Aspen Summer Words 2014 Panel
Featuring: Billy Collins and Melissa Bank
Moderator: Kitty Boone
Kitty Boone: Would your friends ever call you funny?
Billy Collins: “Yes.”
KB: Why is that?
BC: Before we fully answer that, can I just say, this is the world’s most deadly subject, writers talking about humor. … Writers think of humor as, it’s like a disobedient dog. When you call its name, it runs in the opposite direction. Having said that, we’re both funny in real life, at least with each other. I mean, I’ve never seen Melissa without me.”
You can’t put it on really. That’s one authentic thing, I think, about humor. I mean, we all know, if any of us have ever sat in a classroom or had a job, which is probably everybody, we all know we can pretend to be serious. Right? I mean, we’re all sort of pretending to be serious now. But you can’t pretend to be funny. It’s either funny or it’s not funny. You can’t think it, right? So there’s something authentic about using humor. Also, there’s a kind of addictive power to it. People who are comedians or who are comedic writers for the stage would tell you that to make people laugh is a kind of addictive power because you’re really causing an involuntary physical reaction in people. To me, it would be like pointing at someone and making them sneeze.
Melissa Bank: You find out how desperate people are to laugh when you give a reading and you’re not reading something funny, and they laugh anyway. Really, we are desperate, and actually I’m going to be a downer for a minute and say, it’s actually something to watch out for in your own sense of what good writing is. Because when you go to a reading and somebody is getting a lot of laughs, you think, ‘Well, I like that. I want that.’ I think actually in my book there’s a line that someone says that’s like ‘You make a joke and when someone laughs, you think they are saying ‘I love you.’ ’ And it is kind of addictive, but you have to remember that when you write, you’re writing for the page, and you’re writing for a private experience, and what might be funny such as, like, poo-poo jokes, at a reading, where people are dying to laugh, is not going to be that meaningful on the page.
BC: I think you’re right, that laughter is a group experience, the humor that results in laughter, whether it’s a few people or an audience full of people. But also, I think Americans are very ready to laugh. I think it’s cross-cultural too. We tend to use laughter as a kind of social lubricant. I don’t know, I’ve been to Russia twice, and it’s not that they don’t have a sense of humor—they don’t laugh at readings very much, but they laugh when someone is deeply funny. And usually darkly funny. Really depressingly funny. They find humor in it. But we get together and we start laughing. And if you are at a restaurant, tables of people are just constantly laughing. It’s a social lubricant.
KB: Do humor and laughter come from a place of needing to mask the darker side of life or is laughter the best side of life, that we try to celebrate with laughter?
BC: Well, I think humor can access some very serious places. And I think humor, at least in poetry, can be a doorway into serious subjects. In fact, if a poem I write has humor in it, if you want to put it that way, I put it there, but I’m not trying to make people laugh for no good reason. I’m probably trying to make them laugh to disarm them. Because humor is a strategy, not an end in itself. That was basically what was the matter with light verse—not the matter, because I love Ogden Nash, I wrote an essay on him—and when I went to research Ogden Nash, there’s nothing really seriously written on him. But in light verse, the idea is to be funny from beginning to end. Every line has to be equally funny. Whereas, in a lot of poem, a poem can start out funny and then shift into something very dark, or vise versa. So humor can be deployed as a strategy in a poem, and it can be part of a tonal and emotional manipulation or shift. It’s not just ‘ha ha’ but it’s also ‘ha ha, ho ho.’
MB: Also, I would say that in my own work, usually I employ humor in relation to something difficult. I mean, the moment that actually comes to mind from life, and I put it into a story, is something that happened when my father died. The day of the funeral, we were in the driveway getting in that weird, enormous car, and there was this neighbor who was walking up the driveway, and my mother explained that there had been a spate of robberies that took place during a funeral of the family who’d lost somebody. And this person was coming to the house to basically sit with the house and make sure there wasn’t a robbery. And my brother said, ‘Well, she seems like a nice lady. I hope they don’t tie her up.’ … I think what makes it funny often is the distance a joke has to travel from despair. It’s a life-giving or lifesaving thing. I don’t think of it as masking. In some ways, I think humor and despair kind of can complement each other. If you’re despairing, something is funnier than it would be otherwise.
