The Springsteen of poetry? Interview with Paul Moskowitz
New York — Listening to the rain in the glubby-puddle rain noises of birdee twig-alings and bus splushings of spring you can smell the late afternoon grass cuts and feel the hot face breezes of summer coming with its big ballgames of lazing around easiness. . . . When I was growing up in dull red bricks of Abraham P. Morris grammar school across from Jerry Corrado's where his fat ma in big cooking aprons of relaxins was always sittin' on the porch watching the afternoons of daily kid-get-beat-up action I'd run to the bike racks and unhook my green-racer American Schwinn for speedy getting home to play ball ride through traffic loads of rushing second shift worker cars. . . . -- From Rome Along the Highway
Is there room for both Bruce Springsteen and Paul Moskowitz in New Jersey?
Paul Moskowitz won the New Jersey State Poetry Prize for ``Bowling Alley Wars'' -- and thereafter became a New Jersey Council of Arts fellow in poetry. The poem will appear early next year from An Apple Press, Mendocino, Calif., the publisher of his first book,``Rome Along the Highway'' (reviewed in these pages on March 2, l984).
That New Jersey had such a stake in poetry may come as a surprise! It did to me; it did to Paul Moskowitz. As a kind of New Jersey ambassador for literature, he bused and trained around New Jersey and read his rambunctious poems in places as diverse as the Walt Whitman house in Camden; Community Park School, a public grade school; Lawrenceville School, a nationally known prep school; and Rahway State Prison. The Whitman crowd loved him, the first graders loved him, the high school students (and so me of the faculty) loved him, and the prisoners loved him.
Chuck Bowie, reporting on Moskowitz's visit to Lawrenceville School for the school newspaper, wrote: ``When reading and when interviewed, he's informal, sometimes vulgar, and always exuberant. Dr. Azoy [a teacher of English there] . . . said of him, `It's a dead decade; Moskowitz is alive.' ''
Who's Paul Moskowitz?
Paul Moskowitz is a stocky, redheaded, bearded former New Jersey boy, ex-car assembly-line worker, husband, father, self-styled ``baseball Democrat'' -- and poet.
Listening to Paul deliver his poems in his rapid-fire, bop-inflected, straight-from-the-shoulder jive hip-talk, punctuated by his high-pitched giggle, is like anything but a poetry reading. It's more like a night in Greenwich Village listening to a Dexter Gordon sax solo or a cruise down the main strip of Anytown, USA, soaking in the sounds and smells of a hot afternoon.
Moskowitz never thought a lot about anything literary, much less poetry, until about four years ago. But he has been perking up the ears of a lot of people recently, including some who thought they hated poetry. He's given his unorthodox readings for students and prisoners, as well as what he calls the ``wine and Brie crowd,'' with smashing success.
Moskowitz's approach isn't literary, or even wordy, although he spews out words as if they were going out of style. He compares his work to a statement that was once made about McCoy Tyner's piano playing: ``It's a wall of sound.'' And it's not just sound, or even sounds -- but sights, smells, and all the minutiae of everyday life, peppered with a biting and ironic sense of humor, an eye for the essential, and a reckless joie de vivre.
Talking with Moskowitz is a lot like listening to his poetry. He's a dyed-in-the-wool fun lover, and even an interview is ``good times.'' He showed up for our talk clad in jeans and T-shirt, and immediately kicked off his shoes.
Recalling his boyhood, he said, ``I always remember the kitchen as, like, a smell. I always remember the smell of a place. I guess that's one of the first things about my writing is that it doesn't come from words. It comes from things around you -- sounds, smells, pictures. Words never mattered that much to me.''
He describes himself as never the studious type -- he'd rather be out playing baseball.
``I approached everything like baseball. You're up at bat, you're watching the ball come, everything is for the momentary focus on things, of baseball things -- counts, runners moving. Everything's happening, but there's no time involved, 'cause you don't have to beat any clock or anything.
``And so I guess `baseball awareness' is what really makes me a poet, or a writer. I even announced myself at one poetry reading as a baseball Democrat. The guy who introduced me called me a poet of the people, in the framework of Woody Guthrie and people like that, but I corrected him and said I had no conception of that, except that I was more like a baseball Democrat. In high school I had nothing to do with literary things -- I was into bowling scores. I was wanting to cruise, wanting to fight, wanti ng not to do homework. . . .''
As a boy, Paul says, he was ``troublesome.''
