Richard Katrovas, PSP founder and director
My first time in Prague was in the fall of 1989, in the midst of the Velvet Revolution, a period when I was in the midst of my “wicked thirties.” This essay, broadly speaking, is the backstory of my attachment to Prague. The demonstrable beginning of the Prague Summer Program was July of 1993, just a few months before I turned forty. My encounter with the Russian poet Yevtushenko, the subject of one of several anecdotes in the piece, oddly presaged my emotional attachment to Prague, and indeed to the Czech people. “My Wicked Thirties” is from an unpublished manuscript (though individual pieces have appeared, or will appear, in literary journals): Chained to a Tree: A Memoir in Essays about Poets and the Fools Who Love Them.
My Wicked Thirties
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
– Donald Justice
A sixteen-year-old kid jacked on meth who shoots another dead should get incarcerated for how long? A twenty-five-year-old man who succumbs to gendered rage and kills his mate should be locked away for how long? Those are different questions, I think, from the question of how long a forty-year-old who murders a cubicle-trapped colleague should be put away. A sixteen-year-old, a twenty-five-year-old and a forty-year-old are very different creatures and, arguably, deserve different manner of consideration regarding punishment.
The easy, and perhaps appropriate answer is that all three, things being equal, should be put away for the rest of their lives. I don’t support the death penalty, but no one I’ve loved has been murdered. I’m dubious about punishment in general, but I know that I’d attack with my hands or any handy blunt object anyone who sought to harm any member of my family.
I hope it’s true that in a letter to his father, from college, young Sigmund Freud wrote, “You needn’t punish me anymore, Father. I shall punish myself now.” Whether the teenager expressed that sentiment or not, he must have thought it, or later imagined he had; he was too Jewish not to, and too, well, Freudian. Punishment by the state and self-punishment are related along a patriarchal seam Michel Foucault fingered only to dismiss or ignore. He had bigger conceptual fish to fry, and, having already dismissed psychiatry, raised the intentions and function of the state above individual volition. What a person is at sixteen, twenty-five, or forty are not even viable considerations, institutionally speaking, though legal systems do such parsing in the same spirit as angels dancing on pinheads were once catalogued.
I’m much quicker to forgive my boy-self than the man I was at forty and fifty. But that guy in his thirties…I don’t know what to do about him. None of the individuals I’ve been has committed a serious crime, though they, especially that thirty-year-old, have committed innumerable petty, comical ones, the kind that piss off victims of verbal slights, say, for lifetimes, the kind for which one is not incarcerated but, rather, enshrined in a community’s Cavalcade of Assholes.
“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving,” and of course we consider the source of that judgment, issuing as it does from Iago, one of the supreme assholes in all of literature, though not all villains are assholes. Milton’s Lucifer isn’t, nor is Melville’s Ahab or Doyle’s Moriarty or Conrad’s Kurtz or Nabokov’s Humbert or Orwell’s O’Brien or even Grendel’s mom, for that matter. Joining Iago are the likes of Dickens’s Fagin, de Maurier’s Svengali, Jay Ward’s Snydley Whiplash, Andrew Dice Clay’s Dice Man and Steve Bannon’s Steve Bannon.
I once angered a department chair so thoroughly he ordered me to stay off of the North American continent, contrary to any civic law or university rule or other statutory power determining his authority. He was a bright and decent fellow who passed from this world a few years ago and much too soon, and I gaze back now upon our multiple conflicts with wary affection and muted glee. I’d been teaching online from Prague, and decided to return to New Orleans for personal reasons in full knowledge that I could perform my duties from there, or from anywhere, as effectively as from transatlantic Prague. It was the late 90s, and online instruction, especially of graduate students, was a novel arrangement he allowed in my case precisely because he wanted me exiled. By this time, I was in my mid-forties, but my downward spiral on the slippery slope of his managerial regard had begun, alas, in the previous decade.