BC: It keeps us… Joy and melancholy exist in adjoining rooms as in a hotel, with a thin partition between them. It seems that they’re connected. The Irish poet, Patrick Cavanaugh, once said that he considered tragedy as institutionally developed comedy.
KB: Do you find pieces of humor—as your brother’s joke—and save them and use them later?
MB: Are you asking me if I steal humor? [laughs] Then the answer is ‘yes.’ … I write constantly in a notebook and possibly that makes me remember things. I have thousands of notebooks. I don’t think I’ve ever read one. … It’s more, I think what happens is I’ll be writing something and I take people who are pretty real in my life and put them in different situations. So, I wrote about David Rakoff, for example, who was a great writer—I’d say he’s still a great writer—and was a great friend. I put him in a story. I probably met him when he was thirty-five and I was five or ten years older. In the story, I put him in he was twenty-one and I was twenty-one, and we worked together. And it wasn’t using things that he’d said, but it was this alive presence who would be funny, like what would David say now? He was the funniest person I’ve ever known.
KB: Who are the humorists that have really inspired you or who make you laugh?
BC: This might be a longer answer than you wanted. Humor’s had a really terrible reputation over the last hundred and fifty years in the poetry written in English, and I’m just going to give you a ninety second history of humor in English poetry. … Chaucer is funny, right? And sometimes hilarious. Shakespeare wrote comedies … Then you get to the metaphysical poets, whose poems all turn on wit, right? Then we move into Augustine satire that’s making fun of other people. Man is like the only creature who laughs. But he’s the only creature who’s laughed at, something Bergson points out. Anyway, things are moving smoothly along, comedy and humor have a place in poetry as they would have a place in life, until we get to the English romantic poets. In 1798 there was a meeting among the most romantic poets. They went into a back room and they struck a deal. And the deal was, one of them said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to eliminate sex and humor from poetry. And we’re going to substitute landscape.’ And this strikes me as a bad deal. Sex crept back in in Victorian times, as we know. But you really couldn’t be humorous throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and for about half of the twentieth century. If you were a humorist in poetry, you were consigned to a ghetto called ‘light verse.’ Or limericks in it or that kind of verse that is humorous or jokey all throughout. And then to get to the poets I think are funny, there aren’t very many until the 50s and 60s really. When I was starting to write poetry, I mistook a couple things about poetry: (1) that it was hard to understand and (2) that the poet was miserable. And so, fair enough, I wanted to be a poet so badly, I wrote poems that were really hard to understand. By the way, that’s easy to do. They gave off whiffs that I was convincingly miserable. Whereas, I was actually a very happy kid or person. So, it wasn’t until I read Phillip Larkin, for example. And Larkin taught me that you could be funny and deadly serious, darkly serious, and yet have this ironic edge. Then there were other people like Kenneth Koch and Ron Patchett of the New York School of poets, who rode on this kind of ironic wave through their poetry, with sentimentality on the one side and cynicism on the other side. And irony is a kind of balancing act between those two flaws in a way. And now, to really fast forward to the end of this, I think the place of humor in poetry—the fact that it’s been regained and reclaimed—is proven by an anthology that came out about three years ago called Seriously Funny. It’s an anthology of poets who are humorous but with serious intent. … I remember repressing my sense of humor. I didn’t know it belonged in poetry. I didn’t know it was decorous to be humorous. So then I was able to release it, for better or worse.
I didn’t get my first book published until I was in my forties, so I got a late start. I started writing when I was about ten, and then there were the dark years for thirty years, squandered largely on betting on professional and college football and other activities. I was afraid to write, I was afraid to be serious about it, because I was afraid I’d never be any good.
