On 15 October University of Pittsburgh Press released Charles Harper Webb’s new and selected poems, Shadow Ball. To celebrate its release, we asked Webb a few questions.
What are you reading?
I have a long drive to my job at Cal State Long Beach, so I go through a lot of books on tape. I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and have started The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. Actual texts I’m reading include Patty Seyburn’s book of poems, Hilarity, Tony Barnstone’s Tongue of War, Robert Bly’s Reaching Out to the World: New and Selected Prose Poems, and John Fowles’ The Magus, which blew me away years ago, and is blowing me away again.
What recent news ought to inspire a poem?
The story about a guy who was picking his teeth with a pair of scissors, laughed, and swallowed them has an Aeschylean gravitas. The Canadian Hammurabi who suggested there be a law against nose-picking while driving also merits at least an ode. I wish someone would write a great poem about the California budget debacle; some good should come out of it.
What are you writing?
I’m writing new poems, and getting ready to assemble a new book-length manuscript, and a collection of my essays on contemporary poetry.
Any good jokes?
I’m fond of lawyer jokes. The best humor is plain truth, wittily phrased.
What’s the difference between a lawyer and a leech? —When you die, a leech will stop sucking your blood and drop off.
Isn’t it a shame how 99 percent of lawyers give the whole profession a bad name?
Quote attributed to Sandra Day O’Connor: “There is no shortage of lawyers in Washington, D.C. In fact, there may be more lawyers than people.”
Kidnapper-Couple Who Forgot to Leave a Random Note Sentenced to 14 Years
Forget the terror of the four-year-old, abducted,
by a man who spelled money mune in the note he left
in his pocket, scratched in blood because he sharpened
not his pencil, but his thumb. Forget his dunderheaded wife,
who tossed the toast because she’d buttered it on the wrong
side. Ignore the fact that fourteen years is barely time
for them to start exploring, with their pen-light minds,
the Carlsbad Caverns of their own ineptitude. Disregard
the anguish of the mom, who never married her child’s
father, or memorized his name, and thought her hooker
friends sat babies too. Throw them all into the joint
with the bank robber who wrote a holdup note on his own
deposit slip, and the john who flagged the cops after some
tranny stole his stash. Don’t get your undies in a bunch
about the sub that did an “emergency blow” to impress civilian
guests, and bisected a ship full of students, drowning nine.
Drop that debacle in the same dustbin with power
“deregulation,” airline (in)security, aerosol cans,
infernal combustion engines, and the atmospheric-nitrogen-
to-fertilizer process that has let Earth’s population
skyrocket, and will bring it crashing down. Bungling
makes the world go round. The stolen missile
is cancelled by bad aim. The rising of the sea from global
warming is countered by ten million basements flooded
by men trying to fix their sinks. Even if Ebola rides
out of the Congo on some epidemiologist’s show, so many
people have screwy DNA—so many cells can’t get
the genetic code quite right—Homo sapiens will survive.
My new house “must have been wired by an arsonist,”
the electrician says. All my Hot and Cold knobs
are reversed, but at least no rain, snow, or carcinogenic
sun can get to me. Ma Bell may bill me thousands
for a local call routed through Fiji. Doctors may
amputate my leg when I walk in for an appendectomy.
The car-alarm installer may nick my brake line, causing
my safety-first Volvo to dive off a bridge, killing
my family. Still, some mortician will gain three burials.
An antidepressant maker and a crutch company
will add a customer-for-life. The human race will stumble
“Kidnapper-Couple Who Forgot to Leave a Ransom Note Sentenced to 14 Years” is from Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, by Charles Harper Webb, © 2009. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.