I was in my thirties for most of the 80s, the first decade of my professional development (we’ll call it). I was a poet and had spiffy thin volumes to prove it. I was hired to teach freshman composition, four courses a semester, but I managed to publish enough, verse and prose, that the department had to promote and eventually tenure me.
The University of New Orleans English department was split along ideological lines regarding how freshman composition was constituted and delivered; there were other points of conflict, but those all dripped from that contention, a sword I giddily fell upon again and again. Indeed, in my wicked thirties, I relished department politics, enjoyed the give and take, the molten gossip and petty intrigue. In the beginning, my team and the opposing unit were fairly equal in numbers, though through the 80s and into the 90s my side retired and died and found other employment until, by the time of my exile, I was practically, and vulnerably, alone.
Preceding me at UNO were the likes of David Wojahn and Yusef Komunyakaa, and there were numerous other terrific writers employed at UNO, teaching at other local institutions, and scattered throughout that mythical, sumptuous, evil, glorious city. Beyond the department, my relation to the New Orleans literary community was that of a giant, intoxicated gadfly in a china shop.
My signature sin was publishing a mediocre poem titled “Meeting Yevtushenko,” in which I dissed not only the smarmy Russian poet, but the New Orleanian who hosted him, the matronly boss of a local organization of poets, not to be confused with a confederacy of dunces or a battalion of mimes. I didn’t piss in the punch or molest the family dog; I didn’t rip off my clothes and croon “What a Wonderful World.” I didn’t punch the Soviet poet, though I wanted to just because he was such a pretentious asshole and hit on every female at the soiree regardless of availability.
I enjoyed my thirties probably more than I deserved. The 80s were the decade of Reagan and I should have been terrified and despondent but I was too stupid and self-absorbed. I routinely insulted people, sometimes meaning to, often not. I assumed I was immune to the ill regard of those more tender, more inwardly directed than I.
I must have glittered with some charm back then. I didn’t crash and burn, or even crash land and stumble from the wreckage of my folly damaged and despondent. My daily joy was that I’d survived my peripatetic, often despairing childhood, survived my treacherous adolescence, somehow surfaced from my picaresque twenties dripping from that ocean of my dead mother’s tears, to gaze upon a glorious island, my thirties. I lived tethered, no matter how loosely, to a gorgeous human being, at first in the heart of the French Quarter, later on its cool and funky outskirts. I was gainfully employed not swabbing floors, digging holes or bussing tables, but holding forth in classrooms and red-penciling muddled constructions.
I had no fathers back then, not in my heart. As a child I’d longed for one, as an adolescent I’d searched for one, in my twenties I’d latched onto several in succession only to reject them before they could reject me. My wicked thirties were for hunting down and killing them, though, with one exception, I didn’t.
I mean, Gerald Stern, whom I’d “worked with” at Iowa, visited often to give readings and troll the Greek bars on Decatur with me and Betty and Betty’s mother, Lynn, whom he fancied. Why did we camp in those bars where Greek sailors from merchant ships, docked on the river, drank and danced? Because Lynn, from whom Betty had inherited extraordinary physical beauty, loved to sit and sip and watch men dance among themselves. Once, when a sailor ripped off his shirt and jumped upon a table and danced his grief toward something like joy as the tinny, unremitting live music blared so loudly conversation was impossible, I pounded my chest and declared with derisive affection, “My people!” Jerry grasped my shoulder, bent toward my ear and said, “that dance is thousands of years old,” which was simply his suggestion that I show some respect. I recall glancing, that moment, beyond Betty’s beautiful face to that of her mother, her best friend, a woman barely out of her forties; Lynn’s eyes, in the muted light of that enormous room whose margin we occupied like four abstracted judges, glistened.
Another father I did not kill, Rayburn Miller, was a UNO “founder”; that is, he was hired out of Iowa into an inchoate institution that was little more, in the early 60s, than Quonset huts on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. An autodidact of enormous classical erudition, he put his queer shoulder to the wheel and participated, soulfully and with stoical patience and Pythagorean practicality, in the building of an honest-to-god university primarily for working-class white people randy, year-round, with the Mardi-Gras ethos.
