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Jeffrey Schultz

09-25-2012

 
Jeffrey Schultz
 
J. Learns the Difference Between Poverty and Having No Money

                                                             after Ernesto Trejo

And the morning's marine layer cloud cover's just beginning to unhinge,
      to let the buttery light of another daybreak slip through
And weigh down the dead lawns and sagging roof-tops
      of this neighborhood, where cold-war era television antennas
Still cast shadows like J B-52s heading offshore, where poverty, this early
      is the smell of Malt-O-Meal and the dregs of thin beer
Washed down the sink. Where the shift begins at 7 AM,
      but consciousness has a way of coming round as slowly
As this old computer monitor flickers its dull sixteen colors into being.
     On it, the names and numbers of laundromat and liquor store owners,
Fast food managers and lawn care companies; it's my job
      to cold call them, read from a script on the benefits of membership
In the Executive Dining Club, not take No for an answer.
     I'm no good and both the boss and I know it, and he's hovering
When the scraped-out voice of the woman on my phone answers me with
      My husband's been killed, and then, instead of hanging up,
Throws the receiver down next to something-dishwasher or window AC,
      I don't know-but something close, it sounds, to tearing itself apart,
Something cycling through an awful, screeching noise.
      And it's because I've paused that the boss flings a pencil
Into the wall in front of me and edges closer, and because of the fear
      of unemployment forms or the sky opening up if I were to walk out,
And because this sound-the un-oiled, flak-fouled crack of it-
      has left me standing suddenly at the end of a runway, planes
Screaming low overhead and loaded for the beginning of the end of the world,
      that I start back into the script, start back as if I believe each word,
Even though, in the rattle and dust of the jet-wash, no one hears a thing.

 

 J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills


                          Griffith Park, Los Angeles

                ...every living heart...all over this broad land, will yet swell...,
                when again touched, as surely they will be,
                by the better angels of our nature.
                          -Abraham Lincoln

