Ron Kolm: No Longer Chugging Rank Cologne
One of the perils of the fast life is that if you’re not synchronized with the prevailing velocity you lose focus, things get blurry, imprecise, or you end up getting dragged along like a victim of a hate crime [a wuss] behind a banged-up pick up through a derelict field of nowhere.
Ron Kolm knows this and is one of the few people I know who has managed to synchronize his soul with New York’s insane speed – a state that he both hates & thrives in. He darts through the wreckage of what remains of a literary scene with a massive happy-hour grin, showing no symptoms of motion sickness. Indeed, he works NY’s Red Bull-infused tempo like a short-order cook at a Lexington Ave. lunch grill or a frantic ADHD kid abusing his Wii.
He negotiates New York’s grid going full tilt, carrying his trademark ragged shopping bags bulging with literary goodies, flipping you copies of zines, photocopies, & chapbooks, downing a beer or White Russian with gusto – & then “I gotta go, I gotta go.” & he’s off on his Johnny Appleseed way to his next appointment – who was that bagged man!? That’s Ron Kolm.
Time waits for no man & Kolm, a reluctant everyman, does not wait for time to catch up to him, & he has no patience for time thieves. This is survival in an urban milieu where millions of dollars are made by hi-frequency Wall Street traders in a millisecond, where fast food is prepared before you even order it, where impatience is a virtue you might highlight on your CV, where language is compacted like so much audio trash, where speed has its own logic & mythology predicated on turn-over pumped up beyond its ability to sustain itself.
I’ve known Kolm for over 30 years & he has always refreshingly acknowledged his dents & downsides. His own SHORT stories & poems often investigate these impairments & the otherwise invasive – annoying & harassing – nature of ordinary life. He describes how one takes up arms or whatever’s left to us in terms of ammo & sabotage: seemingly feeble gestures such as flipping the factory boss his “bloody finger as I split,” gestures crouched between ludic & Luddite that must ennoble us in a world run by others. His work often involves adjusting our expansive souls, cornered in ever more constrictive circumstances, or a shit-eating-grin retreat into the imaginary using literature [apparently cheaper than psychotropic substances or ecstasy] to compensate for the diminished returns offered working stiffs. He handles the gritty reality with all of the punk Basho aplomb he can manage using his best literary maneuvers: brevity, movement, & a certain boyish dynamism. His dictum is no doubt: Burn the lace curtains, get to the window.
We no doubt write short[er] & [mostly] more effectively as a result of Kolm’s persistent “Keep it short, keep it short” mantra. If a story runs 3,000 words, he can edit it down to 800. A 10-line poem on the Kolm diet can be reduced to 3. Blunt bludgeoning becomes effective sharp poking. Parry, thrust, retreat. Boom-boom-boom. His back-up mantra?: “Sorry I’m such an asshole, sorry.”
But he’s really not. In jest, I sometimes introduce him as one of the Unbearables [the writing cadre he co-founded in NY in the socialist midtown bar, Tin Pan Alley, in 1986] who once edited [whittled] Finnegan’s Wake down to a haiku. He hasn’t yet, but he could if enlisted to.
I describe him in Beer Mystic: “One night I watched Beer Doyen, Runkle Köln, word distiller and the man who had translated Joyce’s Ulysses into a single haiku, load up on 6 beers in 6 pockets. I followed his lead and stuffed multiple pockets with beer to beat the 9 p.m. open bar deadline in The World…”
The pursuit of happy hours & open bars is an honest survival technique. I talked to Ron recently at an Unbearable gathering on a humid 5 PM at the Sidewalk Café & continued later via email. 5 PM because the Sidewalk Cafe Happy Hour lasts a full 3 hours from 5-8 PM, essential knowledge for the under-employed working class beer hunters among us. The Sidewalk has an intriguing but not too-over-hyped selection of beers on tap including some summery beers whose names I’ve forgotten. I stuck with the Witbier & it served me well. &, true to form – gotta love him – I saw him pouring White Russians down his gullet as the end of Happy Hour loomed.
