BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Brendan Lorber is an extraordinary writer and weirdo. Lorber is such a weirdo, he does surreal weather reports and forecasts. His first book, If this is paradise why are we still driving?, was released in 2018. As a poet, Lorber’s use of pause, silence, and tension through indentation is remarkable, and remarkably reminiscent of the NYC subway, a place he knows only too well as a NYC native. He’s kind of a writer’s writer or artist’s artist in that he’s zany and doesn’t (really) care what other people think.
In his poem, “Lucky break of day,” this is quite evident:
I was able to speak with Lorber about his process, happiness, and art:
Describe your favorite meal.
Of all time: cheap miso soup in a Styrofoam cup from a newsstand in Narita Airport during a 2005 Tokyo layover. It was so good, having been on a plane for the 200 hours leading up to it. Even the Styrofoam was good.
But less specifically, I like my food extremely rare. That is, meals under rare circumstances. Late breakfast is my utopian objet petit déjeuner a. (I almost failed French year after year in high school, so if I can make a joke in French, I’m going for it. Especially one that roughly translates as Lacanian Omlette.) Head over heels over eggs over easy just before noon because it means I’ve gotten enough sleep (rare), have enough time to cook, sit and eat (rarer), and likely have a whole day ahead to take care of things (unheard of) like answering your questions. Hi, Joanna! Bring on the grilling!
What have you been listening to lately?
I always feel like I’m fronting when I talk about music. It’s like when I impose a storyline on last night’s weird dream so I can get away with telling my friends.
Live music almost makes up for eking out an existence in this expensive rotten slagheap of a city. Every Wednesday night, I go to Sunny’s in Red Hook and dance awkwardly to Smoky Hormel’s western swing. Last week I went to Rockwood Music Hall and heard Dave Mooney and Viewers Like You whose awesome name would make you think their music isn’t that hot but it is. Narita Airport miso soup hot!
Today, though, I floated around YouTube with Leonard Cohen covers pulled up over my ears. His songs make life worth living, but the arrangements are a victim of a certain moment in culture. Like how Jackson Pollock’s action packed palette is trapped in 1950’s Long Island. I listened to about thirty versions of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” this afternoon before landing on Lianne La Havas’s heart-rending rendition.
As an antidote to Leonard melancholia, which is a state I love to be in on long winter evenings, I have a few musical memories stored away. Like this one from last December: As guests were leaving the Christmas feast, my friend Milton grabbed a guitar and serenaded Shun walking out the door with a bag of leftovers, “Every time you say goodbye, you take a piece of meat with you.”
Choose three books that you've always identified with?
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson: I prefer not to say why.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: I’m pretty much little Milo traveling through an absurd, scary, exciting world where language becomes the actual. I wrote Mr. Juster when I was ten years old, to tell him how much I enjoyed the book, that I was keen on writing too, but was experiencing a spell of writer’s block. He sent back a handwritten letter saying it’s always nice to hear from someone who’s read the book, especially when they’ve liked it. Also that he hoped my writer’s block goes away. “We authors often have that problem, but it passes,” he wrote. We authors! We!
41 Stories, by O. Henry: Carried this around in my late teens and on into young oafhood as my sparkle-eyed grandfather called it with a charming wink. O. Henry’s stories and his life are imbued with romance and adventure, even in the most abject and crummy circumstances. The narratives are rife with uncanny, almost magical coincidences that gesture toward an abiding sense that the universe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is working behind the scenes to provide just what we need to evolve. We might not get a happy ending, but if we play our lousy hand right, we’ll get one that is immensely satisfying.
Choose one painting that describes who you are. What is it?
In Budapest last year, I bought a little painting of a crocodile shaking a fox by the scruff of his neck. They are friends. The crocodile is saying, “You need a bath you filthy fox!” and the fox is saying, “I guess this is just how things are going to be from now on.” I am neither of those characters. But it sums up my mood a lot of the time.
Choose a gif that encompasses mornings for you.
What do you imagine the apocalypse is like? How would you want to die?
Exo-biologist Adam Frank gave a talk at Secret Science Club not long ago. Secret Science Club is a somewhat boozy organization at the Bell House in Gowanus of people who want to understand what’s what. He discussed evidence that there have already been many apocalypses on earth, each paving the way for a new civilization, ultimately leading to this one. Which is comforting. But not very.
So the apocalypse will be a lot like Blade Runner—not in terms of kipple-dappled and dark rain-drenched nuclear winter, nor justifiably murderous escaped replicant slaves — but rather in terms of it being a movie I return to over and over. The apocalypse will be a rerun.
Daydreaming about the end of the world, or at least of humanity, is just sublimated fear of my own individual death, a way of experiencing almost-catharsis through the rattling dazzle of global obliteration without really confronting the inevitability that I, you, everyone we know and love, will cease to be.
Having said that, I’d like to die after having faked my own death a few times, so everyone expects me forever to just show up somewhere. And maybe I will! With Prince! and Leonard Nimoy! and Carrie Fisher!
If you could only watch three films for the rest of your life, what would they be?
