MALCHUS AND VAN GOGH CHAT IN HEAVEN; HOW TO SPELL “FISH”
By: John Jay Speredakos
MALCHUS AND VAN GOGH CHAT IN HEAVEN
I said, “What’s up?” How’s the ear?
–Oh, same-same. Got any burnt umber?
–BURNT UMBER? Can’t you hear??
Well, you know…
–Oh, that’s right. My bad. How’d it happen again?
Peter. Garden. Sword.
Damn straight. Thank God, you know…
–Oh, sure. Absolutely. Looks great, by the way.
Yeah. He does good work.
See any what?
Oh, no, sorry. How’d you lose yours again?
Whoa. That hurts. Sufferin’ for art, huh?
Mozart? No, the other one—Beethoven.
–Ya lost me.
BEETHOVEN. Man was deaf. Not Mozart.
No! The Garden. Gethsemane.
–Get some what?
–SIENNA! Burnt. You know, dark brown.
What do you need brown for?
–I’m sick of sunflowers.
Can’t help you, Vinny. Gotta split. No pun intended.
–None taken. Lookin’ good, Malchus.
You too. Might wanna change that bandage though.
HOW TO SPELL "FISH"
There’s this thing
my teacher taught
back when my mind
was open; before it
decided it was full, that it
had had enough,
thank you. “Fish”, her chalky
voice explained, as in
“Look, a starfish!” or “Jesus
with just two fish.” or even
“Go fish!!” -that fish-
should really be spelled:
The “F” sound comes from…
“enough”, let’s say,
as in “I’ve had enough, I can’t
and your “I” comes from
“women”, as in
“Here’s to swimmin’ with
Then you get your “SH”
from many places: “flirtation”
“infatuation”, “aggravation”, “separation”.
Or even “emancipation”
as in “Emancipation Proclamation”
which has two, come to think.
Try it, it works wonders–
It’s a matter of perspective, a certain
slant of light. As in, “There’s lots
of ghoti in the sea.” “Ghoti or cut bait.”
Or even, “Go ghoti!!”
So that’s how you spell it, anyway.
Can’t really tell you
how to catch one; though I’ve seen
a lot of lures get lost in trying.
JOHN JAY SPEREDAKOS is a NY-based professional actor and writer with a BA from Muhlenberg College and an MFA from Rutgers University. He has appeared on and off-Broadway, in films, TV, commercials and radio dramas, and is a devoted daddy to his daughter, Calliope. Recent publications include poetry in Typishly, Gravitas: Volume 18 Issue 1, the debut issue of River Heron Review, and work upcoming in Likely Red Press. More info, photos, etc. can be found on IMDb at: imdb.me/johnsperedakos
"MALCHUS AND VAN GOGH CHAT IN HEAVEN—
Well, I’ve always been intrigued by the shadowy New Testament figure of Malchus, the High Priest’s Servant, who shows up in the Passion Story in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to have his ear lopped off by Peter. And Christ quietly, in the midst of all the chaos, repairs it. One of His lesser-known and appreciated miracles. But not to Malchus! The thought of pairing him up with Vincent Van Gogh, whose preternatural obsession with color and emotional volatility make him the poster child for Suffering Artists, seemed logical enough. Two guys who suffered similar incidents centuries apart. What could they possibly discuss? I just wanted to get them together and see where it went. Which naturally seemed to lead to communication issues and misunderstandings. If he was dead, I might have thrown Evander Holyfield into the mix. Next poem.
HOW TO SPELL “FISH”—
The actual impetus for the poem is fairly autobiographical, inspired by a real memory somewhere in the mists of 4th Grade. My teacher, a nun, casually mentioned that the proper way to spell fish should be “GH-O-TI” and proceeded to explain why. I never forgot it. Of course, I'm really trying to use the vagaries of the English language to comment on the inherent complexities of relationships, hence my word selection. When it came to the “SH” sound, I tried, in 3 or 4 words, very condensed fashion, to trace the arc of a relationship. And I must have tried 30 different possible combinations! There’s a lot of damn “tion” words out there. But what do I know? I’ve lost as many lures as the next guy."
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Well, essentially all my life. I remember cranking stuff out in 3rd and 4th Grade, poems about sharks and ghosts and Charlie Brown and various other influences. I had exactly one Creative Writing class in High School, and one 5 years later in College, so I wrote poetry specifically for them. My parents divorced while I was in college and I suppose writing provided some solace during that. But whenever I had time, doing Summer Stock theatre, or when I was supposed to be studying, I’d find myself writing half-finished poems. By the time I started graduate school for acting, writing poetry felt like a real release from various pressures. And truly, deeply and entirely my OWN. Theatre and acting are extraordinarily collaborative, so I turned to poetry more often for a personal creative outlet.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Not specifically, but there’s a very good chance it was Poe’s The Raven.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Well, Mr. Poe, as I mentioned, was a big influence when I was younger. Not just 'The Raven' but 'Annabel Lee', 'The Bells', 'The Conqueror Worm'. And not just his poems- I loved the poetry of his prose! The first line of The Fall of The House of Usher is as perfect a line of poetry as anyone’s written! The Masque of the Red Death and The Cask of Amontillado read like sustained poems to me. An absolute master.
Then when I was in grad school, Mary Oliver went off like a bomb in my life. I had never heard of her but when she won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive I thought, OK, let’s just see what this here Pulitzer winner has got. Needless to say it was a life-changer. And even though she was now a prize-winner I felt like she was my little secret! I remember going into bookstores and they maybe had one book of hers. Now most bookstores have a whole shelf of her work. As far as individual poems, I love "Wild Geese" and "The Summer Day" of course, as does everyone else, but also "Clapp’s Pond", "Members of the Tribe", "The Rabbit". And all of Dream Work, House of Light and Thirst! I actually got to meet her years ago at a reading at the 92nd St. Y. She was reading from A Thousand Mornings. It felt like meeting Mother Teresa, there was such serenity to her. And grace, one of her favorite words.