One day, soon after I’d been hired, I casually suggested he show me “some of (his) work.” Within hours my cubby was engorged with a four-hundred-plus page manuscript of lyrics so fine, so refined, so heartbreakingly crafty and smart they filled me with shame. He’d published most of them in journals so small and marginalized those typed pages might as well have been shredded and flushed. He’d helped build and sustain a university, a complex social structure, and over the two decades he’d labored with his fellow founders to do so he’d also spun exquisite lyrics he’d husbanded rather than flaunted. I secured a grant, gleaned sixty pages or so from his hefty tome, and helped Maxine Cassin publish his first book.
I might as well have bludgeoned a kitten and impaled it for display in the faculty lounge, though now, more than thirty years later, Rayburn long dead, how a few colleagues, most of them long dead, responded to Rayburn’s and my oddly warm collegiality is irrelevant. He was my gay father, one I did not know particularly well except from his measured and wise commentary at department meetings and through his poems of spiritual weariness and physical yearning.
I murdered only one father in my thirties. A Walk with Tom Jefferson had just been published and Philip Levine was in town to read at Tulane. Peter Cooley, bless his heart, invited Betty and me to dinner with Fran and Phil, him and Jacqueline, at the Chart House, across from the Cabildo and overlooking Jackson Square in the French Quarter, where Betty had cocktailed for years, and where I’d met her in the summer of 1976, days after hitchhiking to the Big Nasty from San Diego. For all the times I’d delivered platters to, and then bussed those tables, or tonged sirloin at the exhibition broiler, for all the thousands of drinks Betty had delivered to those tables on which intricate maps of the Caribbean were lacquered into the oak, we’d never dined there, not together. Phil and Peter, both born in Detroit, reminisced. Betty was still friends with many of the wait staff and chatted with them as they tended to our table. Fran and Jackie were serene, amicable.
I’d just read Levine’s new book and hated it, though I was alone, it seemed, in that evaluation, and kept it to myself among my national tribe of poets. At some point in that evening, though, I piped up and complimented him for yet another stellar performance, earlier that evening, of yet another powerful book of profound and profoundly beautiful verse, or some such horseshit. Levine casually accepted my fulsome praise with typically jaundiced humility.
Oh, had I been wise enough in my wicked thirties, had my sense of self-preservation been strong enough, I’d not have written Philip Levine a letter apologizing for my lack of authenticity that evening in the Chart House restaurant, on an enchanting spring evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and I wouldn’t have proceeded to enumerate the reasons why, even though I was an inveterate fan of his work, I’d found that most recent effort, well, lacking.
Philip Levine wrote, not on a sheet of paper but on the envelope in which I’d sent the letter, a scathing response that pointed out, among other infelicities, two misspellings.
Reading his rant, again and again, I felt neither chastened nor enraged. I slipped that missive, composed on the envelope in which I’d sent my confession, into a larger envelope and tapped it back to him. Days later, I received that unopened envelope in an envelope. I placed the mess into a larger envelope and mailed it back to him. A week or so later…I can’t recall how many times we tapped that shuttlecock of ire back and forth, but eventually one of us, probably he, lost interest, and I shuffled out of the shadow not of the great American poet, but of my colossal regard for him.
