(A literary sensation and National Book Award nominee at age 21, Eleanor Lerman has paid her dues, been there and back, and has now published a new book of short stories. Here’s her story. — Levi).
Person wanted to sweep up in harpsichord factory. That was the ad in the Village Voice that I answered in 1970 when I was eighteen years old and looking for a job so I could support myself in the city, where I was headed to join the revolution. It also happens to be the first line in Civilization,” a story in my new collection of short stories, The Blonde on the Train (Mayapple Press). The story is fiction, but the ad, the job — and the way they both changed my life — are still the touchstones I go back to again and again whenever someone asks, “What made you want to be a writer?”
It was actually reading Leonard Cohen that made me think I could write poetry (until I found The Spice Box of Earth on a drugstore rack in Far Rockaway, the lost and windy peninsula at the end of the earth — excuse me, I mean, the end of Queens, where I lived when I was a teenager — I was under the impression that poetry was written by people like Robert Browning and Lord Byron, who didn’t exactly resonate with me). But it was the harpsichord kit factory where I worked, the long-lost Greenwich Village of artists and gay bars and roller-skating queens, along with my neighbor, a film producer, who introduced me to a community of writers, and my boss, Michael Zuckermann, who gave me the job because he said I had soulful eyes (I hope I still do!), which in the psychedelic days was the only qualification you needed, I guess, to make harpsichord kit parts (I graduated from the sweeping up part pretty quickly) that made me believe it was possible to actually live the life of a writer. Thirty-five years later, I’m still trying, but I think I’m getting closer.
At the time, Zuckermann Harpsichords (now a thriving company owned by other people and based in Connecticut — look them up if you want a nifty harpsichord kit to build in your spare time) was housed in the first floor of a small, quirky 19th century building on Charles Street. Michael not only gave me a job, he gave me a tiny apartment upstairs. The whole operation employed about five girls, who drilled pin blocks, used a table saw and a lathe, but also worked on eccentric machines that Michael had made himself out of sewing machine parts: we used those to wind wire, cut felt and velvet, and make the jacks that pluck harpsichord strings. Sometimes we ran out of parts and I was supposed to write what we needed on a blackboard. Instead, inspired by Leonard Cohen, I used the blackboard to write poems.
The film producer, who lived in a carriage house on the lane behind the harpsichord workshop, had to walk through our space every day to get his mail, and he began stopping by the blackboard to read my poetry. One day, he said something to me like, You know, that’s pretty good. You ought to try to get your work published. It had never occurred to me that was possible until he suggested it. (So thank you forever, Harrison Starr.)
Since I had no idea how to actually get a book published, I took the manuscript of poems I had and sent them to Viking, the press that published Cohen, and some very kind person there wrote me back and suggested trying Wesleyan University Press, which I did, and in 1973, they published my first book of poetry. It was called Armed Love.
Let’s fast-forward a little to when Armed Love was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. I remember sitting at my table and reading the review, which said, in part, that if books of poetry were given ratings, “Ms. Lerman’s book would deserve a double X.” I think what riled the reviewer was that the poems dealt with sex, death, vampires, queers — all the things that, in those years, nice young girls were not supposed to be writing about. (Going back to the book now, the most “X-rated” line I can find is “Vampires are happier when they’re homosexual,” and actually, I still think that’s true.) Almost immediately after I finished reading the review, my phone began to ring.
It seemed to me that the entire world was calling; after all, an X-rated poet was probably just the thing you wanted to have on your arm the next time you rolled out the limo and went slumming in a leather bar. One of the people on the phone was Andy Warhol, who had a weird, whispery voice; I was scared of him and I think I hung up on him. I hung up on almost everybody who called me after that. The problem was that I was twenty-one then, a barely educated kid who had been born in a hardscrabble, working-class section of the Bronx, had later moved to Rockaway and spent a lot of time sitting on the lonely peninsula’s deserted winter beaches with my drug-addled hippie friends, all of us convinced that there was no point in aspiring to anything other than scoring as much grass as we could in order to deal with Richard Nixon’s paranoia-haunted America. We hated the rich, we hated celebrities (imagine that!), we hated everybody who had all the things we didn’t have, and we had nothing. So I was not prepared to be popular, even for Andy’s famous fifteen minutes.
Then, to top things off, I got into a big fight with three important feminist poets because we were all nominated for the National Book Award. They started calling, too, telling me that whoever won should turn down the award because we were living in a patriarchal society, men were running the literary world, etc. etc. This got my class anger going and I said no, the problem with the world of, ahem, Art and Literature wasn’t men (I like men; my brother, for example, is a writer, a journalist, and a fine, fine man), the problem was money. Poets, I said, don’t make any money and I sure would like some. I was adamant about this because by then, to add to my fear of wealthy, cultured, educated people, I had developed a deep-seated jealousy of literary types, who I believed were all swanning around Martha’s Vineyard or sitting on the manicured lawn of some la-di-da university, being paid bundles of cash to teach Robert Browning’s poetry to a bunch of rich kids, while I had to go on working when really, all I wanted to do was sit on my couch and write. (I have to mention here that, during this time, there were three writers in particular who were just wonderful to me: kind, encouraging, and generous. So thank you, too, Richard Stern, Donald Barthelme and Famous Reclusive Person — see, men can be wonderful — who sat in my apartment night after night one summer eating Hostess cupcakes and watching TV with me long before I even figured out who you really were.)