``My mother says I was crazy, but not crazy like today's parents say their kids are crazy, in `shrink' terms. I was crazy in the sense that I was actively crazy, like when my mother went out of the room one time (we were in a third-floor apartment in Newark), and the window was open, and there I was like little Tarzan, on the drapes, swinging out between the street and the window, going back and forth, and my mother tells the story about how she came in and saw me swinging OUT, and she had enough sense not to go like AAHHHHGGHH!!! STOP!! She just waited until I came back in.''
Moskowitz had just finished reading ``Huckleberry Finn,'' and he was full of praise for Mark Twain, who he feels was much like him-self.
``I finally found someone who talks my type of talk. Twain writes the way I write and has a character like I am. And my life is like that. I didn't have the big money to go up and down, but there were like highways and bowling alleys and pool halls. There weren't like big Mississippi raft adventures, but, man, there were Route 22 adventures, Garden State Parkway adventures, there were hanging-down-Asbury-Park-getting-in-fights adven-tures.
``There were a lot of adventures, and some tragic stories, but not a lot, not like these writers today, like Mary Morris or [Robert] Carver -- they write about stories of tragedy years of childhood and teen-agedom, or even further on into pre-Yupdom, about can't make connections and they have problems and it's all like some psychodrama. I write about feeling, about feeling sad, but I don't come from the moaning school of writers,'' he laughs.
So how did this wild guy get into writing poetry, of all things?
``I was working at General Motors and had gotten laid off from the auto plant and my wife, Ann, was going to graduate school and was finishing her PhD, and she said, `What are you going to do now?' and I said, `I don't know.' And she gave me this book `Under the Volcano,' by Malcolm Lowry, and it was like the first big novel I'd ever read, you know, ever -- I really think so. This novel -- I came away from that, and I said hey, I could write stuff like that.
``I said, I have a whole history of things I could write about. Instead of writing from words, it was like pictures, so I figured I could do the same -- write about pictures.
``And then when I actually started writing, my daughter at that time was about 21/2. We were sitting on a hill, Ann and I, and Joanne was between us bouncing, and she said, `Look! Merry-go-rounds!' And I was about to say, oh sure, and then I said, whoa -- because she saw merry-go-rounds. She was just starting to talk, and she talked how she saw things. So from that I decided to use that method, and talk the world as I see it.''
That's what got him started, and then jazz entered in:
``I used to listen to jazz music when I worked, on assembly lines and jobs like that, and after that when I wanted to start writing I listened to a lot of jazz on the radio. I used to listen to interviews of jazz people talking about the freedom creation of jazz.
``My writing is like that -- a sound, the beat of life. I write like that, with the speed of an American, like highway movement. European writers, man, like because Europe is different, a lot of American writers look to Europe for inspiration. They come back writing these tragically slow European types of literature with no beat to it -- but I'm an American. I'm influenced by baseball to Mark Twain to Billie Holiday to New York City to pinball machines to highways. . . .''
Some have compared Moskowitz's poetry to the ``beat'' poets of the '60s, but Moskowitz draws a blank on the association. When I asked if he felt he was influenced by them, his response was, ``I have no idea.'' He counts among his major influences Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, and Jack London.
Moskowitz described his high school and college years as a time when he had to face what he calls ``one buckle-down crisis after another.'' His first college experience resulted in his being expelled for ``poor citizenship.''
``After that I was the outcast of our family, so I lived in this little room at the top of our house and went out to night school and worked in a car wash and a box factory, trying to set my record straight. But I didn't want to stay around New Jersey any longer. So I went to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. -- it was like the Great Excursion West. I liked history -- it seemed like tall tales! That was when I got the first inkling of books.''
After college he worked for several months with underprivileged children on a ranch in Utah, and later as a family counselor.
``Then I hitchhiked to Mexico, to Mazatl'an. It just keeps going on -- a never-stop circle of things. I figure you should live as excitingly as you can and as adventurously as you can -- not mad-manically, but try to do all the things you can. Now I see it's great because it's good to write about these things. I always draw on weird events and great stories and times and people.''
He has lived in Paris, but he loves what he calls Big America. He and his family will be moving soon to Wisconsin, where Ann has a teaching job. Paul is pleased about the move.
``At this point I want to get off the coast. I think the coast is becoming populated by the same types of people, and the areas are becoming very similar looking. I want to be in America, and on the coast a lot of people don't look on America as being cool anymore. West Coast people are Californians more than Americans. New York is great because it's a hubbub, but it's becoming desolate because it's either bag ladies or it's stretch limos -- it's a weird scene. People don't take chances because it's so hard to live and create and work. You have to do so much just to survive in a place like this, how do you have time to create?''