Dave Newman is the author of the novel Please Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight (World Parade Books) and four chapbooks, most recently Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh.
Mark wants to get drunk
so he goes to Al’s Tavern.
and after that, savings.
He likes the time off,
but he still wishes for his old job.
In 1983, he made sixteen
an hour as a machinist.
That was good money,
but there were Japanese cars.
The cars were red and blue
and their doors closed nicely
and they got 30 mpg around town
and Mark tried not to hate Japan,
the Japanese people,
which was easier than he imagined.
The bar is packed.
Two people wear Burger King uniforms.
After the mill shut down,
Mark worked at McDonalds for three days
then got fired because he wouldn’t mop
up the puke in the bathroom.
He went to school for a year,
then quit to paint houses.
During the summer, the hair on his legs
gets knotted with drips of paint.
It’s winter now. When a woman
asks to buy him a drink, he says, “Sure.”
No one has bought him a drink in five years.
“I’m Elizabeth,” she says.
She wants to shoot pool so they do.
She buys the next round, and the next.
Mark says, “Seriously, let me.”
She refuses. It’s her boyfriend’s credit card.
Ex-boyfriend. She doesn’t mention him
at all one way or the other. She hates him.
She’s wearing her denim skirt, short,
the sexiest thing she owns,
which sort of makes her sad.
In high school, she did slutty.
In college, she did not.
Now, showing a little cleavage feels bold.
Mark says, “Do you always
drink like this?”
She says, “Yes.”
If he wants to fuck
he has to make the move.
Otherwise, she goes home.
Her boyfriend, ex, is somewhere
on business. She thinks he’s gay.
Not in a mean way, but in a factual way.
She knows she can’t change him
but she’d like to. She’d like to
change all the gay men, to have that power.
Mark says, “I used to work at McDonalds.”
He doesn’t know why. He’s drunk.
“Me, too,” she says.
“I had pimples for three years.”
Elizabeth gets him to bum a cigarette
from another guy. She likes his ass
and his back, his neck,
the way it’s shaved clean and neat.
She likes neat men. Not gay men.
There is a difference.
“Take me home?” she says and smiles.
He goes for his jean jacket.
She wanted him to ask,
but so what. He’s hard in her hand.
The bedroom light is dim.
She has to pee, but it can wait.
Then it can’t.
“One second,” she says.
It takes more than a second.
When she comes back, he can’t get hard.
She blows him for a minute
and it’s like sucking a gummy worm.
He takes her head and says,
“Maybe we could sleep for a little bit.”
She says, “I have to be up for work.”
He says, “On Saturday?” He says, “Oh.”
She doesn’t have to be at work.
She needs to be alone and cry.
She knows it’s not her,
that if she didn’t have to pee
he would have stayed hard,
and she could have climbed on him
or he could have climbed on her,
and there would have been something there
after so many months of being empty.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I don’t remember exactly, but most of my poems start with language, not a narrative or a character or even an idea. I used to walk around the house singing the word Elizabeth, a fine if slightly sophisticated name, so I finally put it on paper. I had that, and the word mop. Later, in a bar, I heard a woman compare a man’s soft penis to a gummy worm, and she was very sad when she was making the comparison. So I had Elizabeth, mop, and a soft cock.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t know how many revisions any of my poems go through because it’s more important to me to have time between revisions. Generally, I write a poem. The poem will be all images and fancy-pants language then I’ll try to imagine what those images and words mean to someone living in the world (either a character or a speaker). I’ll work until I find something. I’ll take that something and work on it for a couple months (while I work on other poems or some fiction). I’ll look at the poem, realize my own genius and set the poem aside for a year. When I come back the next year, I realize how lacking I am in genius and start working again. Eventually I get the poem to where I’m not ashamed.
That wasn’t the question, though. I saw a woman on your site say she revised her poems hundreds of times and I think my poems are better than hers, so I’ll say I revised this poem like ten million times, at least.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I’m not a big inspiration person. I believe in work. Work includes writing, but it also includes thinking and finding a place to think. I like to walk in old mill towns, places like Braddock and Wilmerding. I read as much as I can. Between the reading and the walking, I can usually find something to say.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I ended up using couplets, which gave me something to push against.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Maybe a year or so.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any rules but the longer a poem sits, the better.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I read all creative books (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction) as works of imagination. The idea of fact vs. fiction seems to belong either in the marketing world or the academic world. What’s important to me is what’s on the page. I grew up reading Black Sparrow books before the Internet era. John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow, didn’t put anything on his books but a title and the author’s name. No blurbs. No book description. If the books were good—John Fante and Wanda Coleman, Diane Wakoski and Charles Bukowski were always good—I believed what they wrote. So I guess I’m interested in believability. I hope my poem is believable.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I remember reading Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes when I was in my very early 20s, and that was the first time I’d ever seen narrative poetry with strong, fully-developed characters, characters written in the 3rd person, and poetic insights. That had a huge impact on me. Stephen Dobyns was another poet who wrote great 3rd person character-driven narratives.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
The guy who loves the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” and has the Robert Johnson box set but not the time to listen to it.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
My wife, Lori Jakiela, reads everything I write. She’s a great writer and a great reader. I agree with everything she has to say about my poems until I don’t, then I get drunk and stomp around the house and mutter terrible things.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s set in Herminie, PA. Some of my novel is set in Herminie, PA but I’ve never set a poem there.
What is American about this poem?
Guys losing their jobs. Hard dicks, limp dicks. Women who believe cleavage is sometimes necessary. Working for McDonalds, and the inability to clean up puke for minimum wage. The sadness we all feel when we’re desperate to connect.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I’ll say abandoned. It’ll be finished when someone pays me a million bucks for the film rights.