That YouTube supercut of Owen Wilson saying Oh, wow. The Third Man, by Carol Reed: Anton Karas’s theme on the zither is on heavy rotation in my mind’s ear. Airplane! by The Zucker Bothers: arguably the most perfect film.
What’s your favorite animal?
Our new puppy, Mackenzie the Great Dane, will be eventually, but he’s not housebroken yet so, after a long dark night of the bladder, he and I are on the outs.
In the meantime, I’m kind of entranced by the bacteria they just discovered living under the earth’s surface to a depth of several miles. But that might make me seem like a sociopath, or someone who’s bacterial gut-brain has overtaken his brain-brain.
When I was a kid, the giant iguana on top of the long-gone Lone Star Café in Greenwich Village was my favorite fake animal.
Oh I almost forgot, in my new book If this is paradise why are we still driving?, I mention whatever new life form is living under the surface of the Gowanus Canal and which will no doubt replace the humans. It might be smart to say that is my favorite animal.
No wait, I’m back to loving Mackenzie. How can you not love this velvet baby dragon?
What's something that surprised you recently?
That you wanted to interview me. It made me so happy!
Also, every time someone starts to say Bill de Blasio’s name and actually says it, I’m a little startled because I am always convinced they are going to say Build-A-Bear.
Also, increasingly, every time I wake up and it all comes flooding back I am surprised anew.
What do you carry with you at all times?
A low level panic attack that allows me to still fit into my high school prom tuxedo. Also my little notebook which I am constantly leaving behind, with all my awful secrets.
What are you afraid of?
Less afraid of than afraid that. I’m afraid that following this unorthodox path, being a poet and so forth, will lead only to sorrow. And not the kind of soulful sorrow that shines like a glint of wisdom behind sad world-weary eyes. I’m afraid that the profound lesson of this sorrow will be: what were you thinking?
Also I’m afraid that the people I love the most will use that intimacy to destroy me. This fear is more irrational than the first fear, based purely on early childhood ordeals, and I’m very slowly working on it with the help of the people closest to me.
Also my sense of vulnerability has led me to do reckless things, perhaps to retroactively justify that sense of vulnerability. Things like riding a motorcycle around NYC and doing guerilla poetry readings in ATMs late at night.
What are some of your daily rituals or routines?
I daydream a lot. Sometimes I interrupt one daydream with another much less pressing unfocused daydream to see where that one leads.
I do this to counter some of the other rituals that are demanded of me. Like the one where we all go underground into the subway for an hour first thing every morning as a kind of death cult initiation where we collectively die, are buried, and are reborn to some new, dreary, midtown office building existence.
Also, and more optimistically, I try to write every day, especially when I don’t feel like it. Like right now when I have a lousy cold that’s been malingering in my body so long that it’s less a cold and more a house guest who’s starting to get his mail delivered here and to invite his dickish friends over to get high on my couch.
What are your proudest accomplishments?
Obvz being a father. Is obvz a legit abbr? I’ll ask my daughter who will probably say Yes it is, but not for you.
Running Lungfull! magazine for decades has also been pretty great. And hosting the Zinc Bar Reading Series too. And the Poetry Project Newsletter also too.
Also also orchestrating a life in which I’m able to keep writing despite it all. My father Marvin Lorber was the greatest painter that nobody’s ever heard of. Great both in terms of the abstract expressionist masterpieces he created in secret, but also that, despite everything, he was able to keep painting until his awful death.
Define happiness for you.
Todd Colby asked me this very question a couple months ago. I’m beginning to suspect this is a slow-mo intervention where everyone comes together verrrrry gradually to tell me they are concerned that I’ve totally bolloxed my life. Maybe if I figured out what made me happy I could stop making Lacanian breakfast puns and actually be happy.
It does make me extremely happy to do things for their own sake, rather than for any goal external to the deed. Making poems even if nobody will ever read them, knowing that if the poems are any good, they extend what poetry is capable of. I’ve made poems specifically not to be read for this very reason. It’s what lying was to Oscar Wilde, who bemoaned the cheapening of this dark art at the dirty hands of politicians and other manipulators who only use lies to further some agenda, instead of for the pure pleasure of creating fictions. O. Henry dismissed most protagonists as mere half-heroes because they always act in service to some end for which the escapade is a mere means.
I’m happiest when I’m doing the thing that wants to be done, even if the end result doesn’t actually bring me any happiness, and indeed might bring the exact opposite.
What’s something you want to do in 2019?
Be more in my own skin, less fearful, more compassionate. Maybe slightly taller, but that’s way down on the list. And if I totally fail at all those things, I’m working on a ghost story that’s pretty far out and will make some people very happy to read even if life in 2019 continues like the years before it, to be very, very hard.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente
Brendan Lorber is a poet, prose writer, and editor who lives in a little castle on the highest geographic point in Brooklyn, across from the Green-Wood Cemetery. Over two decades in the making, his first full-length book just came out. It’s called If this is paradise why are we still driving? and is published by the Subpress Collective. He’s also written several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb) He’s had work in the American Poetry Review, Fence, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Since 1995 he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature that prints the rough drafts of contributors’ work in addition to the final versions in order to reveal the creative process.