I did publish another book of poetry after that but, being around a lot of successful writers, lovely as they were to me, gave me the idea that being a writer was something like being in high school. Poets were freshmen, the dumbest of the bunch; short story writers were sophomores; nonfiction writers (who could make decent amounts of money in those days, writing for magazines and such) were juniors and the seniors, the cream of the crop, were novelists. So I decided that I had to be a novelist, but I was really, really lousy at that. I struggled with fiction for a couple of years but I had no success, so I think what happened to me was that I decided Okay, this hurts much too much. I am never going to graduate from poet school. So what can I do? I’d been a wild child, a minor cultural icon, a straight person, a gay person, an angry person, and a bit of a lunatic, so maybe all that was left was to try to be normal.
And with that, I more or less stopped writing. I got married, I went to live in a distant borough, I spent a lot of time working in an office, coming home and making dinner, even though I hated all these things. I was worse at being a normal person than I had ever been at anything else. The only thing I had going for me was that working-class ethic: you get up, you go to your job, you read the Daily News on the way home on the subway and you don’t complain too much. Think about your relatives who were rounded up the by Nazis: at least you’re better off than them.
But once again, somebody rescued me from myself. It took more than twenty years for that to happen, but it did: I came home one night to a letter from Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner of Sarabande Books who wrote something like, We loved your work long ago and far away. What have you been doing lately? Have you written anything we might like to publish?
The opening poem in my book The Mystery of Meteors — the first poetry collection I wrote for Sarabande — is a distillation of what happened after that. In the poem, I wrote about “marching a small dog through a meager park,” and that’s exactly what I did that night: I dragged my poor, sleepy little dog out late at night, took her for a walk in the park across the street, and considered the fact that if I was going to write again (and I knew, in my heart, in my bones, that I wanted to) I was going to have to break up my family (because my husband had quite a few problems of his own to deal with and as for me, there were going to be a lot of sticky gender issues ahead including what pronouns to use when writing about significant others: Him? Her? It?), move someplace else, and find some way to stop being afraid that I wasn’t good enough to be Donald Barthelme. Hey, nobody is.
Once all the family issues were resolved (the good news is that everybody is just fine) and I started to write poetry again, an amazing thing happened: the part of me that is a writer had apparently just been sitting patiently in some waiting room of the subconscious, working away while I didn’t even know it, because something had fundamentally changed about my writing. Maybe it was just years and years of reading, of thinking about how writers structured stories and created images, how words fit together — and going back again to Leonard Cohen and Richard Brautigan and James Tate, all my old loves — and letting them inspire me again, but I knew — knew! — that what I was writing was pretty good. I had figured out how to tell stories in poems, and later, how to try to edit out of my poetry what I don’t like about the form: all the me, me, me stuff. How I feel, how depressed and unloved I am. I still do that sometimes, but I try not to.
And because I had learned to be a more skillful and disciplined poet—and had learned to read other writers in two ways: not only to enjoy their work but to try to understand, technically, what they were doing—I was able to start writing fiction again. I started with the short story form, though at first, once again, I didn’t have a lot of success getting published. I think part of the reason goes back to that “double X” business. Not that my work is raw in any way, or has sex scenes or violence or anything like that; it’s just that the subject matter has moved on to a kind of mixture of musings about getting older and about the mysterious “other” that must be out there somewhere (to quote Fox Mulder), which is something that I think haunts you both when you’re very young and when you’re getting past middle age. You just wonder if the problem-riddled, anxiety-producing, everyday reality you deal with actually does comprise the absolute boundaries of consciousness and even of the physical universe. Meaning, that while I was kind of mellow for a long time — almost unconscious as I slogged back and forth to my office, the supermarket, the kitchen to make dinner — I am, thankfully, becoming a little strange again. And I feel a little mysterious. A little amused that it’s taken so long for me to wise up.
I’ve even written a novel that I think is, finally, pretty good. No, let me be serious about this: I think it’s very good. Carlos Castaneda was one of my guides through the psychedelic years and though I realize, now, that he was a very disturbed guy, he did have a lot of interesting things to say. (I could use a spirit guide now, for example, and he was all for that.) But his life ended very badly and that was disappointing, so I decided to rewrite it for him. I hope the book, Janet Planet, finds a publisher.
But in the meantime, my collection of short stories, The Blonde on the Train is out there in the world and doing well. And much to my own surprise, I’m doing well, too. So, Andy, if you’d like to call again, I’m ready to party. I think I could whip up a great vampire costume. I can’t think of a damn thing I’m afraid of anymore.