Magra Radio Presents: “The Aging Comedian as Letter N”

June 30, 2019

The indefatigable poet-editor-translator-publisher Paul Vangelisti worked at radio station KPFK in the 1970s as a cultural intercessor, and among his many projects were a series of radio dramas as well as large-scale readings, including one of Pound’s “The Cantos.” I believe that the Archive for New Poetry at the Geisel Library of the University of California, San Diego, has digitized many of these recordings.

Last fall, Paul read a two-part monologue I was working on, and decided that he would record me reading it for his current radio station, Magra Radio (on-line). At first Paul was inclined to recruit an actor to record it, but as we worked on the “script,” and his ever alert ear enabled me to trim about 400 words from the final version, we decided that I would be the performer. It was a single take, in his office, on an autumn afternoon.

It’s a fictional “Bill” who is invoked as a narrator in this piece, and all the characters burgeon out of the implausibility of its rancorous humor. As context, it might be best to first view the reading I gave of a piece called “Substitute Teacher,” which was recorded at Century Cable in the 1990s, followed by the prose piece “Death’s Real Job,” which appears in my most recent collection, The Headwaters of Nirvana. For those who are familiar with my writing at the beginning of the last decade, a small part of “The Aging Comedian” will seem familiar, and indeed one of the jokes told in my short article, “The Gossip of Ideology: Sexual Jokes and the Tumescence of Power,” reappears in the broadcast monologue.

In advance, a brief warning: listeners might be surprised at the transgressive quality of some of “The Aging Comedian as Letter N.” The motive should be obvious — the current preference by right-wing ideologues for an increasingly vigilant repression of anything that might inspire a liberating impulse. This flash flood of tyrannical debris from Cold War culture, however, was not the only factor in tempting me to conjure a domain of provocative imagery far in excess of my usual satirical delineations. It also aspires to critique the capacity of youth culture to jettison those in previous decades who altered the rules for the reproduction of social life. If the social reproduction of life is a farce of absurd contingency only made more excruciating by the shortcomings of gratifying reciprocity, then the comedy of the reproduction of social life is one of the few salves for those wounds. I have only listened to the recording once, after it was posted on-line, and I confess I was a bit taken aback by the degree to which “rankness is savored,” but not as a sensualist.

It is the case that if you don’t know the punch line to Lenny Bruce’s performance piece (with bongos, I believe), then it is time to renew your acquaintance with a figure whose mythology of self deserves more attention that it has been getting of late. There’s not much likelihood his brief inclusion in a recent on-line comedy series produced by Netflix led to a sudden increase in sales of his books.

I do wish to emphasize how this particular project I did with Paul Vangelisti fits into the catalogue of his current enterprise, Magra Books. While the radio broadcast side also includes archival work (“Breathing Space,” which derives from recordings in the late 1970s), the chapbook series deserves equal attention. Especially pertinent to the piece I recorded is Douglas Messerli’s On Marriage: The Imagination of Being, “an extended reflection upon that other person …. ‘who forces you into perceiving yourself as someone other than your own imagination of being’.”

Finally, although there is an echo of Stevens’ long poem in the title, one should not look for too many allusive convergences. At most, the narrator primarily has the following lines in common with Crispin:

Preferring text to gloss, he humbly served
Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event,
A clown, perhaps, but an aspiring clown.

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