There were other poets I started reading in grad school as well, like Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell. I had a work-study job at the Library on campus so it was easy to stand in the stacks and devour great writing when I should have been shelving. I worked with Sharon Old’s son once in a play and I was gobsmacked when I realized who he was.
But the poet I must mention who I’ve come to admire most is the great Hayden Carruth. I’ll probably put lines from “The Cows at Night” on my gravestone! What great intellect and range he had. Poems like "Regarding Chainsaws” “Emergency Haying” “Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey” so many others. What a unique voice he had and chose to write in. So… give me Poe, Mary Oliver, Hayden Carruth and about a dozen others.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process?Any specific rituals that help you get into the zone?
I do tend to ruminate for a long while on most poems. I may have a title in my mind for months, sometimes years, before I crank out a first draft. I do a lot of driving, usually by myself, and I often free-associate and see where it leads. When I was younger sometimes I’d write all night and invariably the stuff I wrote when I was finally exhausted would be the only decent lines. It’s like I had to write all the nonsense out of my system before I could get at something pure. And I’m always a little leery of “inspiration”! Shelby Foote said there’s probably been more bad writing done in the name of inspiration than anything else. It may get you started but there comes a time when some craft has to come in or you’ll wind up floundering around, unfocused.
Both of these poems play with the oddities of English—“Malchus and Van Gogh…” has all these funny moments of the speakers mishearing each other, ironically highlighted by these wonderful rhymes. “How To Spell ‘Fish’” is a bit more explicit. Despite being dramatically different styles of work, did they originate from the same train-of-thought, or were they written at a similar time?
I think they were written a few months apart. But I’m glad they’re being published together as they sort of oddly complement each other. They’re both dealing with communication on some level.‘MALCHUS' came about very quickly. And I enjoyed these two guys and spending a little time with them. Not so HOW TO SPELL “FISH”. It went through a few different iterations. I couldn’t simply write about the spelling lesson my teacher had given me, that felt facile. I knew I needed to wed it to something larger and more expansive. So using the quirkiness of language became the metaphor for commenting on relationships. How much of that was deliberate and how much just infiltrated the poem is hard to say. But you’re right, they do both rely heavily on language, even dialogue. And of course language is our greatest achievement, and the source of continual misery!
Has your acting work had any effect on your poetry, or vice-versa? Have you found yourself better able to get into the emotional aspect of either a role or a poem due to your training in either profession?
Yes, I think my acting career and training has probably filtered into how I write. If nothing else, it’s given me LOTS of downtime in which to experiment with words! And probably there’s an awareness of character, of who’s narrating the poem, if it’s not me, that has come about because of an acting background. I was trained in Meisner Technique by the great, just deceased, Willian Esper. It’s all about the inner life of the character and having a personal point of view about every moment. And in poetry you want to be open to being affected by your own words. It’s not an intellectual exercise, or it shouldn’t be. It’s a wedding of passion and craft. Of course, I’ve had so little formal training as a writer that I’m sure there’s whole realms of different approaches.
But as actors we’re always working with words so my ear automatically hones in on the memorable ones. Don’t forget people like David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill are all very much poets. They’re dramatists AND poets, just as Shakespeare was. So when you study these guys and live in their words it can’t help but affect your own sense of language and syntax and phrasing. You want to hear a great line of poetry? "God forbid something inevitable occurs!” (David Mamet, American Buffalo)
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I never try to impose a structure on it. So I guess, yes, I listen to the poem and see what emerges. Usually I’ll write it out in one long stanza. Then as I read it there may be natural breaks that leap out at me. I may realize, Oh, it’s actually couplets, I see that now. But I don’t set out to write it that way.
What is your editing process like?
Once something's on the page it’s so much easier to tweak it. Now it exists, it’s real. It’s rare when the whole poem emerges more or less complete, but it happens. The "MALCHUS" poem was like that. I just sort of wrote it down. Then later I added the hyphens in front of Van Gogh’s lines just to differentiate the dialogue better. And that was pretty much the only edit. But other poems I’ve lived with, dissatisfied, for years! Then the right word will present itself. I have a poem called “Nest of Echoes” I’ve been tooling with for decades. And one day the right word popped into my head. Sometimes your own maturation as a person will lead you down a better path. So you have to remain open to the possibilities inherent in your poem.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Well, I suppose it varies. There are poems that emerge fairly complete in one tidy package. And others that require years of tinkering. And sometimes you can tinker them out of all recognition! But when the poem FEELS finished it probably is. And you should revisit it after awhile and see if it holds up, still feels like a unified whole. I added a verse to a poem I published this year after I’d already read it aloud at the launch party! I felt it needed a transitional stanza or the ending came on too quickly. And now it feels finished. I might not have made that realization if I hadn’t read it to a group.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I feel wildly unqualified to answer that! It just seems to me that your “voice” is not something you can pursue, it’s something that can only emerge over time. So the more you write the more likely that something that constitutes your own unique voice will emerge. But that may be something for other people to assess. As soon as you identify yourself as having a certain ‘voice’ you may in essence be pigeon-holing yourself. Just keep writing and don’t self-sensor. Leave the labeling to someone else. Edgar Allan Poe wrote comedies, so did Arthur Miller. And Steve Martin has written some pretty insightful stuff.
The only other thing I’d mention is: expose yourself to Art, wherever and whenever. Any art, any form. Music, painting, theatre, novels, sculpture, dance. Let it intrigue you or repel you or disgust you. But let it affect you. Then let that response come through your own work.