would be very excited about the results. I said, great.
I agreed to meet them the following afternoon at a martini bar on Green Street. I walked from my place in the Tenderloin to Grant, walked up through Chinatown and into North Beach. It was coming up on 4 o’clock when I found the place. It was one of those swanky North Beach bars I usually avoided, mainly because they were frequented by lawyers and Financial District businessmen and women. The kinds of people who could somehow sense I had no money. The place was currently empty except for a bartender and a cocktail waitress, both of them straight out of the glossy magazines. I sat down on a stool and the bartender greeted me decently enough. He gave me a laminated drink menu and I looked at it and thought what the hell and ordered an eight dollar martini. I looked at myself in the wall mirror behind the bar and decided I didn’t look too out of place. My pinstripe jacket and recent haircut were cosmopolitan enough. Besides, I was there to look at the galleys of my new book. I was as entitled to an eight dollar martini as the next guy.
It was about a quarter after four and I had just ordered my second drink when Jill and Ethan appeared. I saw them through the window as they approached the building. They looked to be bickering. They were almost always bickering. Jill walked a few paces ahead, her face tight with irritation, her mouth looking as it was saying angry things. Ethan followed behind, head bowed, a black briefcase in his hand.
When they walked in the bar and saw that I was already there, Jill’s demeanor quickly changed. She was suddenly upbeat and all smiles, in that practiced, intense, somewhat frightening manner she possessed. Ethan offered a nervous smile and a small wave of his hand but quickly reverted to the air of a sulking puppy that had recently been punished. Jill sat down on the stool to the left of mine, and Ethan next to her. Jill shook my hand in that overly enthusiastic businesslike kind of way.
“Ah, Jeffery, great to see you. How’s it going?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Great, great. Sorry we’re late. Ethan misplaced the galleys to your book.” She shot a quick withering glance in Ethan’s direction.
“I didn’t misplace them,” Ethan mumbled in meek defiance. “I just forgot where I had put them.” Jill gave him another glance and he went quiet, his head hung low.
“Goddamn, I need a drink,” Jill said.
“I’d recommend it,” I replied.
She turned to the far end of the bar where the bartender and waitress were leaning and talking. “Hey Walter,” she shouted, I need a goddamn drink!”
The bartender looked up at Jill, a thin smile nearly masking his obvious irritation. “The special?” he asked.
“Damned right the special,” Jill said, lighting a cigarette. As we waited for her drink she talked a bit about how wonderful the bar was and how good the martinis were. I agreed with her as far as the martinis went. I was finishing my second and pawing around in my wallet to see if I could afford a third.
Here was Walter, setting Jill’s drink in front of her. It was an enormous, blue-greenish colored thing served in a pint glass.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“A Blue Bohemian,” Jill replied.
“What’s in it?”
“A little bit of everything, I think. And it’s only five bucks. Want one?”
“Maybe I’ll have a taste of yours, first.”
Jill slid the thing over to me and I picked it up and had a sip. It tasted pretty much as I imagined it would. Overly sweet and very strong. Very blue. I could already feel the beginnings of a hangover. “Sure,” I said, “why not?”
“Walter, get this poet a Blue Bohemian!” Jill shouted.
The waitress seemed slightly amused, and I imagined I saw her snicker a bit. Moments later I had my own overly large, sickly sweet blue drink sitting in front of me. Ethan ordered a glass of white wine and we were ready for business.
“So,” Jill said, turning toward me with her frighteningly tense, overly enthusiastic smile. “We’re really excited about this book, aren’t we, Ethan?”
“Very,” Ethan said dutifully.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas; we’ve done a bit of selective editing, as you’ll see. We think this one is really going to sell for us. She made a motion to Ethan that apparently made sense to him, as he immediately opened up his leather case, pulled out the galleys and handed them to Jill. She gave them a cursory glance and seemed satisfied. She passed them over to me. “So, Jeffery, have a look and tell me your thoughts. Take your time.”
I rifled through the pages set before me and only vaguely recognized my work. I mean, it was still there, somewhere, underneath all the selective edits. In nearly all of the poems, many lines, whole stanzas were crossed out in red pen. Most of the original titles were penned over and replaced. It all seemed a bit haphazard. I stared at them for a while, not saying much of anything.
“What do you think?” Jill eventually asked, with a slight hint of impatience showing through just beneath the surface of her enthusiasm.
“Well,” I said slowly, “some of these edits…”
“Ethan and I thought long and hard about the edits,” Jill quickly cut me off, “and we deemed all of them necessary, right Ethan?”
Ethan fidgeted a bit in his chair and looked slightly uncomfortable, as he said simply, “Very.”
“We told you there would be some editing,” Jill said.
“Yes,” I said, “which is fine, but take this one for instance. You’ve crossed out the whole first stanza.”
“We thought it would be best if the poem fit on one page.”
“But without the first stanza the rest of the poem doesn’t really make sense.”
“Oh, on the contrary,” Jill countered, “the poem is much stronger this way, much less obvious. And it fits all on one page, which is ideal.” She looked over at Ethan.”
“Exactly,” he said on cue.
