In Praise of a Great Bookseller

After thirty-seven jobs, Janice King found her spot in the high chair behind the cashier’s counter raised like a pulpit in the corner of the Golden Notebook, Woodstock’s beloved independent bookstore. By the time I got to know her she was an old pro after almost twenty years of bookselling: savvy, smart, quick to recommend, quick to dismiss. When I walked in one spring day years ago and told her of my plans to spend the summer and fall on retreat in the Adirondacks to finish writing my mock epic poem set in Gotham 2063 about a metaphysical cabbie and a derelict trickster who’d been a math prodigy, she loaded me up with a stack of books that I hadn’t known existed but looked like just what I needed. For the magic in numbers: A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science: A Voyage From 1 to 10. For an architect’s futuristic visions first drawn in 1929 but still futuristic today: Hugh Feriss’s The Metropolis of Tomorrow. For a quick reference guide to the highfalutin words I’d toss around: A World of Ideas: A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs, and Thinkers. And for the sheer strangeness of human beliefs: Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150—1750.

I had a good summer. In addition to Janis’s books, I also read Homer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Song of Roland for some home schooling in epics. I lived in a cozy A-frame with picture window views across a small lake to saddlebacked hills that I had to myself, a private pocket of the Adirondacks as idyllic as any calendar scene. By the end of my stay at the end of October, I’d watched the fiery autumn colors run their course up on the hills and down in the lake reflections, a gorgeous drama that played out like opera until the trees stood gray for winter. In my final days I finished Lyndon Baines Takes a Fare to the Palace of Wisdom and celebrated by taking my thick stack of note cards out to the burn barrel. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching five months of raw notes, false starts, and random ideas curl up in yellow flames that vanish into smoke with rising wisps of ashen paper to feel that you’re done and rid of a monumental project at last. With a stick I poked that fire until the orange embers had eaten every last white corner of the cards. (That I subsequently overhauled this poem two more times is another story. Thank God I didn’t kill myself for burning up all my notes.)

I can’t say that Janis’s books found their way into my epic. But they provided a fine accompaniment for the summer. (Much as I hate to say it, reading rarely solves the problems I encounter in writing. Only writing itself leads to answers.) Several of her books sit on my shelves to this day, reminders of that summer and of Janis, a blessing to people like me who get tend to get stuck in reading what we already know. (It’s Janis’s theory that reading beyond your usual interests keeps you vibrant and engaged.) Alas, she returned to her native terrain, the Far West, where she recently became co-manager of the college bookstore in Walla Walla, Washington that has employed her for some time, as effective as ever. (I mean, she ordered seven copies of Walking Woodstock for her store. I wish we could do so well at Barnes and Noble in Poughkeepsie.) The other day I was reminded of Janis when I picked up a copy of her own book, Taking Wing: Poems from the Oregon Outback to the Hudson Valley, which appeared with Robert Bly’s enthusiasm on the cover: “I loved these poems when I heard them, and I love them again on the page.” In the Oregon poems she recalls girlhood on a ranch. In the Woodstock poems her adult life as a bookseller, mother, jazz buff, nature lover, and keen observer of local characters. But one poem especially tickled my fancy. Perched at the counter she got to know dozens if not hundreds of writers like me, I’m sure, who came in to browse books almost like sacred objects, recharging ourselves to return to our own work fraught with hopes and fears. Here’s some advice she shared.

The Woman Cuts My Bullshit to the Bone

After weeks of writing poems and throwing them away, I called my mother to tell her I had decided to become a jeweler. I had the good fortune to be sitting in front of my typewriter as she delivered this lecture. This is her poem.

Go have sex or go for a walk
Look at a blade of grass or at a formation
of clouds. Even the cracks in the sidewalk
are interesting if you look at what you see

Keep you sense of humor Relax
and it will come to you in the dark
You are taking this life too seriously

Remember what I taught you Stay positive
If you want something Ask for it
The most anyone can say is No
Never be a sheep Never follow the crowd
for comfort’s sake

and give my granddaughter a kiss

If you are in a position under authority
and being abused Say Yes sir No sir
and under your breath say And
piss on you Sir

Remember can’t doesn’t do anything
Remember what you have

Shake out your hands
roll your neck around
and yell Bullshit
You know you’ll never be boring

Tell yourself you are just as good if not
a little bit better than anyone you know
Remember you can take just as much shit
as anyone can hand out
and always a little bit more

And Sweetheart
if that doesn’t work
you might try praying

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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