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You Want To Know How To Learn To Write Like Me?

Mar 3, 2022

There’s No Big Secret To Success If You Choose To Avoid It

I may have graduated from Clemson with honors, because of a second half rally for the record books, but what could honors have really entailed at Clemson? Yelling “Hit the nigger. Hit the nigger. Hit him again” during mandatory pep rallies? I think I had a 1.4 GPA before I dropped out and got drafted. 

When I went back to finish up, I just took classes where I had to read a lot, and I used to love to read before I got so busy that I often forgot to shit, so honors for reading was a piece of cake. As a freshman and sophomore, I used to just stop going to class when I got bored or was tempted to strangle the prof.  That didn’t happen often, but it did inspire me to write shit down.

I didn’t get kicked out of the University of Arkansas Creative Writing Program, although Jim Whitehead sure wished I would have quit. He told me so at his kitchen table after a poetry workshop or party or meet and greet or one of those pre-social media ways to subject yourself to normal people to prevent police intervention. 

“You just don’t get it Ligi,” he snarled at one point. “Why are you here? Don’t you want to teach people how to write poetry? I could really use that assistanceship to give to someone who’d appreciate it and make the university proud.” I am proud to say that I have never intentionally made anyone proud and I may have actually said that out loud.

I do remember that his wife Gwen came into the kitchen at one point and suggested that I go home for my own safety, or perhaps to prevent her husband from snapping my neck like a petrified Flavrstraw™.

I first met Jim Whitehead in Columbia, SC, during a writer’s workshop where James Dickey was the big cheese and Jim was the even bigger cheese, by size, if not reputation. I can’t remember how I got into that workshop, although at the time I was tickled to be considered maleable and talented enough to be considered a South Carolina poet, although I still consider myself a mutant Earthling from New York who currently resides in Oregon.

My best poems remain ones I wrote about growing up in New York or leaving New York or never wanting to go back to New York, but I never considered myself a Southern writer, although I won a fellowship from some arts council I can’t remember the name of and worked as a poet in the schools in South Carolina and Arkansas.

I am also considered a contemporary Western poet by virtue of Disturbances, a collection inspired by a simple truth once composed by Owen Meredith. “The world is a nettle,” he wrote, “Disturb it it stings.” That was in a poem called “Lucille,” which Jeff Simmons did not acknowledge as inspiration for his “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up,” which was eventually included on Frank Zappa’s iconic 21st century epic Joe’s Garage

By the time I arrived in Portland, in 1981, the Pataphysical Outpatient Clinic, Lounge, and Laundromat had already been in operation for three years, operating out of a single-wide in Pittsboro, N.C. I had finally agreed to pay the University of Arkansas its regular fee in exchange for their finally sending a meaningless MFA certificate to me I had refused to pay for in 1973. The best thing that ever happened to me in Arkansas was hanging turkeys at the Ralston Purina Plant in Springdale.

I learned to be curious about death in elementary school. I remember being fascinated by a fly traversing my grandmother’s lips at a funeral home and someone slapping the back of my head and shaking me by the shoulders and asking me: “What is wrong with you?”

I’m still not sure there is anything wrong with me, although I accept there likely is. I haven’t met anyone during my ludicrous lifetime that wasn’t severely deficient in one way or another, although I would never point it out to the asshole, particularly these days, when the asshole is liable to be packing and willing to claim he or she or them or it was just standing his or her or their or its ground.

I remember a conversation I had at a “meet and greet” when I was doing a column called “All The News To Give You Fits” for Multnomah Monthly in the early 80s where I refused to see a distinction between “professional” and “prostitute.” I said that anyone who is happy to be a pro is not worthy of any love. I did not think at the time that I was being cruel, and I still don’t, even though I usually dismiss anyone stupid enough to call themselves a “professional anything" out of hand. 

What do you profess? Would you confess to anything you profess? These are not #ExistentialTrickQuestions, by the way. They are what I learned from Plato, who did not invent Silly Putty either.

You may learn how to write well. You may learn how to write good sentences. You may learn how to write what you do not understand and may never understand. You may learn how to write so well that you get paid for it and never even think about what it is you gave up to do that. 

I remember another thing that happened at Arkansas besides hanging turkeys that has continued to fester like a soul within me as part of my pataphysical DNA was a lecture by Michael Yates, now dead, who asked a simple question to a class of supposedly intelligent people: “How can you tell if anything you write is worth a damn?” I remember thinking: “Is this something new, letting people stomp on you?” Yates and I agreed that it didn’t matter. Matter is simply the least interesting form of energy. 

Yates was also harassed by Jim Whitehead because he wasn’t deferential enough to the toejam school of American literature. I still adhere to the position that “American literature” is the perfect oxymoron.

You will never learn to write like me. 

That should make you very happy. If it doesn’t, that’s another of your problems. You might as well fuck the moon.

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