The title of his new book Divine Comedy obviously alludes to Dante who took a lot longer to navigate the circles of hell than Kolm does – the ratio must be something like 1 page of Dante to 1 syllable of Kolm. His fine-tuned gritty, self-effacingly self-deprecatory but ultimately elegant poems here ruthlessly lay many standard assumptions about dignity & beauty to rest [albeit a restless rest].
The book is also an oft-amusing examination of the notion of god as a master prankster who baffles & stuns us into a humbling state of bemused awe with his/her simple twists of fate & dazzling pratfalls, a Divine species of Comedian who uses each one of us as the butt of one or more of his/her jokes.
The title poem describes a perilous [or at least not uneventful] walk over the bridge across the East River to Randall’s Island where the urban reality attacks them from all sides & where authority figures pat you down, where your freedom of movement is thwarted by authority & the surveillance state, barbed wire, “large bright lights,” where everywhere you look you “see inmates / Through plate-glass windows,” and despite all of these oppressive conditions, even here the human spirit manages to forge its magical metallurgy, an alchemy that turns shit into shindig as the couple fall “Tired and relieved / And even perhaps vaguely / In love with each other.”
• bp: Your new book of poems Divine Comedy is full of a ‘god’ who seems to pull fast ones on us bemused humans. Simple twists of fate that humble us & wrest from us miffed shrugs of heavy shoulders…
• RK: Well, I guess I feel that there might be some sort of overarching intellect; there certainly is a darkly humorous side to existence, so if there is a god, the joke is probably on us. I thought it was funny that Einstein figured that God wouldn’t play dice with the universe – if there is one, well hell, he or she or it could do whatever they wished with the cosmos; even play dice with it. I wrote a poem about that:
The Arithmetic of Faith
God smiles / A perfect smile / As He picks up/ His dice.
In truth, I think I’m much closer to being a Buddhist; life is probably all an illusion…
• bp: Me too. But I like Voltaire’s quote: “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Alan Watts was cool; I used to listen to him on WFMU: “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” This in some way seems to capture an essential theme in your work, which also seems devoutly or at least proudly – & yet apologetically – working class, revealing the struggles of survival in an urban environment: “If it weren’t for the barbed wire / You’d almost think / We were in suburbia.”
• RK: I grew up in the suburbs with all the ennui & bad vibes that entails. Vietnam was a real eye-opener, & to get out of going I joined VISTA, a homegrown Peace Corps. I spent my time there as a community organizer in a collection of shacks in Upper East Tennessee; Maupin Row was the name of the holler. To be honest, I never made it back to America. After that I tried to get a regular job in NYC, but nobody would hire me because I’d been a community organizer: they figured I was a radical who would try to unionize my co-workers & then torch the business. I ended up selling my library off, bit by bit, to the Strand so I could pay the rent — every time I took a shopping bag of books by, Fred, the owner, would offer me a job. It paid sixty dollars a week, gross. I kept saying no until I had to say yes. The rest is indy bookstore history, on a very small scale…
• bp: With all of the means & media, you’d think there’d be more agitation & downright revolt. The state of things is as bad &/or dynamic as the 60s but the corporations & their government lapdogs have actually won: They’ve medicated the world with consumerism as we scramble to buy back the individual identity they stole & now they’ll sell it back to you & me at a premium & that is what most of us are doing, purchasing back our souls on an installment plan. For you, has the distinction between urban & suburban grown amorphous & ambiguous?
Ron Kolm: Yes – but probably not in New York City. NYC is now just an enclave of the rich; the poor are being tractored out so fast it makes your head spin. Did an off-site sale for the bookstore I now work in (Posman Books in Grand Central Terminal) on 115th Street & Frederick Douglass Boulevard & looked out the window of the modern bar we were doing business in, & saw at least as many whites as blacks on the street; walking dogs & baby carriages. The very next night I did a poetry reading in Crown Heights on Franklin Avenue; a neighborhood I wouldn’t have been caught dead in, or would only have been caught dead in, back in the seventies – & yes, you guessed it – almost more whites than blacks on the street; walking & pushing the same things.