The Don’t-Soil-the-Nest Rule is sacrosanct, and yet my wicked thirties were conducted, in large part, in a workplace unique in academe and therefore exempt, I contend, from that otherwise Mosaic directive. That institution’s youth was no doubt a source of its uniqueness. Its third decade overlapped, in a Venn-diagram kind of way, my own wicked thirties. It didn’t bend academic conventions so much as adjust them to a ruling coterie’s rational, by turns noble and ignoble, agenda. If individuals who never earned terminal degrees rose like cream, they did so displaying exceptional native intelligence and political acumen, not to mention a delightfully vicious sense of entitlement issuing from the fact that most of them were independently wealthy and locally connected. If most of the department’s professorate had been hired sans national searches, any outside observer would have to account for the enormous effort it required to staff a university from scratch. If a department’s service aspect required it to hire hordes of over-qualified, bottom-feeding instructors, and if many of those instructors subsequently staffed courses that should have been taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty, at least they were then encouraged to compete, like Roman gladiators, for tenure-track positions that had not been advertised nationally. Crusted in blood and gore, maimed for life, we who stood at the end, holding high the severed heads of the final vanquished, were showered not with cheers or jeers but amused indifference. For those who could not compete in the arena because they were not even remotely qualified to do so or simply because of bad timing, but who had curried favor with the ruling cabal or simply managed to attract its sanguine regard, a status dubbed “retained instructor” was made available, a professional Phantom Zone of which other departments across this great land have cobbled versions, but rarely have populated so densely. Because New Orleans is New Orleans, because the best never want to leave, too many beautiful souls, superior minds, settled, for entire careers, into the academic equivalent of sweatshop labor.
But I digress. In my wicked thirties the psychic distance between my professional and personal lives was several light years, though the wormhole of my wickedness, my unfettered enthusiasm for intrigue and melodrama, collapsed my classroom into my French-Quarter bedroom (in an apartment my landlord swore was the original House of the Rising Sun) but not (entirely) in a nefarious way; I would lie awake for hours, too many nights, replaying lectures and class discussions, but also rehearsing what I should have said to this peer or that senior colleague, improving, editing my contribution to the previous post-department meeting’s hallway repartee. I’d grown up on the highways of America, my parents fleeing innumerable crimes, and in federal housing projects on welfare. I’d been homeless much of my childhood, some of my adolescence, even intermittently in my twenties. In my wicked thirties I craved and feared institutional acceptance in equal measure, and in the deepest part of me that wacky collection of artists and intellectuals, that pirate ship of academic outliers (our sports teams were “the Privateers”!) were the only stable family, the only home, as dysfunctional as we were, I’d ever known, as pathetic as that confession is now to my own ears.
I’ve been a walker all of my life, and in my wicked thirties I was peripatetic to a fault. When I lived in the House of the Rising Sun, on St. Louis between Bourbon and Dauphine, I’d turn left from my gate and walk to Rampart. Sometimes I’d mosey into Saint Louis Cemetery II (back then anyone could get in at any time before sundown), and leave a cigarette at the shrine the world had made of Marie Laveau’s tomb, then head up to Canal, then toward the river to Decatur, and downriver past Jackson Square and Café De Monde, past the French Market to Esplanade, sometimes onto Frenchmen and back around through the Faubourg Marigny, toward St. Claude, back onto Esplanade and usually up Burgundy, all the way back to St. Louis and the House of the Rising Sun.
I smoked cigarettes until late into my wicked thirties, and would ash at least half a pack on my almost daily circuit. I was not faithful to her to whom I was tethered, but Betty didn’t require my carnal loyalty, only my predictable presence. She occupied a perfumed haze of linked moments each extraordinary unto itself, and regarded the future as something feline, stray, and self-sufficient.
A ballet friend of hers, an anorexic uptown woman who volunteered at the Audubon Zoo’s Bird Rehabilitation Center, would bring me nestlings that had fallen from trees. It was my task to raise them, teach them to fly then set them free. At the appropriate time—when they were obviously ready to fledge, hopping around and chirping crazily in their padded box—I’d toss each one a few feet into the air, watch it flap and fall, flap and fall, flap and fall. By degrees, they’d remain in the air for longer and longer durations, until, eventually, they’d circle the living room, crapping joyfully on the furniture and the window sills, crashing like creampuffs into our floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking St. Louis. Eventually, I’d throw a batch of three to seven off our second-story balcony overlooking a lush courtyard. They’d flit away, but return, the whole batch of them, every day for a couple of weeks, at exactly 6:15 a.m.; they’d line up on the balcony railing and squawk until I’d pad out, puffy-eyed, scratching my privates through my drawers, half asleep, to drop a pinch of moist cat food down each squawker’s gullet. Eventually, they’d cease returning, but by then another batch would have graduated from the University of Flap and Fall, and I would toss them off the balcony to be eaten by cats or to live long and productive avian lives.