Phillip Larkin, Kenneth Koch, some L.A. poets … the New York poets, William Matthews is another one. Quite a few of them had a humorous edge to them. They weren’t ‘funny guys’ in a way, in that sense, but they were playful, and particularly Kenneth Koch. He has a poem that begins, ‘You were wearing your Edgar Allen Poe satin blouse.’ And I just stopped there when I read that. I didn’t realize that a blouse could be a poet’s name. And then I thought—and this is the way permission slips get handed from poet to poet—I thought, well then I could have a John Greenleaf Wittier t-shirt or socks or something. So then this kind of dislodging of logic, and that’s humorous. Humor is usually based on some disparity—you know, the standard definition—between reality and some bridgeable reality or some kooky reality. And recognizing the difference is personal. I think the other thing about humor…we talk about an in-joke. We never talk about an in-inaugural speech. Or an insider annual report. So, with humor, the audience is divided into two groups. You know that when you are getting something in reading someone like Kingsley Amis or Terry Southern, you realize you’re getting something that the other people wouldn’t get. There’s a sort or exclusivity. There’s a club you enter when you’re a humor appreciator.
MB: When I started graduate school, I don’t think I’d ever written anything funny. And one of my professors said, ‘You’re funny. Why isn’t your writing funny?’ And I thought, ‘You know nothing about literature.’ … In my class today, we had two very kind of monster things: a murder in one and in the other a drug overdose. They were very dramatic. And that is what I would have thought of as worthy subjects. And a worthy subject afforded no humor. I mean, it was some idea of … I was aspiring to a certain kind of greatness. Why laugh? But it was actually in giving up that idea, of being somehow a ‘great writer,’ which meant becoming a different human being on the page, it was giving up that idea that actually allowed me to begin writing. And there were people like even, I remember who really did sort of feel like they gave me permission—what Billy was saying—one of them was Grace Paley and I remember Pam Houston. Just being stunned. I was just like, ‘You can do that?’ And it is kind of addictive. I feel like it is in life like a way you get out of pain and break the power of gloom or something.
BC: Well it’s true that literary aspirations, there’s nothing funny about them. That’s probably why a lot of writing is gloomy. Because behind it is the aspirational writer who is dead serious about success.
MB: And that’s like the enemy of humor.
BC: We know that the content of literature is misery, or poetry at least. Bleeding to death.
… a poem that uses humor in an intelligent way, or a strategic way, I should say. Here’s a poem by a poet named Ruth Schwartz. And it’s called The Swan at Edgewater Park. [He reads the poem.]
So, she makes you laugh with that big, broad, ‘Look at that big duck.’ It’s a laugh line. But it’s the hinge point of the poem, where it moves into this very sad story of Lori. So it’s used as a disarming strategy. You laugh, you are opened by the laughter, and then you are very susceptible to receiving the story of this 27-year old girl at a dead-end in her life. So that’s a clever use, a very strategic use of humor in a poem. And I think Ruth Schwartz knows exactly what she is doing there.
KB: I’m curious about women and humor. Is a funny woman scary to guys?
MB: It’s a totally different deal than a funny guy. I remember when my first book came out, I got an interview faxed to me. For some reason, my book was published in France first. And I had my first interview faxed to me. And one of the questions was, ‘Your character is funny. But everyone knows that an attractive woman can’t be funny.’ I may not be quoting that exactly right. But in my first book, there is a kind of retrograde dating manual, and in it, it sort of very much taken from the book that came out around that time called The Rules, which is basically about how to manipulate men into marrying you. And, in fact, I’m going to read a quote from the book, I’m just going to read it out loud, just because it sort of tells you. So this is from The Rules. ‘When you’re with a man you like, be quiet and mysterious. Act ladylike. Cross your legs and smile. Don’t talk so much. Wear black sheer pantyhose and hike up your skirt to entice the opposite sex. You might feel offended by this suggestion and argue this will suppress your intelligence or vivacious personality. You may feel that you won’t be able to be yourself. But men will love it.’ There is, actually, a line there that is, ‘Don’t be funny.’ These women write, ‘Funny is the opposite of sexy.’ So, I think what’s sort of interesting about it is, first of all, it never occurred to me that being funny, my being funny, wasn’t a great aphrodisiac. No matter how things were going or how little evidence [I had] to corroborate that, no matter the years I spent alone as men would walk away laughing to go pick up that other girl. It was kind of shocking to me. I sort of assumed that I loved when men were funny. Why wouldn’t they love when I was funny? But there is a sort of aggression to humor. And, you know, if you think about sexiness or being erotic, you are sort of casting a spell. And humor is the spell breaker. It’s the spell breaker of pretention. It’s a way of gaining some kind of control or domination sometimes. It is a form of power.