• bp: There are still a lot of “normal” people in Queens, Staten Island & the Bronx. The irony is that the rich quickly grow bored surrounded by only clones of themselves. That is why they always cosy up to interesting musician-artist types – to serve as their self-aggrandizing backdrop. But their disease is gentrification & the escalating rents drive out the very types the rich need for their fabricated adventures… Weirdly, NYC has a history of electing despicable reactionary thugs like D’amato & Giuliani… It’s obvious the poor don’t matter & many of the poor don’t get the message & are actually willing to fight on the front lines as Tea Partiers, supporting the rich in efforts to syphon off even more of what little money & well-being away from them so that the divide between rich & poor’s never been wider…
• RK: Well, that’s just part & parcel of the sea of ignorance we swim in. As the rich truncate the public schools because they don’t feel like paying for them anymore, true knowledge becomes a scarce commodity. Most of the poor probably believe what they hear from Rupert Murdoch’s minions; besides, it’s always better from a mental health standpoint to identify with your victimizer [Stockholm Syndrome] – that’s why sports are so important to Americans right now – you can vicariously be strong, etc. – hell, that’s why celebrityhood is so omnipresent as well – you can pretend you’re Beyonce or Bono or Bieber.
I think the boundaries between the urban spaces & suburban spaces are being erased in places like Detroit, but then, the rich are retreating to their castles – I think we’re entering another feudal period, & I mean that. My notion has always been that the rich would toss large crumbs off the table as long as Marxism seemed like a possible new religion for the dispossessed; once the Soviet Union broke up (and I don’t for a minute think that that was a Marxist entity), the rich started to de-unionize this country & no more crumbs for the poor; only jobs at McDonald’s etc.
• bp: I think boundaries are being smudged in NYC as well with the infestation of corporate mega-stores & the hyper-hype of food fetishism – foodism as a new diversion, a new distinction… Anyway, you, in deed & word, often lay the link between beer & the stronger stuff & writing. Does just the right state of inebriation allow us illuminating glances into the other side? Or does the beer eventually force your hand by writing its own PR?
• RK: Good point! There have been times recently after doing, say, 6 or 7 White Russians, that I’ve found myself leaning against a bus shelter with a glimmer of the infinite just out of reach. I used to always get stoned before writing poetry years ago; kids have sort of scotched that…
• bp: Your work seems to espouse the ability of the seemingly pathetically trifling & pedestrian to gain currency & dignity as private adventures & in their very gritty ability to open us up to a kind of anti-Hollywood vision of existence. Like Bukowski scripting an indie movie or like some French & Italian black-&-white films from the 50s.
• RK: I’ve read Post Office at least five times (The Sun Also Rises about as many), & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas about three; sure, I love down & dirty prose; simple sentences that carry the freight quickly & efficiently. Of course I love Beckett & Bernhard & Marias as well; I just don’t write like them, probably because I can’t – but I do believe prose (or poetry) style does come from somewhere deep inside, unless you’re faking it; which I think a lot of popular writing does – MFA bullshit…
I posted this quote from this Robert Coover interview with David Applefield in The Frank, #6/7, 1987: “The proliferation of writing programs has been something of a disaster, a kind of parasitic growth on the college curriculum, once thought benign, now visibly threatening to universities & literature alike…literature is losing its variety, its distinctive voices. Divine madness does not go over in a workshop. These programs tend to be run run by people who are themselves products of such programs, converts as you might say, to the cult of the workshop….as these people get their little degrees & spread about the country; they get control of literary magazines, even commercial magazines, in which with the perhaps the best intentions, they priint one another. The more exciting & difficult writers, meanwhile, are often rejected from these programs or abaondon them, fail then to get the influential jobs, lack access to these magazine staffs, & find themselves submitting their material to people who have been trrained in what a “good story” is by way of these homogenizing workshops. Thus, there is a sense in which literature is being closed down by way of a narrow pathetically conservative vision of what narrative art is or can be.”