I shuffled through the rest of the heavily edited pages and most of them I didn’t consider particularly improved over the original versions. Yet for my every objection Jill had a quick and ready rebuttal, to which Ethan would unfailingly lend his support. I eventually ran out of steam and gave in. Maybe they were right. Jill seemed pretty sure she knew what she was talking about, and they say an artist is never the best judge of their own work. So I let them have their edits. They were the publishers. They were paying for the thing. That’s how it worked.
By this time we were ready for another round of the big blue drinks. Ethan ordered another glass of white wine. “All right, on to the cover, then,” Jill said once the new drinks had arrived. “I think you’re going to like it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s see.”
Jill pulled out a mockup of the cover which consisted mostly of an ink drawing, done by Jill, of a woman standing outside a bar. It was a simple black ink line drawing with the exception that the woman’s stockings were colored red.
“It’s a woman standing outside of a bar,” Jill said.
“You know, because a lot of your poems are about women and bars and stuff.”
“Yes, I get it.”
The drawing was fine. I had no problem with the drawing. But the title on the cover was not the title I had chosen for the collection. The cover said Poems Written While Drunk in The Bedroom of a Whore.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“The title,” Jill said.
“But it’s not the title,” I said.
“Ethan and I agreed that this would work much better as a title for this particular collection.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I like the original title better.”
“The other title is…fine,” Jill said, “perhaps just a bit…abstract for this particular collection.”
It’s from a poem by W. H. Auden, I said. I think it works with the collection very well.”
“O, yes, of course, I understand the title, and I’m as big a fan of Auden as they come, but I think it will be lost on today’s younger readers. That’s the audience we’re shooting for; the disaffected youth of today.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well,” said Jill, now thoroughly irritated by my rebellion, “think on it a bit. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about here.”
I didn’t say anything else right away. Then my eyes found the bottom of the cover where my name was printed. It said Jeffery Robbins. My name was Jeffery Robins Jr. There was no Jr. on the cover.
“There’s no Jr.” I said.
“What?” Jill asked, pretending not to understand. I saw Ethan shoot her a quick nervous glance.
“My name. You left out the Jr. My name is Jeffery Robbins Jr.”
“Well, technically, yes, but Ethan and I talked about this for quite some time and decided it would be best to drop the Jr.”
“But that’s my name. Jeffery Robbins Jr. My dad is Jeffery Robbins Sr. I am Jr.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t really work with what we’re trying to do here,” Jill spoke as if explaining something to a precocious child. “The whole Jr. thing just isn’t really…in…these days. It’s kind of frowned upon. We want to take your work in a new direction.”
“What about Hank Williams Jr.” I asked. “He kept the Jr.”
“That’s all well and good in the country music world; you’ll find plenty of Jr.’s there. But the literary world is something completely different.”
“What about Hubert Selby Jr.?”
“Hubert Selby Jr. Last Exit to Brooklyn. One of the best American novels of the twentieth century.”
“Hubert Selby Jr. (she spoke his name as if he were someone she personally knew and did not particularly approve of) is a completely different matter. We’re talking contemporary poetry here.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Look,” Jill said, “Ethan and I have worked really hard on this project and we’ve put a lot of thought into it on every level. We just want the book to sell, that’s the bottom line. We believe in your work and we want the book to sell.”
“And it will sell without the Jr. but not with the Jr.?”
I gave in. We dropped the Jr. I tried to haggle a bit over the title and some of the edits but Jill held her ground on all of it. After another round of big blue drinks I was no match for her. She was, or used to be, a lawyer after all. It felt as if we were discussing some multi-million dollar movie contract instead of a little small press poetry chapbook with a print run of 200 copies. But I eventually just allowed myself to fall under Jill’s spell. We’d drop the Jr. and sell a million copies. All right. Strategic concessions must be made.
By this time we were all reeling from the effects of our big blue drinks, and evening was coming on. The after work crowd was starting to file into the bar. A lot of men in suits talking loudly about things that killed the soul.
“Okay,” Jill said, “I think that about does it for now. Oh, wait. One more thing. We want a photo for the back cover.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Do you know any hip looking girls?”
“Can you get any hip looking girls for the photo shoot?”
“Um, maybe?” I said.
“We want a photo of you at a bar, smoking and drinking beer or whiskey or something. And we want there to be a few hipster girls sitting on either side of you. Kind of a Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski kinda thing.”
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
Jill looked at me as if I were a complete fool. It’s just for the picture. It’ll sell the goddamn book.”
“Maybe I should change my name to Charles Waits,” I said.
“Or Tom Bukowski,” Ethan offered in a tiny voice.
Jill gave him another hard look. “Let’s meet here on Friday at four o’clock,” she said, gathering up her stuff. “I know a photographer who’ll do it for free. Don’t forget to bring some girls.”
“Okay,” I said.
And then they were gone. I sat at the bar flanked by men in business suits on either side. I finished my last big blue drink and stepped out into the North Beach evening. It was official. I had sold out. It made me feel important, somehow, as if I had reached the next level in my immortal literary career. I figured I’d walk over to Café Trieste and hang out with the rest of the big shot poets for a while. With any luck there’d be some hipster girls who wanted to get their picture taken.