BC: It’s a leveler.
How come women say—this is going to get me in trouble. How come women say something that men don’t say. They say, ‘I can’t remember jokes.’ … For a lot of men, jokes are a currency. They’re a currency of friendship or of being that if jokes aren’t being told… particularly New York is a clearinghouse for jokes. You should have like three or four recent jokes at your fingertips, just to flash your joke cards.
MB: You know one of the amazing things, and I know many of you probably know this, when you are writing really well, at least when I’m writing well—those few instances in my life—it doesn’t seem to come from you. It’s so not you. It’s so much better than you are. In fact, Adrienne Brodeur, who is our wonderful co-director… I did a commission for Adrienne, for her magazine Zoetrope, and I would call Adrienne—I didn’t know her very well—I would call her and read her funny lines from the story. … It didn’t feel like I was bragging. It felt like this miracle came into my studio and allowed me to transcribe it. It didn’t feel like something that said I was funny or smart or anything. It was so much better than anything I would be able to come up with. In fact, I think the great writing that you do always feels like that. It feels like it flew in in spite of the other part of you, which is more like a teacher of driver’s ed than creativity.
KB: If you read Bossy Pants, humor is Tina Fey. She just is humor. You will laugh out loud at Bossy Pants. It’s just the way it is. But she’s a comic. And you’re not. Would you want to be called a humorist?
MB: You know, it’s funny. I was once with David Rakoff. We went to the Montreal Comedy Festival and we read together. It was a comedy audience. A comedy audience is used to something really funny every two or three seconds it seems. And we were both reading stories that had comedy in them. But you know we were not a big hit. I remember going back to my room and just being so angry at myself for not being funnier. And also, not being more of a performer. Because that is a comic’s terrain. Billy is a fantastic reader and there are plenty of readers who are able to be funny. But it’s not, we’re not comics. And I’m grateful for every funny moment I get, but it usually doesn’t come without some serious thing behind it.
BC: I got a prize from the Poetry Foundation a couple of years ago. It’s the first time they came up with this prize. It was called the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. Well, two revealing things about that. First of all, it’s named after Mark Twain, who never wrote poetry. That swings naturally back to what I was saying before about the reputation of humor in poetry. They couldn’t find a poet who was humorous and had sufficient gravitas or stature to have a poetry prize named after them. The other thing was, even though the prize—and by the way, it was $25,000—but a number of people called and said, ‘Were you insulted by that?’ Clearly the sense was, they were sensitive to the potential and real danger of being categorized as a comic writer or a humorous poet, put in that kind of box, which revealed that there was no precedent in humorous poetry and also that it’s still perceived as a danger or a lessening of seriousness. And I think I’ve gotten a lot kind of critical heat, I mean a lot of times my poems are criticized for being underconceptualized, you might say. My response is, ‘Well, you know, problematize it.’
In this wonderful workshop, we’re meeting every morning. And we were talking about titles and I was saying I like titles that are either very simple like ‘Rhubarb’ or titles that are explanatory and helpful. This is one of the latter. So the poem is called, ‘I Chopped Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice.’ [Reads the poem.]
KB: I have this image of you standing at the kitchen counter at a beautiful chopping board, chopping parsley, and this poem comes to you. Do you just drop the knife?
BC: You say, ‘Screw the parsley,’ yes. You get right on it. It’s like ‘Game on.’ As soon as you have an inkling that the idea has momentum, that it starts rolling forward … suddenly this thing opens up. So I think dinner got burned or something. I get right on it. There are sort of long periods of nothingness followed by, or interrupted by, moments of intense creative activity. And, yeah, when something starts to happen, I follow it right away. Or forget it.