I especially like “Divine madness does not go over in a workshop.”
You pull no punches; the poems have an unmasking quality that gives writer &/or listener a sense of revelation: like spiritual versions of consumer exposés as if you’re exposing the hokum, hype & watered-down drinks that god & his absentee vulture capitalist investors are serving us” For instance, in “Death Is a Soldier”: “What he really is / Is a middle-aged guy / Wearing camo…” thus, effectively stripping macho & misplaced patriotism bare in 3 lines.
• RK: If I can toot my own tiny horn, I kind of skewer Kennedy, too. I hate the fact that folks still go off to war & are somehow able to turn other folks into something less than human that they can then extirpate — how small, how stupid.
• bp: Brecht’s “cannon fodder” in the name of WMD. The less educated the more emotionally appealing the entire nefarious notion of patriotism is. You can sell a turd to a toilet if you wrap it in the American flag or any other nation’s flag
What for you would be the perfect poem? It would be short no doubt. But also illuminating like some punk haiku. I think of the chance meeting described in “The Hat.” You sum up “Walt Whitman” & your love for the long-winded bard in 12 syllables.
• RK: How about this?
Thinking of ways / To improve his life / He enters his wife / Absentmindedly.
• bp: What would constitute the perfect literary evening for you?
• RK: We had a ton of them at the Shandon Star [56th St. & 8th Ave. – now a Burger King] – many beers, good friends, & a chance to talk about literature. Jim Feast once pointed out that we all learned from each other. Half my stuff comes from Hal Sirowitz, & the other half from Michael Randall.
• bp: What would a typical Unbearables evening entail?
• RK: Reading erotic poems on the Brooklyn Bridge as the squares returned home from work, then going to Tsaurah Litzky’s loft in the building Hart Crane lived in & partying like there was no tomorrow. Crap, I didn’t really answer your question. It would have been a great answer had you asked what was a great Unbearables event we did in the past.
• bp: Can we still assume that poems can serve as molotov cocktails or is that just romantic 60s revolutionary crap?
• RK: Not so much at the present; but these are dead times, bereft of great art, at least here in Rome, where we toil under the watchful eye of The Man. But history keeps on moving, & what seems permanent & bullying today, might just be flimsier than we think, so we have to keep making work that just might change a mind or two out there. I was a fascist teenager in Pennsylvania, & Catch 22, & the Beats, changed the way I looked at the world; it’s all possible. I write with the hope I might touch at least one or two folks out there the same way I got “touched.”
• bp: Yes. But while you’re touching two they’re buying off 20 or coercing 30 more under false appeals to patriotism with built-in cynicism & a business ad degree … Where or who do you turn to for inspiration? I sense the small, unassuming moments unencumbered by mediation & annoying hype…
• RK: I trot out the old memories whenever I can … I always thought of guys like you & Feast & Fleming & ole Hakim Bey himself as being much better at articulating political and cultural critiques – I simply deal from my emotions and sling comments, etc., around like a poorly made stew … But the events I write about seem to present themselves in an almost finished form – even though I rewrite like mad, it’s mostly just a word or two that really get changed.
• bp: What would be the soundtrack to the divine comedy of, say, “Suburban Ambush” or “Welcome to the Barbecue” be?
• RK: Ah, nice: Kevin Coyne, “Blame it on the Night”; almost any song from John Cale’s Wrong Way Up; Tom Verlaine’s “Walking Back From Stalingrad”; Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours From Tulsa”; Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock; I think it’s called “Honky Tonk” from Miles Davis’ Live/Evil – ending of that song is one of my favorite pieces of music!; Eric Burdon, “When I was Young”; Department S, “Going Left Right”; David Byrne, “Mea Culpa”; The Who, “Slip Kid”; The Kinks, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”; Ten Years After, “I’d Love to Change the World”; The Pixies, “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven”; Peter Green, “The Supernatural”…
• bp: What would you write on the inside of your coffin lid so that when they exhume your body people will be shocked or…
• RK: Why the fuck did Dante steal my title?!