Writing in the Age of Trumpism

by Charles Bowe

The last time VSC held a public event, it was just a day and a half after the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and I had the displeasure of saying “Your attention please!” to convene the reading. When hate erupts, is everyone with a microphone required to address it head on?

And for how long must every public event be dedicated to the resistance, a position that’s fraught with misunderstanding: What exactly are we resisting? And is it our place to address The Situation when, arguably, one of our objectives is to expand our community’s attention to the broader horizon? Do you ask every participant to give some thematic priority to The Situation, a task that makes some of them doubt their relevance, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do you briefly address it and let the show go on, which some will see as callous?

The reading planned for the afternoon of this Saturday, December 3rd (1:00 at Halyards. Be there.) will be a full three weeks after Election Day, so the period of simplest mourning will have passed for many of us. Gatherings of thinking people this season nonetheless all have the pall of seeing one another for the first time after a death in the family. Though the outrage will be less raw and acute than it was a day after Orlando, for many of us it will be more pervasive and harder to ignore.

Trump’s election means many things, and I don’t propose reducing 60 million American voters to the level of the Orlando murderer, but make no mistake, one of its many meanings was an eruption of hate. Misogyny, racism, and complicity aplenty to go with them, to be their fellow travelers. And we’re not talking about, “People are saying you could have been more sensitive during the staff meeting, Charlie.” We’re talking about “Trump that bitch!” We’re talking about God-damned white supremacists.

It was a Dionysian release, but not the “dancing in the moonlight” variety. More the “she’s passed out and she should know when she drinks with the football team that this could happen” variety. The male aggression, “and what’s so wrong with male aggression?” variety.

Obama famously said, in one of his few impolite moments, that small town people "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." This is the emotional foundation of Trumpism, but without the religion part. It’s just guns and us versus them.

More relevant to the mission of Verbal Supply Company, Trumpism is antithetical to reflection, and hostile to a life of ideas. The Clintons read. Tim Kaine has his Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Obama Reinhold Niebhuhr. W. read histories and biographies of presidents, lots of them. The best answer Trump could come up with, when Megyn Kelly asked him about the last book he read, was All Quiet On the Western Front, “which is,” he added, “one of the greatest books of all time.” So obviously a lie, but also betraying a thematic understanding about as subtle as Reagan’s misuse of “Born in the USA.”

As a culture we are struggling to adjust to the new boundaries between what’s public and what’s private. Naturally, reality TV stars are the warlords of this new landscape, and one of the tackiest just bested our Ivy League protectors.

Anyone who gets up in the morning and stares at the blank page knows that at some point in their “process” their work is going to be judged by whether it says anything truthful about life. Original would be nice. Relevant to The Situation, a real bonus. Above all, though, it must be genuine. Is it the product of a cleverness machine, or is there a real human heart somewhere behind it that actually cares about the material?

Writers aren’t the only ones who wake up during a proto-fascist period and wonder what the hell they’re doing with their lives, but we agonize more, in some respects, because we know that somewhere inside that notebook or word processor is a piece of the map forward – likely a torn section of an Exxon roadmap with some creases backwards to expose the parts we figure we need to know, but a piece of the way forward nonetheless. We’re writers, after all, and people are searching for words right now.

Some of us write material whose political implications are hard to decode, or even calls your attention to something that has nothing to do with politics. An important purpose of some writing sometimes almost seems like (God forbid!) pleasure. And yet, few of us live completely cloistered lives, so suffice it to say that all of us are trying to light the way to that deeper part of the American heart that’s better than all this. Where mass deportations and water-boarding and turning our backs on the Paris Agreement are off the table because of course they are.

“Poetry can’t be harmed by people trying to write it!” as Dean Young says. And I would add that literary communities, or even activist communities, can’t be harmed by members’ listening to poetry or fiction or memoir. Our ability to listen, feel, and empathize will be challenged in the coming years, and literature will keep us in practice.

