Monday, April 16, 2007


My friend Lisa loaned me a crudely produced, saddle-stapled chapbook of poems run together to fit as many as possible in its eighty pages, with only one (big) blurb on the back of it, from Harvey Pekar (the guy whose writings-turned-into-comics about his seemingly mundane daily life was made into the flick AMERICAN SPLENDOR).

And after reading only a couple of poems in it I began to wonder, how could I have overlooked this guy.

I must have heard of him before, because he writes about New Jersey, about places close to where I grew up (though years later), and about similar people and experiences.

Someone must have told me about him over the years. I maybe even met him somewhere, or at least ran across one or more of his poems I would think. I can see from the acknowledgements that some were published in magazines and even an anthology— IDENTITY LESSONS—that I was published in too.

So how come I missed his greatness until now?

That’s one of those unpredictable odd things about life ain’t it?

One obvious reason is there’s just too much out there. Even as a boy I could never have imagined how much, nor, I suspect, could anyone else have.

The sheer and simple increases in population, as well as the concurrent increases in outlets for creativity, means there’s just so much stuff out there—many would say too feckin’ much (the Irish accent made it a reality that only Irish recipients of Grammies and Tonys and Oscars could get away with using “fucking” as an adjective on TV without being bleeped initially).

But this guy was right up my alley, literally.

I’ve had people try to turn me on to other guys, or their writing or art or whatever, who they thought I had a lot in common with, and the usual result was indifference or even animosity.

Because usually I, or we, didn’t see the similarities, or they were only superficial and had nothing to do with who we really were, which was very much in opposition on many levels, or, we were actually alike in many ways and therefore there wasn’t anything to explore, or get over, or to satisfy our natural curiosity that made us move out of where we came from in the first place.

But this guy, whether we would dig each other in person, or whether he might have known my work in any way—since I wrote about some similar subjects and places a while before he did and since we obviously appeared in some of the same venues—this guy I share some real stuff with.

And though we might not have dug each other in person, if we ever met, I certainly would have dug his work had I only paid real attention to it, or seen enough of it to take the measure of his genius, as I now have, thanks to my friend Lisa.

I don’t know if you can even get hold of this chapbook, though I assume we can get almost anything on line.

So here it is: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, New & Selected Poems from Elizabeth, New Jersey by Joe Weil, published by Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books.

I just googled him to see about other books, and it turns out he’s all over the web, even in Wikepedia (where as far as I know I ain’t), and though I was told he was homeless and had maybe already passed on, he seems to teach at SUNY upstate New York, and economics (!) among other subjects, and appears to be highly regarded in academic as well as the usual poetry mob scenes, so I guess I don’t have to tout him like he’s been overlooked.

Still, you, like me, might have missed him.

But don’t take all the citations on the web, or mine or my friend’s or Harvey Pekar’s recommendations though, check it out for yourself, and see where this terrific poet is coming from.

As he puts it in the poem “Ode to Elizabeth”: “Where nothing is sacred, everything is sacred/Where no one writes, the air seems strangely/charged with metaphor.”

Is it a coincidence that the lines before that are: “At night, I can still hear mothers yelling:/’Michael, supper! Get your ass in gear!’

Or as he puts it in another poem, “So Kiss Me Asshole”: he comes from “the neighborhood/of unhappy waitresses.”

A neighborhood worth a visit.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I Googled him too, but the Net is deceiving - there are no dates - and so it's not clear if he's currently teaching. That crudely printed chapbook, and his reading six years ago, do not match the online 'resume.' I prefer the romance of the slightly shabby man who disappeared into the Jersey night after wowing me with his prose.
(PS Never be afraid you're going to miss the good ones - that's like being nostalgic for a future lover. They come when we're ready. Stay ready.)

Anonymous said...

Lols, Lisa had lent me Weill's book, and I'm glad I finally returned it so you could read it. I liked his writing, but I felt about it as I feel about much of Buk's poetry: it's definitely interesting writing, but its has so few apparent structural concerns that it's hard for me to think of it as poetry. Nothing new there, though: I have the same problem with the overwhelming majority of poetry since about 1930. If there is structure, it's over my head---which is always quite possible, but I do think that means that there a lot of other people who would miss it too. But I'm glad Weill turned you on! It's like hearing a blues guitarist you never heard before and realizing that they're telling you the truth. I had that experience within the last decade with both Lonnie Johnson and Tinsley Ellis. It's hard to ever get too much of the truth---at least if you're not trying to live a lie.


Lally said...