Because the body now and its organs suggest nothing
      but those pathologies in which we've been instructed,
Because the gutter's black as new blood, a Petri dish
      of piss and teeth knocked loose at the root,
Because our walking here's scared up pigeons and the air's
      thick with their disease, because, therefore, we're holding
Our breath in silent prayer, Good People of Los Angeles,
      for our immune systems, for hand sanitizer,
For swift and decisive return of the sun's irradiating
      grace, I can hardly say I even know you much
Beyond the turnstile's slick in the discount supermarket,
      the sidewalk's chewing gum and tuberculosis.
But I've been thinking of you, of your eyes darting behind
      the tinted lenses which minimize exposure to UV, to God-
Knows-what, even though it's dark this morning, cold, cold,
      at least, by our way of thinking: frond-tips glimpsed
Through fog-bank, a dew so lightly acidic we've forgotten
      it's the cause of these few more leaves dropped
From evergreens, the rasp at the back of the throat.
      Members of the Taxpayer's Association, divorce
Attorneys, Good People of Bel-Air, you who keep eyes dead-
      ahead at the top of freeway off-ramps, who refuse guilt,
That scrap cardboard hungry sign slung over a stack of bones,
      entrance within the Town Car's four doors, the pure, leather-
Scented air there, I've been thinking about those
      other ones, the thousands of indigents and itinerants,
Formerly among us and suffering the debit card's curse
      on the panhandler, who today, because it is December
And dark, because after cremation they've gone so long
      unclaimed, will be buried in mass anonymity somewhere
Far from here, Boyle Heights or East LA, somewhere
      unremarkable: flatland, barred windows, chain link.
There's a minimum of ceremony. A short benediction
      and half a handful of city employees. Dogs watch
From a distance. It takes a certain kind of distraction,
      a remarkable forgetfulness to not recognize
In those nameless something of that little tyrant, The Self,
      to let history and language fail, let the world outside
Dissolve, a mentholated lozenge on the tongue.
     The taste it leaves is the inability to taste anything else,
And at bottom of the park's southern slope, beneath
      the Hollywood Hills and their Attendant, Contempt, one
Who's wandered a few too many blocks from the half-way
      house's steadying three-times-daily belts into Los Feliz
Boulevard's early rush a few bars of O Lord,
      won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? before schizophrenia
Changes key again into abject terror's primal screech.
      What's remarkable then is the passing jogger's scandalized
I could just die and the morning's usual by-the-numbers.
      All over the basin pyschotherapists await the DSM-V's
New-phone-book thud on the doorstep, and grave shift
      cryogenicists make the last rounds, check temps, check
The corresponding boxes on log sheets while we continue
      in our unrelenting interrogation of the body: Liver!
How do you plot against me today? Brain! You've gone soft. As if
      deep-within's crowded tissues could confess the knowledge
We most desire, as if we'd not already allowed our private
      pandemic to order our days as on a clear plastic pill case,
As if, I mean, to function were synonymous with to live.
      Right down to it, we all know Death's no more likely
To knock and announce than the LAPD, and though
      he may be gentler, he will not, in the end, read perfunctorily
From a list of rights meant to protect us. Everything
      we've said has always been used against us. Los Feliz:
The Happy Ones. We mispronounce. Force a rhyme
      with Felix. Mispronounce and counteract even irony's
Potential side effects. Los Feliz. The Homeless. The Lesser
      and Under-privileged. The Disturbed. May they all someday
Rest in peace. Good night, Sweet Paupers. Abstraction's
      its own little crime against humanity, but euphemism
Is still a lovely word to say aloud. Los Ángeles.
      But what angel is this? Stretched half across the footpath,
Its body's a grotesque, everywhere swollen
      and withered at once. It's gone septic, it's gone
Almost entirely. And what worthless paper is that man
      fumbling with as he approaches? A thinning five maybe,
Lincoln's etched face a gaunt pockmark, beard and ears,
      or else the "Elegy for Sky & Gooseflesh" penciled
On an expired bus transfer? It's a worthless scene:
      a man in headphones and an angel which actually appears
To be something much more like a beggar, except
      that it's passed out and so freed of the beggar's contractual
Obligations. Starved and curled into itself, it looks
      freed even of this world, like something almost not
There at all, a fact the man uses as excuse to keep walking,
      his step timed to the beat, his eyes scanning ahead
For needles, slivered glass, the more subtle sort of dangers.
      What else could he possibly do? Kneel down
And slip stealthily something into the blistered palm
      of its hand? Cover its body with the fallen fronds
Which we can't now help but imagine as resembling wings
      because we're thinking instead of a man slowly dying
In a public park about a real angel and so The Eternal
      and so the failing health of our own souls, a disorder
For which the FDA has yet approved no treatment. Disorder,
      as if it were simply a matter of finding the right arrangement
Of bodies in space. But what can we do, all exactly mad
      with grief for ourselves or hobbled with debt's deep
Tissue bruise? Because in mourning we are to gather
      together, Shoppers of the Miracle Mile, Day Traders,
Night Watchmen, but we're all just standing here
      like fools, unable to look each other in the eyes,
Unable to believe in anything at the unchanging core
      of being but a phantom limb's complete and constant
Wing-ache, because we are what multiplies, the desert
      as it reaches towards even you, Citizens of the Once Frozen
North. In mourning we are to remember, but memory's
      emaciated; there was something supposed to become more
Perfect, something else about what always comes of tyrants,
      but who knows? In mourning we meet in need,
But here in a circle at last, tell me what ridiculous things
      we could possibly ask of each other. Spare a buck?
Sing a little prayer for me? The overcast buckles
      under the weight of a singed and empty sky. Because
There's next to nothing left, America, call our
      name; please, won't you please lay on your hands?

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Interview - First Drafts

Jeffrey Schultz's poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Northwest Review, Poetry, and elsewhere, and have been featured on the PBS Newshour's Art Beat. He's received the "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He teaches at Pepperdine University.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Interview - First Drafts

A “Mini-Review” of Jeffrey Schultz’s “J. Learns the Difference Between Poverty and Having No Money” and "J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Billsby Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz

 

Jeffrey Schultz’s poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, Boxcar Poetry Review, Northwest Review, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Copper Nickel¸ Poetry, and Boston Review, where he won the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize. He is also a winner of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and his work has been featured on PBS Newshour’s ArtBreat and Poetry Daily.

