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.
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.