I heard it took Ed Harris ten years to prepare for the role in that biopic movie they made. He wanted to learn how to paint like Pollock, which, very cool, but then also, do you know that one part? Where Pollock ‘stumbles’ into his drip painting process, and then his wife, Lee Krasner (an incredibly accomplished painter in her own right, it should be noted) comes out to the garage and sees the painting and goes, “you’ve done it, Pollock! You’ve cracked it wide open!” I get mad about that scene because it just feels very antiquated, in its male to female depictions (and don’t even get me started about that later scene, when Kramer – ably played by Marcia Gay Harden – lashes out at Pollock and goes, “you need! You need! You need!”, I mean knock it off with that already); and yet at the same time some dumb primal part of me, fueled by male ego and idiocy, sees a scene like that and is like, Exactly, Yes! I too could be a Great Genius, and I’ve Got to find a Vera Nabokov for my own internal Vladimir, to type up all my butterfly-oriented musings! Got to find a Carlotta to my Eugene O’Neill, who’ll tiptoe up to my writing room and leave a tuna fish sandwich on a plate outside my door, while I sit inside weeping and writing my epic family drama! Anyways. I digress. Easter and the Totem. I like it because everyone was gaga over the drip stuff, while Pollock was on to the next thing, trying to figure out what new direction to go, like any good artist should. You can see he’s up to something else, something very different, but then he drinks and drives and dies. When I think of this painting, my own bad habits slow. I want to stay around. I want to see what else I might make.
In 2001, I was working as a data analyst at the University of Michigan’s telethon call center. I don’t remember anything about the work – something to do with spreadsheets, and, entering data? – but they let you listen to headphones all day, and the University library had a few old comedy compact discs in their stacks, so I worked my way through Steve Martin, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor (having learned of Pryor by way of Eddie Murphy; I think that’s how it often goes, you work your way backwards through the canon in order to learn who came from who). Pryor’s The Anthology (1968-1992) had me in hysterics but then the last track on Disc 1 was not at all funny; it was ferociously angry, tongue stuck so far into the cheek that it threatens to poke through the other side, as he walks you through the history of being black (read: a slave) in this our shared country, and it ends with the background Glory Glory Hallelujah cutting off and Richard saying, with silence as his accompaniment, “I ain’t gonna never forget it.” Win ‘em with laughter, jokes, charm, and then, when they’re comfortable, stick ‘em in their fucking guts. That was the lesson.
I got into theater big-time circa high school. Majored in acting at Michigan, and worked as a professional actor for about six years thereafter. There were some highs, and some lows, but eventually I ran out of money and steam, and took a day job as a legal secretary in midtown Manhattan. Three weeks into the new job, my agent called and told me to get down to Canal Street by 3:15pm for an audition in the latest Tom Cruise action flick, but the subways were delayed, so I jumped in a cab, which was also delayed via heavy southbound traffic. I got as far as Union Square and flipped out (propelled by years’ worth of auditioning, no doubt), called my agent and said, “this is crazy, I don’t want to do this anymore! I’m sick of going into these lottery-type settings, with miniscule odds, for the chance to say two lines opposite Tom Cruise! At my day job, they pay me – every two weeks – just for showing up and not stealing too many office supplies! I don’t like this life! I don’t want this anymore!”
…was what the agent called with the next day. Three lines, opposite Neil Patrick Harris.
“Did you hear what I said yesterday?” I replied. “I’m done with it.”
At which point I was so sad, and so lost, for such a long time.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I told the trees.
“That’s okay,” said the trees, “we’ll still give you shelter and shade.”
And I cried, and I cried, and then one day – about two years later – I got better.
Someone gave me this book in college, after I’d won that prestigious award (okay, it was me, I gave it to me), along with that t-shirt that had big black block letters which spelled POET across the front (also from me to me, Christ almighty, what a nightmare). I don’t remember anything about the book except that somewhere in the intro to Allen Ginsberg’s section, the author mentioned that Ginsberg had such a wide variety of work, some so excellent, some so poor, but that he’d made so much in the first place, and I thought, that’s a good way to go about it. Actually was that even from the intro, or was it from some article, online, or in the paper, years later? In fact, I think the story from the book was that Ginsberg was at some conference, doodling, and the author of the intro was sitting behind him and commented on the doodle, to which Ginsberg tore it out and gave it to him, and he has it framed above his desk to this day. Well, no matter – it all blended together: I aim to make a lot of work, and when I’m done for the day, or in between projects, or stanzas, I doodle.