“J. Learns the Difference Between Poverty and Having No Money,” and “J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills” are two in a longer series of “J.” poems inspired by the “E.” poems of Ernesto Trejo.  These poems capture the voice of an alter-ego who seems to be both hero and antihero.  On the one hand, in “J. Learns the Difference Between Poverty and Having No Money,” J. is a telemarketer—he’s “no good,” but is a telemarketer nonetheless.  When he calls a woman and she answers his attempts to sell her membership in the Executive Dining Club with “My husband’s been killed,” with his boss hovering over him menacingly, J. has no choice—since he can’t imagine leaving this job, and fears unemployment—but to “start back into the script, start back as if I believe each word.” Not an admirable job, to be sure, but a necessary one, almost a necessary evil that gives the narrator pause but, ultimately, the need to earn a paycheck wins out.  This is a poem that gets at the very heart of the ethical and rhetorical struggles many people living on the edge of poverty are faced with every day. 

In “J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills,” J. finds himself in Griffith Park in L.A., perhaps meditating on the words of Abraham Lincoln from the epigraph regarding the “better angels of our nature,” and “thinking about those/other ones, the thousands of indigents and itinerants, / Formerly among us and suffering the debit card’s curse/on the panhandler.” The poem is a lengthy meditation on the lives of “Los Feliz. The Homeless. The Lesser / and Under-privileged. The Disturbed,” that looks unapologetically at the realities of the underprivileged, from their littered surroundings to addiction to mental disorders.  Ultimately, after roughly three pages of painfully accurate depiction of the most forgotten sections of Los Angeles and the people who inhabit them, the poem arrives at the conclusion that “there was something supposed to become more Perfect,” presumably an allusion to the preamble to the Constitution.  It is a promise that, for so many of Los Angeles’ and Americas’ citizens, has long been broken.  The poem ends with a moving plea:

 

In mourning we meet in need,

 But here in a circle at last, tell me what ridiculous things

         we could possible ask of each other.  Spare a buck?

Sing a little prayer for me?  The overcast buckles

         under the weight of a singed and empty sky.  Because

There’s next to nothing left, America, call our

         name; please, won’t you please lay on your hands?

In these final lines, the voice of J. transforms into the voice of a multitude of those who have been left behind by a nation whose ideals consistently outpace its economic realities for far more of its citizens than we are able or perhaps willing to recognize. 

Both poems live in long lines, most ranging from a dozen to up to eighteen syllables, lines which house exquisitely long sentences that don’t feel nearly as long as they actually are because of length of the lines and the syntactical line breaks.  In fact, the punctuation and line break moderate the length perfectly, and Schultz’s control of his sentences is evident in the way each line and sentence holds together.  There is a rhythm here, not a strict meter, but a rhythm that propels us forward, springing from phrase to phrase.

Both poems are also rich with sounds, alliteration and near-rhyme that are prevalent but made subtle by the longer lines and often offset by punctuation. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from “J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change Nor Small Bills:”

 

Because our walking here’s scared up pigeons and the air’s

         thick with their disease, because, therefore, we’re holding

Our breath in silent prayer, Good People of Los Angeles,

         for our immune systems, for hand sanitizer,

For swift and decisive return of the sun’s irradiating

         grace, I can hardly say I even know you much

Beyond the turnstile’s slick in the discount supermarket,

         the sidewalk’s chewing gum and tuberculosis.

The near rhyme of “here,” and “air,: becomes exact rhyme in the first syllable of “therefore,” and the second syllable of “prayer.”  Interwoven amongst those is the near rhyme of “disease,” and “Los Angeles.”  “Sanitizer,” and “decisive;” “irradiating,” and “grace;” and “slick,” “discount,” and “tuberculosis,” all demonstrate the poet’s gift for assonance that enriches the poem aurally without becoming a distraction. 

