I don’t know if he was really as mean as he made himself out to be. Certainly his scared up face and knuckles and the scared up stanzas he dropped onto his notebook pages like spurting blood indicated that he’d been through it more than once. One time not long after I’d met him and paid the ten bucks for an hour’s worth of abusive critiquing he’d looked me in the eyes and said,
“I don’t really write poetry. I just lance the blisters on my heart and shape the puss into words. You on the other hand clearly spend your time masturbating with a pen in the library and then bring this shit to me and call it poetry.”
The ever present glow of his cigarette in the dark bar we met in never went out. He’d hunch over my work chin resting in his smoking hand as he flicked away the ashes along with my words. His blockish head would shake like the helmet of some Norse warrior god in battle as he muttered, “bunch of flowery limpid shit,” before digging his pencil into my pages to blacken out huge sections of my poems. When he’d finished he’d shove what was left across the rough table top and glower at me. These were the only times I ever saw him smile. Dirty teeth would appear through his slightly parted lips and beard and he’d raise his bushy white eyebrows. Then he’d lay his heavy forearm with all the broken up knuckles attached at the hand in the middle of the table and leaning slowly towards me never taken his eyes off of mine. There was a spark, but it was colder than the winter rains that fell on Seattle outside. I’d always lean away and say, “Thank you,” quietly.
This disappointed him. He wanted a reaction, crying, punches thrown, me to storm out of the bar, but I never did. Enduring his contempt for my writing was my personal Gallipoli.
And though my writing was shredded what little bit survived his pencil was truly alive, something I could nurse into a pulsating breathing work I hoped. Immediately after my non-reaction he’d order our first pitcher of beer. He never drank while critiquing. I hated beer, but I was too scared to tell him.
“Lackey,” he’d roar, “Bring us a flagon of mead.”
Manny, the knifed up Haitian bartender would bring a pitcher of skunky smelling beer called Gutted Goat’s Piss. Manny would try and talk to us sometimes. Without looking at him he’d say something like, “I fucked his wife in the ass this morning. “ Manny would laugh uncomfortably and slink away back to the bar. “He thinks I’m kidding,” he’d say after Manny left.
Then he’d start into the beer. He’d pour the first round and I knew that was all I’d get even though by the time I left he would down three more pitchers, which I always paid for at the end of the night. When he was in the mood, always after the first round he’d talk.
“You’re words aren’t lace dollies. Stop reading the pretty boys and the bitchy feminists that don’t have a point to make. And cut out the abstract word farts. If you’re in pain, emotional, physical, existential, whatever, use your words to ram the knife home right between my ribs. You get it?”
One time he told me about his brother Darren.
“My kid brother, the typical knucklehead and psychopath you’d expect to ooze out of my parent’s rotten gene pool, but good looking and charming when he needed to be. He was sixteen when he finally ate it. Stole a car one night, or I should say, he tried to steal it. Hell, he only got as far as busting out a window, a candy blue ’66 Impala. Anyway, neither of us noticed the owner of said car had perfect line of sight from his third floor apartment. It was the mushrooms you see and the beer, so much that I’d already pissed myself earlier in the evening. I think it was a 30–06 that took his head off. The top of it at least. Boy I ran that time. Never caught me neither. I hopped a freighter all the way up to Juneau. Point is that was my knife, at least one of them. That got me writing, got me to sit down and start writing. That’s what you need. “
I just sat there nodding not knowing what to say. The long sad bitchy poems I wrote mostly about my mother and ex-boyfriends seemed pathetic and cheesy as a muse compared with this one little story he’d told me. And somehow I knew there were probably a lot more just like that one that drove his tight brutal words out on to the page. I knew that he’d only published four chapbooks in a dozen years, but they seemed to sell well enough to keep him in the Spartan drunkard lifestyle that he favored. One time a few months after we’d started the critiquing sessions and he was in an almost friendly drunk I got up the nerve to ask him about his writing process. He looked at me hard for a moment before answering. “You see all this shit.” he said stabbing the long blacked out lines of my latest poem. “Four and half years of that on my own stuff before I published my first shitty poem.”
Then he turned over his right hand and showed me his palm. Deep thick calluses ran across all of his fingers where I imagined he’d gripped a pencil while scratching out his own words. And I knew my writing had no heart. He was right. I was spinning pretty intellectualisms meant to sound clever but had no bite or teeth even.
And this went on and on for months. Nothing of importance came out. Dismissively he said of my latest work, “The other night I pissed on my keyboard. My computer shorted out and when I finally got the fucker to boot up again it shat out the exact same poem as the one you wrote.” I don’t know why but this insult broke me. He’d said similar things about my work in the past and I’d always sat there stoically taking it thinking that it would ultimately force me to improve but this one stung badly. I sobbed a little before hoarsely telling him I had to use the restroom. He didn’t mock me further surprisingly. “You felt something, That one hit. That’s good, that’s good,” he said softly as I headed for the ladies room.
I didn’t come around for a few weeks and didn’t write much either. But he wasn’t far from my thoughts. I’d found a moldy little coffee shop just a few blocks from the bar he drank at. Each day late in the afternoon I’d sit there with two or three pages of my densely blacked out poetry and hope maybe something would come through.
Then one afternoon his face appeared in my mind and oddly it was superimposed over my mother’s face. A memory from when I was five burst in. I was at a crosswalk in front of a busy intersection near James Street. I was excited because we were going shopping on the pier. I started to bolt into traffic and was wrenched back onto the sidewalk by the hair. My mother bent down and slapped me hard screaming, “Wait till the fucking light changes before you cross you dumb little bitch!”
Then my pen started moving across the page. It wasn’t a shotgun blast, but it was still a knife. I’d bleed out this time.