Yeah, formally Weil isn't doing anything that fancy or innovative, mostly just some rhyming and off-rhyming and some rhythmic patterns that sometimes scan. It's a no frills poetry that William Carlos Williams was the early genius of and which was common in the second half of the 20th Century and continues to be. But the way he drops an unexpected metaphor or image or deep observation into what is otherwise a mundane recounting of the dailiness of his Jersey working-class existence and surroundings displays his formidable poetic gift. And, though not unique, his voice resonates and marks a unique place for itself in the accumulation of personal experience and perspective. Though his poetry, like much of mine, is often taken for more prose than poetry, the poetic elements in it are what lifts it out of the realm of ordinary speech and communication and into the transcendent realm of great art, at least for me.

Anonymous said...

So is it poetry because it's cut up into lines? So that if it wasn't organized that way it would be considered prose? Reminding me of the several passages in Moby Dick which scan and were probably generated as poetry to begin with. But it appears as prose.

I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know, however, that my own personal view is that poetry, in its broadest, multi-cultural sense, is simply language which has been rhythmically organized in some way. All other definitions are at the mercy of history and cultural traditions. It is the fact that it is organized rhythmically---again, in all kinds of ways---which marks it as poetry, even if the language is unknown. And, while I don't insist on this being everyone's defintion, since I'm not that kind of guy, I'm sure interested in hearing other definitions which would be as inclusive as that one.

And I think I meant Luther Johnson, not Lonnie Johnson.

Now let me see how you responded to my calumnies against one of your heroes. Hey, don't take it too hard. The most important man in my life among those I never met was Miles, and he was known to hit a woman now and then, which merits some devastating retribution in my eyes.


Lally said...

Your post-1930 bit is a little like someone who doesn't dig post-representational art, or post-cubist or whatever, i.e. abstract, pop, conceptual, etc. Is it art if the artist just signs a urinal? or calls a snow shovel "in advance of a broken arm?" Well, according to most museums and art histories and art critics and artists themselves, when Marcel Duchamp did that he redefined "art" as basically anything the artist says it is. We can say we don't like it, but we can't say it isn't "art" unless we want the world to agree that only what we consider "art" is art etc. Same with poetry. It used to scan and rhyme and follow certain structural prerequisites (which mostly came from other cultures, a long time before, like Greek, Roman etc.) but at some point poets broke the old rules and expanded the meaning. Such pre-1930 poets, way pre-1930, as Walt Whtiman for instance, etc. Your definition is as good as anyone else's, that it's words organized rhythmically, but let's drop even the rhythm requirement and just say words organized in a way determined by the poet, even if that way is based on random or arbitrary devices, i.e. say Jackson Mac Low's poetry of "chance" or "found poetry" et. al. What I think you are really saying is just a statement of taste. Which we're all allowed anyway. It's a little like jazz musicians who used to denigrate that term, because of its origins, and prefer the term "music" although most of us knew what we meant by "jazz" when we used the term, until in the late 1950s musicians started experimenting with "free form" jazz and then even more "progressive" sounds that included random noises and squawks and etc. For some of us, that was too much, for others it was just to their taste, and if the musicians who played it called it "jazz" who were we to argue. All too "relative" for you? Stick around. If history repeats itself, someone will be writing in 2050, how they just don't like the stuff written after 2000, it just doesn't seem like "poetry" to them anymore, where's the randomness, where's the arbitrary and/or personal labeling of what seemed like prose to the uninitiated or etc. The real answer, is ask any poet what poetry is and you'll probably get a different answer from most of them. For this poet, it's anything I say it is. Not this comment, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm . . . apart from any difficulties I might have accepting undefined definitions, how about the more pragmatic question: how is one supposed to read poetry which seems or is structurally random?

Personally, I can't stand conceptual art, and I'm not a big Ornette fan either---even though he did sincerely appreciate Scott LaFaro.


punctuation without capitalization said...

to read one of joe weil's books for free, online...

punctuation without capitalization said...

i mean

Anonymous said...

i am currently taking a course with joe weil @ SUNY Binghamton. He is alive and appears to be well, thought he claims to have sworn off love forever. He is very spunky and energetic. He is one of the best editors of poetry that I have come across in my short time spent writing, and he is more well-read than anyone I know. He lives a life of poetry. He is very passionate about his students and always has five or six people in his office at once. He is a short, pudgy, balding Irishman who smokes a lot and coughs a lot and wears shirts stained with tomato sauce. Sometimes spittle flies from his mouth when he become excited. He is able to get his knowledge across without being pretentious. I rarely find myself disagreeing with him in regards to craft.

His class usually consists of three or four "feature" poets where the poet reads his or her work and then we discuss it. Joe sometimes goes on tangents but all of them are interesting and relevant (for instance, last week he spoke about the difference between eroticism and romance).

Joe Weil is a passionate poet and professor. He is the type of adult that children and young adults want to be around, because he is so fun and energetic. His poems are poems, not prose. Type his name into youtube if you would like to see some of his posts, or search for the Joe Weil Morning Poem show on facebook to get some fairly regular updates about poesy.