         These poems are a pleasure to read.  Schultz fully inhabits the “J.” character in these lines, and offers us a moving perspective on what life is like for those on the edge of the poverty line, as well as those who live—no, survive—far below it.  Wrapped skillfully in the guise of his alter-ego, and packaged in long but purposeful lines and sentences rich with alliteration and near-rhyme, Schultz manages to speak authentically and authoritatively on the plight and mindset of the poor without sentimentalizing, trivializing, or condescending to them.  It’s no easy task, but one he accomplishes with aplomb, much to the enjoyment of this reader.  

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Interview - First Drafts

An Interview with Jeffrey Schultz by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: How did you come up with using anaphora (Because this, because that...) in "J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills" and then switching, about half way through, to a more typical sentence/line structure? Not that anaphora is a form, but I think you understand my meaning. Were you looking for a way to describe the speaker's surroundings? Is there a sense of largeness, of myth that you're going for in the opening?

Jeffrey Schultz: I looked back and was able to find the draft where that began to come together, though it wasn't initially a repetition of "because." I'd already been tinkering with material for this poem, accumulating images mostly, for a couple of months, but looking at the drafts, the poem hadn't really yet started because the material hadn't yet found its music. I had material, but I didn't have lines in any real sense of the word. The material had an apocalyptic sense to it, and I hoped the anaphora would reach back to that biblical tradition, and especially to Revelation. One of the things I think is really interesting about that book is the way it uses subordinating and coordinating language to try to force a sort of sense onto what is inherently nonsensical material; so many sentences there begin with "and" or "when" or "then" or "after" or "from." It's a book that's utterly insistent about the certainty of the connections it makes, but it can't communicate that certainty except through a sort of absolutely closed, blunt syntax. So it creates this sense that its own nonsense must actually be perfect sense, the only sensible thing, and so then we have a few thousand years worth of equally nonsensical interpretations of it. That's exactly what it demands of its readers.

Not that that's what I hope to do: demand that nonsense be treated as its opposite. But this does, I think, present us with a model of how writing can make very real connections between elements that would not necessarily be apparent otherwise, a model of how to make the connections the world might not like to admit to but that are nonetheless there. I hope that that "Because" at the beginning and end of the poem is able to point effectively to very real relationships that we're all part of whether or not we happen to think about it.

 
AMK: At one point did you realize this poem was an address to the "Good People of Los Angeles," to "Members of the Taxpayer's Association"? What effect do you think this address has on the poem? How did this choice alter the way you put the poem together?

JS: The poem was from the start going to be concerned with the way we dehumanize through abstraction, and particularly this notion of "The Homeless." So often the term itself is used to quietly justify the existence of the problem: "Hey, what's the matter with that guy passed out on the sidewalk? Is he OK? Should we help him?" -- "Oh, him? He's homeless. Homelessness is a real problem in this city." -- "Oh, wow. That's so sad. Somebody should really do something about this terrible problem." Of course I'm not trying to say homelessness isn't a terrible problem somebody should do something about, but that the concept of it itself becomes a problem when it's taken for granted as something that's more or less natural or unavoidable and it overtakes or erases all of the specifics of the people who are subsumed under the concept. By classifying these people as this thing, we sort of transform them into furniture. If anything, this poem comes from the fact that I constantly see my self falling into this sort of thinking and so feeling like a terrible person.

Anyway, in the poem I hope this all comes to a head around the line about abstraction being a little crime against humanity, and these earlier, seemingly more benign abstractions to which the poem is addressed are meant to function as structural prefigurations of that moment and to make the poem complicit as part of the problem (not that it could avoid it) so that it can probe at important and sensitive matters without, hopefully, seeming like a self-righteous jerk of a poem.