It was thick, black, and bushy, with a white stripe streaking across from ear to ear. It looked as if he’d stapled a skunk to his face. He was the only one in my family with a beard, and the only one without a wife, or husband. Those two facts always seemed linked, in my mind. I’m growing a beard of my own these days.
A group of ten guys, including myself. Most of us have been friends since 6th grade, with a few of the group adding on in high school. Our nickname was anointed to us by a wealthy spoiled jerk (Hi, Seth!), meaning to insult us. “You guys are the Beaver Clan,” he’d said one day, whereby beaver was slang for vagina, or pussy, and thus, meant as insult. “Yeah, we are the Beaver Clan,” we retorted, “by which we mean, we get beaver! We get all the beaver!” Of course none of us would lose our virginity for another seven years or so, but still, the name stuck. These days we’re all on this Group Me texting app, wherein you can text all the members of the group at once, and that’s where the general trash-talking (“Danny you suck”) and sharing of good news (“Miri is pregnant”) continues to this day. 3 lawyers, 4 doctors, a finance guy, a marketing executive for a healthcare company, and a poet/legal secretary. But that’s just it: before Josh the Poet, they knew me as Josh the Actor, and before that, Josh the backyard basketball player, and it’s never even been Josh to those guys, it’s Lefty, that’s my childhood nickname, that’s what I am to them, long before the writing began, and long after it one day stops. They’ll carry my casket someday.
It’s really got me thinking different thoughts about life, and purpose. Certainly I feel like a cyborg, constantly scrolling through screens, taking in far more information and data than any brain has the capacity to hold. But it’s also made it possible to correspond, and create community, with poets and writers and peers the world over. I think here’s the biggest change lately: I don’t even know that I want a book. I mean, I want a book, sure, of course I do, but mostly I just want to make strong work and then get it out into the world, and the internet allows that. I’m no academic, so it’s not tenure I’m after anyhow. Love would be nice, but, there doesn’t ever seem to be enough of that to fill my sick insatiable needy little heart. So the internet is an alright place, to glean inspiration, gather information, and share my wares when able and ready. I dunno. Maybe there’ll still be a book, but it’s no longer the Great Big Goal; all I really aim to do is make work…then more, that’s even better than the stuff that came before.
It goes back to 4th grade, or around that time. We had some board game, kept in the basement, where you’d play as different Greek and Trojan heroes, indicated by various square cardboard cards. And maybe I liked Hector’s card the most? The look of it? How he’d been drawn in profile, with an ornate turquoise helmet atop his head? No matter – whatever it was, I just loved him. Still do; he’s always been my favorite. Doesn’t want to go to war, but knows he has a duty to do so, for the sake of his family’s safety, and his city’s safety (and I’m not talking about rumored WMDs, over there, I’m talking about twelve hundred ships that come a-knockin’ at your shore). Fights valiantly, brilliantly. Loves his wife, his son. Finally faces off in the Big Boss Duel against a sulking, moody, pissed-off, rage-filled Achilles – oh yeah who by the way was DIPPED IN IMMORTAL WATERS AS A BABY (!), everywhere except that one heel – and realizes, watching the gods return Achilles’ thrown spear while neglecting to do the same for him, that he won’t win. Alright. So that’s how it’s gonna be? “Then let me do some last great thing, that men will talk about hereafter,” cries Hector, charging towards his certain death. I used to think, with that last line and all, that Hector was like a writer facing the page, but no, I was very, very wrong. He’s a 9/11 firefighter. Everyone else is running out as fast as they can. Hector’s running in.
And you know what? Pryor said it in anger – rightfully so – but I think it works in the key of gratitude as well.
We ain’t gonna never forget it.
Josh Lefkowitz won the 2013 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Prize, and received an Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan. His poems and essays have been published in Court Green, Conduit, The Rumpus, The Huffington Post, Coldfront (forthcoming), TheThePoetry, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize.