I rented a place down in the South Street Seaport area, 76 Jefferson Street, which had artists in the building: Brice Marden, Janet Fish, Steve Poleskie…
From A Conversation with Melvin Edwards, Michael Berenson, BOMB magazine, December 2014
Ivanhoe During Arithmetic
WE DIPPED OUR PENS in inkwells back then, and wrote properly using the “Palmer Method.” We sat there, upright, endlessly repeating the motions that turned marks into letters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g . . . And if learning to write was boring, learning to read was even more so. We used a book titled “Bob and Judy.” The story was very repetitious: “Bob runs. Judy runs. Bob and Judy run.” As I had already learned how to read at home, I often made up my own plots for these stories. This was my first attempt at being a writer.
As I went to a small grammar school that combined two grades in one room, with one teacher, I usually was required to spend half of the day sitting at my desk doing busywork. If I was in the lower of the two grades I eavesdropped on what the other class was doing. The problem with this was that the next year I already knew what I was supposed to be learning, and so had to provide some amusement for myself, while still appearing as if I was paying attention. I smuggled in books and read them during class. My father, who was away in the Army at the time, was a high school teacher so we had a lot of the classics around the house. I was caught reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe during arithmetic and punished. Rather than risk being caught again, I took to writing my own stories, my note papers being easier to hide than a bound book.
As a child I was small for my age, and had started school a year early, so was constantly bullied by everyone, long before that word became fashionable. Back then there were no Twitter messages or Facebook posts – your enemies just hit you with rocks, kicked you in the shins, or bloodied your nose. And so, after school and on weekends, I preferred to stay in my room immersed in my artistic activities.
I wrote comic books and illustrated them. I also made a little theater in a cardboard box and put on plays with people I had drawn and cut out of construction paper. These plays were usually improvised, or sometimes written down, but then, as now, I never had a shortage of ideas. As I had lived little of my life, most of these “tragedies” were based on things I read in the newspaper or heard on the radio. Although I would find that later on I enjoyed being a “stand-up comic,” I was never much for writing comedy.
When I got to high school I spent a lot of my time participating in extracurricular activities. I wrote pieces for the yearbook, and had a regular column in the school newspaper. I also did art, theatre, debate, the model airplane club, and sang in the chorus. My essay took second place in the “I Speak for Democracy,” contest, but was declared the winner when it was found out that the original number one had copied most of his text from an article in American Legion Magazine. I won a trip to New York City to see the United Nations building. This was my first trip to Manhattan and I realized then that this was where I wanted to be someday. I also won the Kappa Alpha Delta Literary Award given to the “outstanding writer,” in the senior class and got to sit on the stage at graduation with all the important people.
The next four years, spent studying at Wilkes College, were probably the dullest four years of my life. My father could not afford for me to go away to school, so I lived at home and commuted. After my classes I worked in a discount clothing store called “Bushels of Bargains” and in the summer at an automobile repair shop. Both of these jobs would later provide material for numerous short stories and an unpublished novel. I had to take business courses in college. I was ostensibly preparing to become a partner in my father’s small insurance agency, as he had given up teaching when he returned from the war. I did very poorly in my required writing courses; my choice of essay topics tending to rankle the professors, or so their comments on my papers seemed to indicate. I did do well in a course called “Business Correspondence and Reports.” My final project, a marketing study on Little Golden Books was much praised and received an A+ grade. I did not reveal that I hadn’t spend any time at bookstores interviewing the ninety-six people that supposedly had responded to my survey, but merely used my fiction-writing skills to make the whole thing up. In my free time I painted pictures, and acted in the college theater and in summer stock. In my senior year I wrote a one-act play, “How Like Roses,” loosely based on my mother’s relation to her three sisters, which won the Wilkes College play writing competition. I also wrote a highly lauded paper, “Bottomry Bonds and Respondencia: the Passage of Title in Maritime Law,” for my course in Legal Contracts. For a brief time I even fancied myself becoming a lawyer.
In my first three years after graduating, I lived in a number of different places and tried my luck at a number of different things. I was an insurance agent, a sign painter, a commercial artist, a designer of party favors, a screen printer for a billboard company, and a high school art teacher. While teaching in Gettysburg, PA, I rented an old stone farmhouse that had been used as a hospital during the battle and was supposed to be haunted. There I wrote dozens of unpublished Civil War poems. After that I traveled to Miami, the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, California, and Canada, before deciding to settle on East 10th Street in Manhattan.