In my wicked thirties, I yelled and screamed and blustered some but not inordinately, though I invited a colleague, a large novelist with administrative ambitions, to stroll with me across the levee behind the college to settle our dispute. And once, at three in the morning, four hulking college boys verbally abused drag queens promenading from The Roundup across St. Louis. I took umbrage at their noise not, alas, their bullying, and stomped onto the balcony to request they push on toward Bourbon. The biggest and drunkest questioned my manhood and his mates howled. I descended to the street and beat him bloody before the shocked eyes of his posse, then climbed back to the apartment, painted my knuckles with iodine, and slipped back into bed.
In my wicked thirties I was called once for jury duty. I tried mightily to get thrown off a murder-one case. During voir dire I insulted the defense, openly made fun of both lawyers. One of them looked a little like Robin Williams. “Well, Mork,” I began when asked my opinion of the death penalty.
I condescended to the lead prosecutor because he was a stupid, inarticulate good ol’ boy and my fellow potential jurors, all black, clearly loathed him. I did everything but declare myself an emissary from the planet Woodstock here on Earth to eat the brains of all litigators as a gesture of my people’s desire for peace.
We were sequestered, I and the other eleven, for the week’s duration of the trial. Three Vietnamese kids were accused of murdering a Vietnamese shop owner, ordering him on his knees and blowing his brains out for no particular reason other than the fact that they were evil little pricks.
The prosecution’s star witness was a fourteen-year-old child who’d occupied a cell with those three sixteen-year-olds. He testified to hearing the three brag about the murder. Oh, he had an IQ that hovered around sixty, the defense was able to get into the record through expert testimony, before dicing the poor kid, clearly an ambulatory eggplant, into tiny cubes.
After we were led, at the end of the trial, to the official room of our deliberations, within seconds of our assuming our official chairs around the official table, we elected a foreman whose first official utterance was to query as to whether the decision should be guilty of murder one or murder two.
I recall that they were serious folks who took our task seriously, and the fact that I was the only white face at the table seemed incidental. The fact that I was a teacher, kind of, also seemed incidental. So, when I piped up and pointed out what seemed quite obvious, that the prosecution had mounted an insultingly stupid case (I didn’t have to suggest that the defendants’ and the victim’s ethnicity might have contributed to the prosecution’s lackluster presentation), and enumerated the ways in which that had been so, my colleagues all immediately agreed. We filed back out literally within ten minutes of beginning our deliberations, and reassumed our public seats.
After the three had hugged each other and their lawyers and the courtroom briefly went a little fuzzy-buzzy with incredulity, the judge, a handsome guy with a very Italian name I can’t recall, poked his head into the jury room where we were gathering our stuff to go home. He informed us that he thought we’d made the correct decision given what we’d heard, but that we should know the murderers’ confessions had been thrown out for procedural reasons.
In my wicked thirties, I judged others, particularly writers whose talent I didn’t immediately recognize, too quickly, flippantly, even, though I was respectful toward those I admired. Some of that local, 80s, New Orleans cohort have scattered, and I’ve no desire to gather that tribe anywhere but here and in cursory fashion: Valerie Martin, Domenic Stansberry, Steven Schwartz, Andre Codrescu, Carolyn Wright, Ellen Gilchrest, David Wojahn, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Maisel; and among those who did not scatter, Peter Cooley, Moira Crone, Rodger Kamenetz, Ralph Adamo, Maxine Cassin, John Biguenet, Kay Murphy, Everette Maddox, Frederick Barton, John Gery. Those last two were prime enemies of my wicked thirties and even a decade beyond, and I list them here less in the spirit of forgiveness than as a final, wicked act, in this case simply to scoff, not at them but at the three of us, in the 80s in New Orleans, in the midst of so much absurd treachery, so much energy and beauty, so much realized and squandered potential.