AMK: There are some really wonderful details in both of these poems, eg Malt-O-Meal, the bars blaring Janis Joplin, the DSM-V, the mispronunciation of Los Feliz. I'm wondering what sort of concern you have for your reader though. I lived in LA for about two years so get the reference to the mispronunciation of Los Feliz. I also am married to a psychologist to be and just so happen to know what a DSM-IV is...or, well, I've seen that thin momma on the bookshelf that is. These are just a few of the specific details in this poem that make it so rich, but my guess is that a lot of readers have to look this stuff up or simply glaze over it. What are you hoping happens when thinks "Huh, what's that mean?"

JS: This is always sort of a tough problem to balance. Process-wise, I think most of my work starts with these sort of small details, little things I hear or hear about or read about or see when I'm out walking the dog that seem to have the potential, as isolated moments, to say something greater about the society or culture that gave rise to them. I generally carry a little notebook around with me, and mostly it's just full of little details like the ones you point to here. Because my thinking starts with these things, the poems tend to grow up out of them or else grow by trying to find the connections between them that will allow them to become more than isolated moments, that will allow them to shed some light on the larger thing.

As far as how much work I do in the poem to contextualize the details versus how much work I'd expect the reader to do, I guess it depends on the individual instance. So, with the DSM, I think everyone should know about that book, because it has some effect on and exercises some power over so many of us, either personally or by way of people we love or care about. Even in the very broad social sense that book affects us all in some way because it has such great sway over public policy, medical practice, insurance policies, and on and on. So, with that particular detail, I think its fair to ask the reader to take up the responsibility of being informed. It's easy now with the internet anyway.


The mispronunciation of "Los Feliz" on the other hand - it took me a while to figure out how to try to make that make sense in the poem. I wanted it in there because it seemed so representative of a particular problem, but trying to make it make some sense wasn't easy. The idea that locals are close to saying "Los Felix" was near as I could get.


At the end of the day, I try to look at it like this: I've learned a ton from poems over the years because of the things I've had to look up and read about. That's not to say I look up everything I come across that I don't understand, but that if the poem itself seems to warrant the effort, I put in the work. Regarding my own poems, I would just hope that I'm able to make them worth the effort.

AMK: I love your use of questions throughout this poem. I think it allows you to make some pretty serious observations about the world without coming off as didactic, without coming off as if you have some grand thing to say about it; rather, the speaker seems honestly lost in this world of great riches and poverty. How did you arrive at this technique? Why?

JS: I think you pretty much said it: it comes out of a feeling of being honestly lost as to how exactly we should be in this world. So far as technique or process, those are probably some of the moments that most closely approach something like spontaneity; I'll work a line or line of thought over and over and then, when I finally get it to the point where it starts to say what it needs to say, suddenly my attention widens to the fact that the poem isn't done and must still go on and I'm left in this "what on Earth am I supposed to do now?" lurch. So the questions in the poem are structural remnants of that part of the process. Contrary to all good advice on the subject, I usually have a pretty good idea where a poem is heading. Figuring how to get there is the difficult thing.

AMK: Both these poems seem to be about the failure of our culture. I feel like I read a lot of Jeff Schultz poems about this...

JS: I sometimes use a quote from Brecht on my creative writing syllabi: "Humanity has up to now built itself an immense palace of dogshit." That's largely the case, so far as I'm concerned, but it's not the end of the story either. Adorno points out that the failure of culture up to this point to deliver on its promises, the failure to fulfill its own potential, is not a reason to give up on it, to throw it out and forget about it, but rather to redouble our efforts to realize that potential, even if these efforts are likely to be in vain. That gap between culture's reality and its potential is where hope still exists. It's when we either give up on pursuing that potential as a naive impossibility or else -- and this amounts to the same thing -- assume that the culture we have is in fact just the one we need, that we strike a blow against hope. Hope in a genuine sense, in any sense worth talking about, is irrevocably tied to failure, and to the criticism of what has and continues to fail us. I always get a little depressed when people think of my poems as simply dark. All of the negativity is really just a way of trying to find something that could honestly be called positive.

AMK: "J. Learns the Difference Between Poverty and Having No Money" is a wonderfully introspective poem about the often horrible drudgery and abuse many of us go through to pay the bills. Is this a true story? How long did you last at this job? When did the idea of writing this poem merge with the actual writing of it? What process do your poems typically go through. Do you experience something, think "I should write about that" and then get right to it or is it less conscious/organized than that?