It’s not the title that comes first. It’s the inkling that comes first. There’s a possibility of involving myself in a meditation on the blindness of these three famous mice. That’s what comes first. But then, I think the title came quickly after that. I mean, usually they come first. Some of them, they have to come first. “
… just being a mischief maker, a bad boy. Or keeping the reader off guard. We were talking in this workshop about the limits of sincerity. And sincerity really never entered poetry. And once sex and humor were lost and landscape took over, another aspect, sincerity, was prioritized by the romantics. Prior to that, there’s satire, there’s cleverness, but being personally sincere, actually writing down what you really, really feel, is relatively, historically relatively recent.[Billy also reads Bathtub Families and The Country.]
For MB: Do you ever feel pressure to be funny, to insert humor?
MB: You know, humor to me generally does relate to what’s going on in the story. It doesn’t really come on its own very often. Nothing would make me happier than a constant stream of humor coming out of my pen. But it is hard. One thing, I think we can learn a lot from comics as writers, because there is a way in which they are as economical or … like a well-told, I don’t think we want to call them jokes. I think about Louis C.K., who is really funny. He can also be very funny about serious things. I remember recently hearing him say something about, ‘You know everybody wants to know what happens when you die. There’s the Super Bowl. Everything just goes on. But without you.’ That’s serious stuff. And I feel like comics are just the way writers are. They are trying to be as economical as possible.
BC: The most essential thrill of writing is nothing existed on those pages and you brought something into being, you gave birth to this thing. And I think its existence there is on the page, and for a moment all it takes is one page. There it is, and nothing was there, and that gives it a kind of unreality. I did that? You can’t really remember how you wrote it. Or you can’t revisit that zone of creativity. And it is a kind of special place. You’re out of your head.
What do you do if you have a form of humor block?
BC: Well I’m always looking for a reason to stop being funny so that the poem can have a more serious ending. So, I’m looking for the humorous run to exhaust itself, because I don’t want to just start funny and end funny. … My poems tend to be, the humor is more modulated or it’s a kind of low-grade irony rather than going for laughs.
The handful of subjects that poets have been treating for a couple thousand years. Basically, love, death … and death. Love is in there. And maybe a couple [more like] grief. There’s a handful of themes. And humor is just a way of accessing these themes, I think. And there’s a kind of magnetic north—or norths, plural, if you will—that however the poem starts out, it usually starts gravitating toward these subjects. You know it kind of, it ends with one of these large subjects. I think all the poems are kind of touching on that. And it’s just a matter of making up new metaphors, new points of access to these larger topics.
MB: What you’re trying to do in writing is be the ‘you-est’ you can be. And imitating somebody else is generally not a good idea, because you can only be a really good imitation of somebody else. That’s the struggle, is kind of finding and respecting what uniquely belongs to you.
BC: We disagree on that. I believe that it’s all imitation. It all starts, you learn by imitating others. It’s all about influence. And I think if anyone has an original voice or a voice that we recognize as unfamiliar and fresh, that person has learned to combine their influences in such a way as to not make them easily detectible. Because I think writing is the result of reading. Writers are just people who have been moved by their reading to emulation. They can’t help but try doing it themselves. They might do it themselves because they read around and they think, ‘I can do better than that, surely.’
People who write humorously, it’s really part of their makeup. I mean, they’re not putting it on. I think frankly it’s a way of seeing things. It’s a sensibility. It’s almost an epistemological position, that you’re seeing things naturally in a skewed way. Odd parts of conversation attract you more than the content. That’s always the case with me. When I’m listening to a conversation or talk around a table or something, or dinner, I’m always waiting for the conversation to screw up or for somebody to say something that is an unintended pun, and we go off on that topic and the hell with what we were talking about. I’m always looking for a way out of seriousness in social life anyway. So, I think it’s a way of seeing. I think it’s a form of perception. So, it’s part of your vision of the way you see the world. … I think it’s really dangerous for a younger writer particularly to say, ‘I’m going to write some funny poems,’ if that’s not a natural thing to you, if it doesn’t come naturally. Because it’s not going to work.