Something supernatural happens when we’re writing from the heart, when we’re letting our senses engage with our times and faithfully recording them. We end up writing things more relevant than when we’re trying to be relevant. To try writing the perfect story for the year of Trump, or the perfect poem for the age of paranoia, is probably impossible. It got written a year, or a generation, ago. This week, as I’ve started re-reading my own poems from 2016, to try finding something for Saturday, I see omens of a looming Trumpism all over them.

Verbal Supply Company would still have kept hosting readings and events, even if Clinton had narrowly won. Only the shape and temperature of the urgency would be different. Our task, in either case, is to keep writing. And if we do it from the heart we will engage in the questions of our time, in both easy-to-apprehend and unforeseen ways.

Charles Bowe blogs at morehastohappen.com



Tomas Transtromer, the Nobel Prize winning poet dies at age 83



2 A.M. moonlight. The train has stopped

out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,

flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into his dream

he will never remember he was there

when he returns again to his view.

Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness

that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,

feeble and cold on the horizon

The train is entirely motionless.

2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.

Great reading at the Strand coming up!

Please Excuse This Poem

April 1: 7:00PM 8:00PM

Join Strand and the editors of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets For The Next Generation to kick off National Poetry Month in style! Brett Fletcher Lauer (deputy director of the Poetry Society of America) and Lynn Melnick (author of If I Should Say I Have Hope) will present an awesome showcase of renowned and rising-star poets from their newly published collection, which delves into American poetry by young writers from a variety of backgrounds and sources ranging from The New Yorker to Twitter.

Mark Bibbins (They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry), Dorothea Lasky (Rome), Alex Dimitrov (Begging for It), Ada Limon (Sharks in the Rivers), and Camille Rankine (Slow Dance with Trip Wire) round out the night's discussion,  perfect for poetry fans and aspiring young writers!


Buy a copy of Please Excuse This Poem or a $15 Strand gift card in order to attend this event. All options admit one person. Please note that payment is required for all online event orders at the time of checkout. The event will be located in the Strand's 3rd floor Rare Book Room at our store at 828 Broadway at 12th Street.

Verbal Supply Company would like to give their thanks to a very packed house on Saturday!

Ana Maria Jomolca reads

Ana Maria Jomolca reads

Thanks to the many who came out in the cold to hear what was hands down our funniest gathering of readers to date.

In the next three weeks we will be publishing sound bites from these readings, so if you weren’t there, you can get an idea of what it was like. The full audio will be available in 3 weeks.

Look for our next reading on May 9th at Halyards. A very special benefit that will have an Earth Day theme, with a cross section of academics, scientists, journalists and farmers speaking about the environment interspersed with literary works that feature the environment as well.

The Hall House benefit hosted by Verbal Supply Company. VSC would like to thank everyone for attending, and wishes everyone a great holiday season!

Room at the Table

Need to do a  house cleaning today?
Want some company?

Listen to great readings by talented writers, just click the audio link to hear James Hanaham speak about Republicans getting caught keeping company in bathroom stalls, poet Lissa Kiernan explore the passing of her father as it correlates to his hometown river, or let author Maria Gabriele take you into childhood memory so seminal it becomes yours.


Brush with Greatness

by Matt Myers

Brush with Greatness   Eating at the Carnegie Deli in April, 1990—New York, sitting next to Henny Youngman.  Who?  HENNY FUCKING YOUNGMAN.  King of the One Liners.  Take My Wife, Please.  OLD SCHOOL.  He must have been in his 80’s.  I was in my 20’s.  My college roommate Jeff and I decided to splurge and blow some cash to split a classic Carnegie corned beef—a massive pile of meat between two slices of bread.  While we sat there eating pickles, waiting for our five pound sandwich to arrive, packed shoulder to shoulder with total strangers, I double-taked to the old dude sitting next to me.  He was loud, the way old people get.  Flirting with the waitress, ribbing an old friend sitting across from him, and cracking one joke after another in rapid succession.  His mouth was like the end of an assembly line at a bottling plant, relentlessly and effortlessly “on”, steady and sure.  Everyone and everything around him was merely a set-up for a vast catalog of well worn rimshots.