JS: Yeah, it's a pretty true story. I'd just finished my MFA. I applied for somewhere upwards of 100 jobs that summer, and this telemarketing thing was the only one that came through. Luckily, it was only for about a month. A community college came to the rescue with a few composition courses, so I was out by the beginning of fall quarter. All the key points happened pretty much as they are in the poem, though not necessarily on the same day, if I recall correctly. It was actually a lower tech office than I make out here too. We didn't have computers, just xeroxed sheets of contacts, many of which were disconnected or wrong numbers. Over that month, I made two sales, maybe three. I was shocked when people would buy this ridiculous package we were selling. The first time I made a sale, I had no idea what to do, how to fill out the form, how to take a payment, nothing.

When I was in that MFA program, a few of my friends -- one of whom, Josh Robbins, is in your archive here -- and I would fall back on the consolation of "but think of the poems" every time something bad happened, and I did consider that at the time when I had this job. It was a few years later when I actually wrote this though. This was during a stretch of time when I think I was loosening my connection to the idea of a poem being "about" its narrative content. This experience started to make sense to me in the context of a poem when it was no longer just a way to try to squeeze a meaning out of an experience I'd had, but when instead I began to think about the poem as an arrangement of that experience with other elements that I hope allowed it "mean" what it actually meant from the start. I started that poem with the TV antennas image. It was just something that struck me every morning when I walked the dog. This was during one of the worst parts of the insurgency in Iraq, and so I was thinking a lot about what it means to have a voice or a say, and what it means not to.


And while I don't want to get on the MFA-bashing bandwagon necessarily - I mean, I learned a ton in mine -, there is, in the structure of the workshop this constant demand for new work that I think pushes a lot of poets into this sort of "oh shit, what am I going to write about this week" mode. Some people answer that with a manuscript-as-project model, an idea or experience they can keep mining for new pieces; others, and I was one of these, start sort of taking stock of their life up to that point looking for material that seems to meet the basic qualifications of being able to look passably like a poem. Those things are fine for workshops, but it's a sort of thinking that is, I think, best left behind, and for me, this poem was part of the process of getting away from that.

AMK: What's going on with these indented lines? Are you not a fan of left-justification? 

JS: I've actually given that up in the most recent stuff I've written. At the time, I felt like the long lines and the lack of stanza breaks just made the poems too imposing. The indentations were a slight hedge against that. Recently, I've just embraced that imposingness, that "who in their right mind would read this giant block of text" sense.

Those indentations make editing a real pain in the ass, by the way. If you make a change that, for instance, adds a new line early in a long poem, you've got to go and change the capitalization and indentation of every line after.

AMK: Your name is Jeff. These poems are about some dude named J. Am I sensing a connection here? (Well, duh, you might say. What I'm really asking is about point-of-view and why you've chosen to title them this way. So have some fun with this one!)

JS: "...Poverty and Having No Money" was the first of the "J." poems. I have five or six of them total. I was reading Ernesto Trejo's "E." poems at the time, and I think I was just playing around with the title at first. Though I don't remember having any plan for it at the time, the titling scheme did provide me with an interesting and I hope useful for the poems' sake bit of distance from the material. This goes back to what I was saying before about how that poem came to be and trying to treat narrative elements less strictly as "the story." The moment with the woman on the phone was devastating for me, and so was the fact that when I would walk through Griffith Park every morning, right below these amazing homes in the hills, I would to step around people who were passed out on the path, dying for all I knew, and just keep going as if this could really be normal, but both of these things took on a different importance when I backed up from those personal devastations a little and tried to look at it all in a wider context. And in that sense, I hope there's a way that these poems can get at something more like objectivity, more like the meaning these things actually have in the world we live in rather than a meaning I might or might not like to assign to them and then offer to others as some sort of consolation for the fact that there's so much that's wrong in this world.

 
 




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Jeffrey Schultz


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