Pipe Dreams

Clay Pipe
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I find it curious that my all of favorite writers were smokers. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, William Faulkner—all of these wordsmiths were avid devotees of either pipes or cigars (or both). So why is it that writing and tobacco seem to be such close bedfellows?

For some, it is part of the writing ritual. Like making a fresh cup of coffee or sharpening a row of pencils, the process of filling a briar or lighting a cigar helps many writers get into their “writing space”—that delicate frame of mind where ideas are born and where (if you’re lucky) they make the awkward transition from abstract conceptualization to concrete form.

Of course, tobacco is also a stimulant, and a little stimulation never hurts when you are trying to crank out a steady number of manuscript pages. More importantly, perhaps, the rituals associated with smoking provide a type of distraction which is sometimes helpful in generating ideas. For me, some of my most creative moments have occurred when I wasn’t thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something mundane, like mowing the grass or talking a walk. Maybe for these authors, smoking did something similar.

Pipe smoking, in particular, is an inherently contemplative activity. If you try to rush it or fail to tend the flame properly, it won’t work—much like the act of writing itself. Thus you’d never picture Jack Kerouac furiously typing on his roll of computer paper with an imported meerschaum between his teeth. He, like John Steinbeck and Dylan Thomas, were cigarette guys, hard drinking and hard writing—not really the philosophical types.

So I wonder how many bowls of tobacco went into creating The Lord of the Rings or Huckleberry Finn? Both were years in the making, and had their authors not indulged in a bit of nicotine distraction, would these books have ever come about at all? Maybe in the next life we can sit down with these guys for a smoke and find out.

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Books That Influence: A Coney Island of the Mind

Starting out as a young writer I never wrote stories. Poetry was more my speed. And as a young poet I wrote my share of really, really bad poetry complete with awkward rhymes and sappy subject matter. But somewhere in my junior year of high school I was introduced to a poet that changed my writing forever. That poet was Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the poem that changed my life was called “Sometime During Eternity”.

Sometime During Eternity

Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
like Galilee
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hep
to who made heaven
and earth
and that the cat
who really laid it on us
is his Dad

And moreover
he adds
It’s all writ down
on some scroll-type parchments
which some henchmen
leave lying around the Dead Sea somewheres
a long time ago
and which you won’t even find
for a coupla thousand years or so
or at least for
ninteen hundred and fortyseven
of them
to be exact
and even then
nobody really believes them
or me
for that matter

You’re hot
they tell him

And they cool him

They stretch him on the Tree to cool
And everybody after that
is always making models
of this Tree
with Him hung up
and always crooning His name
and calling Him to come down
and sit in
on their combo
as if he is THE king cat
who’s got to blow
or they can’t quite make it

Only he don’t come down
from His Tree

Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
and also
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources
real dead

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

This poem blew my young Catholic mind. What genius to take the story of Jesus and translate it into Beatnik terms. I was hooked. From then on I immersed myself in the Beats: Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady, among others. I began to experiment with my own style. I embraced free verse, finally breaking free of the constraints of traditional poetry. The subject matter I explored became more sophisticated and more dark. Reading the poem by Ferlinghetti opened up a whole new world of writing to me. I felt I had finally found my voice. To this day my poetry still carries the mark of the Beats.

If you haven’t read it and even if poetry isn’t really your thing, I highly recommend Ferlinghetti’s poetry book A Coney Island of the Mind. It is a truly inspired piece of writing. And I am a firm believer that everyone needs to read Ginsberg’s “Howl” at least once before they die. This is poetry at its most raw and powerful. How can you go wrong with an opening line that reads:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”

I often wonder if I would have continued writing poetry had I not found “Sometime During Eternity”. Quite honestly I wonder if I might still be Catholic. That poem caused me to look at a whole lot more than just poetry with new eyes. It affected me deeply and isn’t that the point of poetry?

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