Thursday, August 17, 2023

“A Night in Tunisia”

Mr. Stevens took a good drag on his Philip Morris and then stared down at Milford from under his fedora. The bruise on the great man’s face had grown in size and deepened in color to a rich purplish ruby, glowing somehow nobly in the dim and dappled lights of the bar. Even sitting on a barstool he towered like a great living mountain over the younger man, and Milford knew that even the old poet’s most casual nudge would probably send him sprawling to the sawdust on the floor.

“Okay,” said Mr. Stevens, “first thing you’ve got to do. Are you listening? Because this one is important.”

“Yes, sir, I mean Wally.”


“Stop trying to write like anyone else.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“You say okay, but are you going to do it?”


“There already is a Dylan fucking Thomas, and he’s bad enough. So cut it out. Same thing with Auden, with Robinson Jeffers, and especially with that prig Eliot.”


“Just stop copying other people. Nobody wants to read imitations, especially imitations of crap.”

“Okay,” said Milford, knowing now that he had to throw out every page he had ever written.

Mr. Stevens picked up his Rob Roy, took a good drink, sighed, as if appreciatively, and laid his glass back down on the bartop.

A few seconds ticked by, amidst the noise of laughing and shouting people, and the clamor of the jazz combo in the back of the bar.

“So, uh,” said Milford, “is that all?”

Quickly Mr. Stevens turned his head, glowering.

“No, that’s not fucking all. Jesus Christ, kid, can’t a man take a dramatic pause?”


“Don’t be sorry. Just keep your shirt on.”


“Where was I?” 

“You said I shouldn’t imitate anybody else.”

“Oh, right. That’s important. Second thing you gotta do. You know what that is?”

“Write like yourself.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I know, I know, you’re thinking you’re not not much, and you’re probably right, but still you’re the only self you have, so write like yourself and not like somebody you wish you were.”

“Um –”

“You think you can handle that, Wilford?”

“I don’t know.”

“May I ask why?”

“I just don’t know if I’m able, I mean, wow –”

“Look, Wilford. I know you’re a punk. A weakling. A spoiled brat. And probably by nature completely devoid of originality, without a spark of creativity anywhere in your being. In fact you are very likely mediocre to your mushy core.”

“Oh boy.”

“And one thing’s for damn sure, and that is there is no cure for a lack of talent, son.”


“And, if I may speak frankly, you don’t exactly exude an aura of genius. More a faint odor of day-old sliced white bread.”

“That’s very harsh, Mr. Stevens.”


“That’s very harsh, Wally.”

“Life is harsh. And then you grow old and die. Unless you die young.”


“I don’t make the rules, kid.”

“Okay,” said Milford. “So, what you’re really saying is there’s no hope for me to ever, you know, be a great poet?”

“There probably is no hope, kid, I’m sorry to tell you.”


“You can spend all the hours you want scribbling, go to all the writer’s retreats in the world, none of that matters.”

“It doesn’t?”


“But I thought you were going to give me advice.”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“But advice on how to become a good poet.”

“Yes, and your point is?”

“Well, how can I become a good poet if I am mediocre, and without originality, or –”

“Or genius.”

“Yes, or genius.”

“Because nobody wants to read poetry written by some ham-and-egger, Wilford. They only want the genius stuff. Shakespeare knew that. Even in his day he knew the people in the back rows wanted genius, and that’s what he gave them, in spades.”

“Okay, so I’m probably not a genius –”


“Most likely?”

“Yeah, that’s more like it. Most likely – almost certainly – you are not a genius, or anything close to it. Pretty far fucking from it, if we’re being honest.”

“Mr. Stevens –”


“Wally, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but I don’t see how anything you’re saying is any sort of encouragement to me –”

“I’m not here to encourage you, kid. I’m here to tell you to cut the shit.”

“You mean I should stop trying?”

“I don’t give a shit what you do. If you want to waste your life trying to write poetry that doesn’t suck donkey dick, then be my guest.”


“Go ahead. Write crap. Who cares?”


“Let me ask you a question, Wilford. Have you ever written a single line that’s any good?”

Now it was Milford who paused. But then he spoke.

“No,” he said. “I’ve never written a single good line.”

“Good,” said Mr. Stevens.

“Good? What’s good about it?”

“What’s good about it is you’re not kidding yourself anymore.”

“So I should give up?”

“That’s up to you.”

Milford felt a great depression settling over him, over the depression that he already felt, the depression that was always there. He took a drink of his ginger ale. It had grown flat.

“But don’t be depressed,” said Mr. Stevens.

“No?” said Milford. “And how do I manage that?”

“I’ll tell you how. Because there’s still a chance you might write something good.”

“There is?”

“A small chance.”


“A tiny, almost infinitesimal chance. Are you willing to take that chance?”

“Yes, sir, I mean Wally.”

“Because it is your only chance.”


“All right, then, I’m gonna tell you what you need to do.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you listening?”


“Okay, then. Listen up, and listen tight, because I’m not going to repeat myself. What I am about to tell you is the most invaluable advice you will ever receive. And it’s up to you what you do with it. Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir.”


“I mean, yes, Wally.”

“All right, then.”

Mr. Stevens picked up his Rob Roy, took another drink, sighed, laid the glass down. The combo was playing very loud now. What was the song? It was “A Night in Tunisia”. There was a saxophone player, and his long screaming notes seemed to wash through Milford’s tender brain, exploding like a succession of deafening crashing waves over Mr. Stevens’s great face, with its moving lips out of which presumably came words, and then with one last sad descending cry the saxophone subsided and the drums rattled and pounded and the cymbals shimmered and the pianist took over.

Mr. Stevens took a drag on his Philip Morris, exhaled the smoke in Milford’s face. What had he been saying? He stubbed out the cigarette.

“So that’s it,” he said. “That’s the secret. Do you understand now?”

Milford considered asking the great poet to repeat himself, because he hadn’t heard a word of what the man had said, but on second thought he decided not to.

“Yes,” said Milford. “I understand now.”

He understood nothing, and he understood that it didn’t matter.

{Please go here to read the unexpurgated “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

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