The Bookshelf: Poet (and 'Comedian') Jeff Friedman

Sep 29, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire writer Jeff Friedman. This is the Bookshelf from NHPR. I’m Peter Biello. By all accounts, Jeff Friedman has a sense of humor. He writes wildly imaginative poems about beer-drinking bears, puppets that attack those who come to watch them perform, a man who takes the shape of his chair, and drones that can cure what ails ya. His new collection of prose poems, Floating Tales, puts this sense of humor on display. Friedman lives in West Lebanon. Scroll down to read Jeff Friedman's top five reading recommendations and read a transcript of his interview.

Jeff Friedman's Top 5 Reading Recommendations:

1.   Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. “It is not for us to greet other and bid farewell. We live on archipelagoes and that water these words, what can they do, what can they do, Prince.” These lines come from “Elegy of Fortinbras,” one of Herbert’s many great poems in this volume. A poet of historical irony, noted for his moral vision and his compassion, Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was one of Poland’s most influential poets, and he achieved an international reputation. Throughout his career, Herbert wrote fables in prose as well as verse poems.

2.  The Great Short Works of Franz Kafka, translated by Joachin Neugroschel. "I love this book! It contains some of Kafka’s finest writings including “Metamorphosis,” ( a truly dark and funny family story), “In the Penal Colony, “A Country Doctor,” “First Sorrow, “Hunger Artist,” and many of Kafka’s parables, fables and other short prose pieces such as 'Before the Law' and 'Imperial Message.'"

3.   Irina Petrushevskaya: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. "A son offers his prophecies only after he has drunk enough vodka to have his visions….A girl discovers that she is standing on the side of a dark road, wearing strange clothes, without any knowledge of herself….A man finds himself walking alone through the winter woods searching for a child he has never seen—this collection of fantastical and mystical tales won the World Fantasy Award for best collection, but at its heart is a searing vision of living conditions in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union Russia. Petrushevskaya’s work was banned until the late 1980s, but she is now regarded as one of Russia’s most prominent writers. So many stories in this collections are gems. And if you’re going to read this collection, you should also read her next short story collection, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself."

4.   Black Sheep and Other Fables by Augusto Monterroso. "Fabulous beasts and beings inhabit the pages of this wonderful collection that introduces us to a fly who dreams he is an eagle, a monkey who wants to be a satirical writer, but who perhaps tries to please too many critics, a lightning bolt that strikes twice, a horse who imagines he is God. Also, Monterrosso, (widely praised by writers such as Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes) re-visions Penelope and her weaving project and pits Ulysses against a noncomformist siren. Well, if you find this on a bookshelf, it’s bound to be next to The Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso."

5.   Blue Donkey Fables by Suniti Namjoshi. "Born in India in 1941, Suniti Namloshi has published numerous volumes of poems and fables. This collection combines poems and fables with her wondrous invention, the blue donkey, who is a town icon, a tourist attraction, an artist, a legend. The blue donkey can be seen walking through town, after her retirement, letting everyone know she has not died, but only changed color. These fables are irresistible."

You’ve been described as a “comedian.” How do you feel about that description?

Well, it’s a little bit of pressure, actually. [Laughs] I mean, growing up I was kind of a class clown, so in that sense I guess I’ve accepted it. But one of my early years writing, I think I went away from that and got more and more serious. Everything had to end in death. If it wasn’t a little morbid, I wasn’t happy.

So you're not trying to be funny. You’re naturally funny and you’re trying to get away from that?

I was earlier in my writing. I feel like my early books were about my work life and family life but also they were focused on things I considered at the time—the death of my father, a ritualistic discussion of family life and work life and living and growing up in St. Louis. I think at one point I reached a point where I thought: why not let more of my personality into the work instead of being so narrow? Over the years, I feel like I’ve been getting more of me into my work.

Have you been getting a better response to your work since then?

I’ve always gotten a good response to my work, but I get a different response at this point. You know what I mean? I’m happier right now, writing what I’m writing. I always say that as soon as I finish writing anything, “Wow, that’s the greatest piece ever done in the world!” and then the next day, “That’s the worst piece ever done in the world!” But I do feel like there are more elements of me that have come out in this that are good. Right now, this is what I should be writing because that’s where it’s going. It’s been entertaining. I like the idea of entertaining people.

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

One of the poems that entertained me was the poem called “The Beer Bear.” Can you read that for us?

The Beer Bear

Face to face with the bear, I raised my baseball bat and watched him, but he seemed more interested in the garbage dumpster he had just plundered. "Bash his brains out," the crow in the driveway shouted, but the bear's hackles relaxed down his neck as he continued eating from a white hefty bag. "Is that good," I asked. The bear nodded. "Can I get a cold one?" he said. I went inside and uncorked a Sam Adams. "I'm sure that serving beer to a bear is against the law," I said, but handed it to him anyway. "Show me the law," he countered. He stood up to slug it down, and I could see he had a roll of fat around the middle, a big beer gut. Very unbearlike, I thought. "Give me another, please." In no time he downed five more beers and devoured the garbage. Now he looked drunk, stumbling around in the carport, banging on the car hood, knocking things over. "Jump him while he's drunk," the crow cried. "Get me another," the bear demanded. "I'm out," I said. "Besides, I don't believe you're a bear; you're just a drunk disguised as a bear." "No, I'm a beer disguised as a bear," he answered, pouring himself into the bottle, where he became a bottle of bear. "Cap it," the crow shouted before he gets away." He cawed loudly, and soon the driveway was full of crows, demanding I take action. Before he could pour himself out again, I chugged him down, the bear burning in my belly, demanding more, more.

That has the quality of a very strange dream.

Yes, actually I think I work out of that. It was influenced by Kafka, Zbigniew Herbert, a lot of the fable writers, and the Biblical writers, too. So I do feel like these are fable, dream-like pieces a lot of times.