On Not Being Frank

I’ve heard tell from multiple people – some who knew him, some who teach him – that Frank O’Hara took his typewriter everywhere, and would prop it up on any available surface, in whichever situation, to write a perfect poem.

The O’Hara poem that introduced me to Pierre Reverdy. Not a party poem, but one of his famous Lunch Poems.

He was famous for doing this at parties: cigarette attached to his bottom lip, he’d pass his drink to the nearest person, and type. I’ve seen footage. He would read the poem out as he composed it, revise it – scratch bits out, add bits – and end up with a finished, publishable, poem. Last Thursday, as an unplanned party emerged from, of all things, a public consultation on the possible reopening of our local railway station, I seized the opportunity to give the O’Hara method a go. 

The evening began in the Annandale Arms where, we’d heard, the usual crowd was going to be a bit thin due to a particularly violent bug that’s doing the rounds. But a friend of ours was down from Glasgow, and would be there with his guitar. We all agreed it was an opportunity not to be missed. So D called another friend, one who hadn’t been at the meeting, and, at quarter to nine, packed his guitar and left the house. I stayed at my desk till half past ten to finish a few tasks, then brushed my hair, put my laptop in my bag, and dashed out into the cold night. Full of intentions to write a marvel. 

This proved to be a cat-herding situation. The place was stowed, and my only option was to sit on a too high seat – my lap at an intolerable slant – some distance from any computer friendly surface, in the midst of a crowd. So I joined in with the chat, laughed uncontrollably at a story about a mincing stag, drank two glasses of wine, and forgot about being Frank. At closing time, though, we and a few others, including the friend from Glasgow, headed to Ian’s house. There, at the kitchen table, as wine was being uncorked, and guitars debagged, I took my trusty MacBook Pro out of my bag and opened it on the table. As the music, conversation, and wine flowed my fingers tip-tapped a pile of crap. 

I found it impossible to separate myself from what was going on in the room. The best I could manage was:

Trying to write a poem in this worried man singing a worried song Ian’s kitchen table milieu is madness. Dave’s playing Lionel’s gigging guitar; Robert is playing Satisfied Mind as if it’s the folk song I grew up with. Dave adds just the right amount of Dire Straits: gorgeous, I’m the luckiest woman in the world, albeit a non-writing one. I should just sit back and enjoy the show.

Jane makes hieroglyphs on her notepad. I type and wish I had something to say; let my glass be refilled and listen.

Robert tells me, in song, I’ve got a friend in him and I believe it, he’s got one in me too, and this recalcitrant prose feels like an unwelcome pretender.  

So that didn’t work! However, the very next day spawned yet another party, this time at our house just as I was thinking of retiring. So I tried again. 

A text flies in at midnight

a knock, and then a house

full of people talking about a stork. Kettle on

El Viñedo Perdido waiting on the table and voices

all around like the smell of linen

on wash day. Jane’s

not sure but was struck by Dave’s

face before, during and

after. And knowing how amused

he feels about that dark song

I perceive what she means, though I wasn’t

there this time to see. The bottle’s upended

but I’m on water and getting

nowhere in this mode. Frank

could do it, I don’t know

how, did he ignore the stories or

incorporate them? Dougie

McLean won’t pick

up a guitar for less than two

k these days, poor sod; the tragedy of the concert we put

on that day, the main act too

ill, or old, to play but kind enough to try; oh give

the kid a break; remember Rab Noakes

what a joy that man was? And the badgers

always the badgers.

I don’t have to tell you that this is no more than a little heap of vomit. 

It’s possible that O’Hara could do it because the parties he went to were full of other writers and artists he collaborated with regularly. Wherever he went he was in the milieu that nourished his work. But it’s just as likely that he was his poetry in a way that I’m not yet my writing, so it just oozed out of him at all times. Here’s a short film of him at it,* if you don’t want to watch the whole thing go to 8:25 where, as he’s typing his phone rings:

It’s also possible that this is still too new for me, and with practise I’ll improve. Almost everything, it seems to me, comes down to practise. Luckily I did get another chance the following Tuesday.

When I decided to try and earn a few quid running writing workshops in a café, I hadn’t even considered the O’Hara angle. I was thinking even more romantically: of steam puffs, clattering spoons, chattering strangers, and all the stories of the Café de Floré. But a café isn’t that different from a party, it’s full of people and distractions, so when I took the first of six weekly writing workshops I counted it as part of the O’Hara exercise.

And, reader, I managed to write a complete story! It’s not perfect, and it’s not finished, but it is whole. I’m now working on polishing it for next Monday’s post.


Header image: Jacket Magazine:  l. to r. John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Patsy Southgate, Bill Berkson, Kenneth Koch, copyright © Mario Schifano, 1964.
The image is taken from Homage to Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson
and Joe LeSueur, Creative Arts Book Company,
Berkeley, 1980, ISBN 0-916870-29-4.

*Not at a party, unfortunately, I couldn’t find that bit of film.

6 comments

  1. I can’t get over the idea of lugging a typewriter around everywhere! I have a small portable typewriter, and it’s a weight. I think a pen and pad is a much better option. I couldn’t relax if I took my laptop everywhere – the dog would destroy it!
    Have you ever tried the dictation method?
    Sx

    Like

    • I haven’t tried the dictation method, and I think I can do that with this computer, I will give it a go if I can work out how to do it!

      I must admit, I was rather worried that a glass of wine would end up all over my keyboard, remembering what that did to Savanna’s laptop a few years ago, the horror! X

      Like

  2. Thank you very much for giving me another ndge towards O’Hara, who hovers there for years on my margin as someone I’d enjoy reading. I’ve only read a single poem of his which wasn’t half as good as that Lunch Poem. It’s got such a fascinating rhythm, jogging along with sudden stops. I love that (relatively) unmediated writing.

    Your effort is way more than a pile of vomit though! I share everyone’s wonder about how he pulled the trick off. I’d feel so arrogantly self-divorcing myself from the social evening. I’d nip into the loo every now and again to jot notes down, and write it immediately I got in.

    Like

    • You’re welcome, and how lovely it is to see you here in my shabby abode. I love O’Hara, and keep meaning to see if there’s a ‘collected’ to send off for. Must do that now you’ve reminded me.

      I guess he was just in that kind of crowd, all artists and writers jotting things down and randomly performing. Which makes me wonder if I should throw a random-performance party.

      Like

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