WAITRESS: All finished?  Can I take that away for you?

HENNY: Yes.  And when you come back, take him away, too. (nodding to his friend).

WAITRESS: (to the old friend) Sorry, I’m married, honey.

HENNY’S OLD FRIEND: Don’t get him started.

HENNY: I used to be married, God rest her soul.  Once, for our anniversary my wife said she wanted to go somewhere she’d never been before.  I said, “Try the kitchen!”

And on and on it went.  Lines we’d heard a thousand times, new ones we hadn’t.  Seeing Henny in public, eating his lunch at the Carnegie—he reminded me of a few uncles I had.  No off switch.  My pal Jeff and I sat there, along with the rest of the customers, eating corned beef and trying not to choke as we rollicked to this old timer’s relentless vaudeville punchline factory. 

HENNY’S OLD FRIEND:  What’re you doing on Friday?  How about we meet at Carmines?  Do you wanna go to Carmine’s?

HENNY:  Sure.  You know I speak Sicilian, right?  Let’s speak a little Siclian: “Stick ‘em up!”  (makes a gun gesture with is hand).

 I finally got up the nerve to say something.  I mean, how often do you get to eat lunch next to Henny Youngman?  I turned to him and said something stupid like, “Excuse me, you’re Henny Youngman, right?”

            HENNY: I used to be.  Who wants to know?  Waitress!  See if this guy’s from the police!

            HENNY’S OLD FRIEND: You’re still Henny Youngman, who the hell else can you
            possibly be?  (turns to me)  There’s a sandwich named after him here.

I tried talking to him—asking questions about “what’s good to eat here”, and “do you come here often” and other stupid shit one says to celebrities when tongue tied.  But it was as though he was constantly looking past me, trying to find the set up in whatever words came out of me.  At the end of lunch, we all realized he was unable to get up from the chair.  His old pal, who jovially acted as the shill, stood up to help him painfully get to his feet.  Clearly Henny’s minder, he held the King of the One Liners up by his arm.  A cane appeared in Henny’s hand and he moved with slow, mincing steps.  Towards the end of our brief exchange, Henny pointed to me with the tip of his cane and announced loudly:

            HENNY: I like this guy.  Waitress!  Put his lunch on my bill!  (then after a furtive glance around he
            quickly looked at her and shook his head ‘no’.).

I noticed he was not carrying his trademark violin as he shuffled at a glacial pace
towards the door, propped up by the old man.


Conversations with My Son
By Stephen Tesher


My son J was six at the time we drove past a cemetery; rows upon rows of tombstones, some with glow in the dark crosses, some with taller monuments or clustered near a tomb. J has been fascinated with death. He asks me and his mother about death a lot. At first I was concerned by his persistent inquisitiveness about such a dark topic. Then I realized the topic was more fascinating than dark. It's an amazing curiosity - death. Where do we go? I don't know. We live our entire lives and never get an answer. In the end, when we are at the precipice of a life lived, all we have is faith that we - our mind, our soul, who knows? - are going to a better place. Why wouldn't a child be curious about that?

And so as we passed this cemetery, the questions began. The conversation went like this:

 J: Daddy, is that a cemetery?
Me: Yes.
J: Daddy, what are all those stones?
Me: Those are gravestones.
J: Are people buried there?
Me: Yes.
J: Underground?
Me: That's right.
J: Daddy...?
Me: Yes...?
J: Where do people go when they die?
Me: Well, some people believe that we go to a better place.
J: Is that called heaven?
Me: Some people call it heaven, yes.

 I had a feeling where his line of questioning was going. But the destination still blew my mind.

 J: Daddy...?
Me: Yes, Jaden.
J: Is heaven underground?

Emotion overwhelms me: the pure joy of a child's amazing powers of wonder. I gave him the best answer I could think of at the moment.

 Me: Heaven is wherever you want it to be.