I studied painting, drawing and aesthetics at the New School, where I wrote a paper on aesthetics in the philosophy of Spinoza. I also continued writing poetry and even submitted a poem to the Village Voice. They rejected it with the comment that while it was a good poem they just did not publish poems that rhyme. The other writing that I was doing at the time was mostly anti-war letters to my draft board. My number was up. I had scored high on the pre-induction tests. It was suggested that if I enlisted I would be sent to an officer training school. I told them that I was not interested in anything but a conscious objector status. I was stalked by the FBI, and threatened with time in jail. But then someone with some authority must have read my letters, as I was reclassified as unfit for military service.
Unable to get a decent job due to my draft status, I was reduced to doing construction work and preparing canvases for other artists. I rented a storefront on East 12th Street where I worked on my paintings and made prints using a small screen printing table that I made. I had taught myself to screen print in the basement of my parents’ house using a booklet I had gotten free from a Sherwin Williams paint store. Alfred Jensen, an artist friend known enough to be having an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, asked me if I would do some screen prints for him. We worked together and did four editions. He then sold one copy of each print to the Museum of Modern Art. The story spread around the art world, and I was subsequently besieged by artists wanting to do prints. I moved to larger quarters and hired assistants. For six years I was at the center of the New York art scene doing screen prints with people like Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler. Most of my writing at that time was technical articles on screen printing that were published in printmaking journals. I no longer wrote poetry, but did keep copious notes about the art scene and the people I knew, planning to write a book about this someday. I also wrote a short story which was published in Straight, the magazine of The School of Visual Arts. And I got to write my obituary for the New York Times. I was told that this was a mark of my success as the Times only kept on file obituaries of those people whom they considered to be important.
Nevertheless, I was becoming tired of my screen printing shop and all that it involved: fickle artists, paying bribes to everyone – the building and fire inspectors, the garbage man, and the police, and of art galleries that didn’t pay their bills. Then I was invited to teach screen printing at Cornell University. The prospect of being rid of all this business and to be paid regularly for working two or three days a week, and having the summers free to do what I wished, was something I could not pass up.
In Ithaca I learned to fly. I eventually became quite good at it, even attaining an Air Transport Pilot rating. I became skilled enough at aerobatic flying to fly in air shows, and to win numerous competitions. I also did art performances in the sky, which I called “Aerial Theater” and which were very highly regarded in Europe. During this time I wrote articles for popular aviation magazines and essays on the relationship between art and flight for literary journals like Leonardo and Shiny in the USA, D’Ars and Spazio Humano in Italy, and the anthology Himmelsschreiber in Germany. After 33 years of teaching I retired from Cornell. It was then that I decided to devote my creative activity mainly to writing fiction.
So what makes a good story? Apparently I have very little idea, as I have written 193 short stories, and only managed to publish 21, despite having sent out over 3896 submissions. I have written 12 books, and been able to publish five, one with a small press and four which I published myself. I have also had two books accepted by top NYC agents who were then unable to place them. I suppose this lack of interest in my work could be that my role models are not necessarily today’s heroes, very few of whom I read. My favorite authors, and whose books I read over and over are: Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Georges Bataille, Witold Gombrowicz, Fernando Pessoa, Bruno Schulz, and Robert Walser. My favorite among my own books is my unpublished novel, Johnny Z’s Ultimate Video Memories. Alison Lurie, who read the book some twenty years ago, remarked that although it was well written it was the “filthiest book” she had read since Tropic of Cancer. I am currently going through this manuscript yet another time, probably the sixtieth revision. I may send it around again since books with perverted sex seem to have become popular.
And so now I look up at my clock and see that it is almost 11:00 pm, time for me to put aside this text. I usually work every evening from 8:00 until 11:00. I am not one of those serious writers who start in the morning and work all day long and then again in the evening. Writing for me, as with all my other creative activities, has always been a recreation. In the evening I sit quietly and engage my fantasies, not that I have not been thinking all day long about what I was going to put down on the page when the time came. Now, in my seventy-fourth year, I find that writing occupies my mind and fills my soul. It is the activity that matters. If no one publishes my work, or no one reads the work that is published, it does not concern me for I have already had the enjoyment of doing it.
Ithaca, NY, 3 June 2012
* * *