I didn’t expect the ghost of Pete the Poet to take over the little outdoor birthday gathering I had for myself in August, five months into the Covid disruption of our lives.
It just happened that way. The bratwurst I grilled was a big hit, leading to socially distanced talk of the butchers at Shopper’s Corner in Santa Cruz, and that prompted me to announce I’d shortly be reading aloud Pete’s poem “Shopper’s Corner.” Just had to do it, no matter how bewildering the little group might find Pete’s world of self-mocking humor and raw, unfiltered pain.
They sense me when I enter
alert, at their registers
I always go left
toward the freezer section
but their eyes burn
their searing molten
into my muscular back
as I stride toward the cheese …
No one read Pete’s words like Pete. He was George Carlin, Billy Collins and your sarcastic college running buddy all at once. He was the Ethan Hawke character in Dead Poets Society—at first halting and horrified in front of the class, then suddenly his eyes clear and a startling burst of truth comes pouring out. Reading Pete’s words aloud now always makes me feel like a warlock in a particular type of dusty tome, intoning lines whose power and effect I can only begin to fathom.
Could anyone, hearing me now, really get Pete? That day they all did, every one of them. The words I read aloud seemed to cast a spell on the small group sitting around the fire circle area here at our little writers’ retreat center in Soquel.
Five years had passed since I first met Pete, after my wife Sarah heard him talking with friends at the Buttery about his poetry, and five years since we’d first offered to publish a book of his poems. Three years had gone by since Pete took his own life and I wrote a Good Times cover story about how Pete’s death left me “reeling with a sense of being alienated and distanced,” a “baby step” toward Pete’s world.
I’m still reeling, and have been reeling all along, struggling with the awesome weight of trying to do right by as original and bracing a talent as Pete, feeling a little like Frodo with his ring (and yes, the poems do give one the power to go invisible and see the unseen).
That little ceremony around the fire circle that afternoon freed the poems, which Wellstone Books is publishing this month as I Wish I Was Billy Collins, poems by Pete McLaughlin, with a blurb from Billy Collins himself calling Pete “an amazing poet” and one on the back from the great Anne Lamott.
I’d been traumatized by the experience of trying to line up some kind of personal introduction for Pete’s book from the writer Sebastian Junger, one of those bestselling authors with a brand most book readers know—the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm, the guy you expect to see pictured in men’s magazines, ruggedly handsome in black and white, all the better to bring out his strong, stubbled chin, a man given to visiting battlefields and thinking big thoughts.
Pete ran cross country with Junger in college, and in the years Pete regularly came by for Open Mic night here at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, he would often smile and share some glimpse of “Seb”; intense about his running, always a step faster than Pete. At one point, I urged Pete to go to a Junger book signing in Marin County and see if he might ask his old friend to blurb the book of poems, a traumatizing moment in the extreme for Pete. He was happy “Seb” was receptive, but in retrospect I always kicked myself for pushing Pete to put himself through that ordeal.
I reached Junger on the phone in the weeks after Pete’s death, and we talked for half an hour. He told good stories about his old running friend. They’d go out to dinner, a group of them, and Pete would get to dropping sharp, funny one-liners about his fellow runners, Junger remembered, and you laughed even as you braced yourself, knowing you might be next. What Junger said on the phone would have made a perfect preface to the book, and I was startled when I followed up later and the bestselling author, despite whatever he’d indicated before, declined to offer a preface. Something about only knowing Pete years earlier and not feeling equipped to grapple with the poems.
It’s not exactly news that mega-best-selling authors are not always exemplars of courage. There are always good reasons not to dare, not to do something different, and I can’t think of another writer I’ve witnessed charge past those road signs again and again with anything like Pete’s abandon.
Sure, he was doing his thing in a small way, known to a few on the Santa Cruz open-mic circuit, and he wrestled constantly with the specter of larger recognition, but still, the words of his poems electrify our own sense of possibility, even if that hurts. That, I think, is why I remain haunted in a good way by Pete’s lines, which my wife and I often recite to each other, little gifts from the ether that school us all in laughing at ourselves, and at pretension.
To be truly courageous as a writer, to charge right in and go places no one else dares to go, is to risk annihilation, in more ways than one. Pete’s fierce commitment to honest, blunt self-revelation was so intense, so Icarus-flying-toward-the-sun dangerous, that to tunnel into the world of his poetry is to smell ozone. Who else would delineate the details of middle-class-male self-gratification by throwing out this image: “Strangling a frightened sea cucumber”? Who else would dance through a series of Nabokovian phrases to describe the agony of enduring a marriage-counseling session with an unctuous counselor openly ogling his about-to-be-ex-wife’s abundant cleavage? “He’s grabbing a flashing, greedy, no doubt eyeful/of your woman’s stupendous, traffic-stopping mammaries/at one hundred fifty overpriced dollars an hour./No wonder he always took her side.”
I have a vision of Matt Damon playing Pete in a film version of his life, and I know it’s a quixotic vision on my part, but still it comes to me; I see and hear it unspooling with the inevitability of the sure-to-be-true-one-day. I’d coach Matt on how to do the Pete poems the way Pete did. We’d spend a full week working on the exact faltering, high-pitched tone of “cream,” in the rising-voice line in “Middle Age,” “Do you take cream?” (spoken, the morning after, by a sixtyish woman who picks up Pete’s character, takes him to a nice French dinner, flashes her “unblinking green-light eyes” and “calls me Tiger … yes Tiger”). Matt and I would work on the right wide-eyed look to flash with “yes Tiger,” not so much comic underlining as come-along-with-me-on-this-ride conviction.
We’d spend a lot of time on pacing. The title poem of the collection, “I Wish I Was Billy Collins,” starts with the slow-paced, well-fed good humor of a man whistling as he laces up his work boots on his sloping wooden front steps. Matt would get a chuckle out of the opening line: “I wish I was Billy Collins/No, not George Clooney, just good old Billy C.” He would, no doubt, text George and then read it aloud to him. He’d get the relaxed cadence of Billy rolling up in my “’56 Chevrolet pick-up/my dog Thoreau, a rescue of course, riding shotgun/manic chickens scattering crazily as I pull in.”
We’d have to work on the turn, the point in the poem where lazy river waters turn into a waterfall, relaxed liquid vowels turn to a percussive assault as he goes through imaginary-Billy’s weird fantasy of living in a musty studio apartment in Santa Cruz “with a decrepit cat who barfs violently on the carpet at four a.m./it’s as though he’s trying to turn himself inside out for Christ’s sake/and neighbors whose high decibel, jack-hammer style love-making/ comes and comes again hard through the cheap-ass half-inch sheetrock wall.”
Matt would have to work at the balance, the slashing manic intensity, bug-eyed but not too bug-eyed, with a handrail there somewhere, a soothing baritone rumble to make it all feel a little like performance, when it’s anything but.
Designer Alicia Feltman of Lala Design brings that poem beautifully alive on the cover of “I Wish I Was Billy Collins,” which features a pickup just like the Billy of the poem drives, an apple pie “cooling on the window sill,” and Pete down below, playing his trumpet in a cave at Seabright Beach, and yes, looking a little like Matt Damon. Can you see it, too?
Pete wanted to be published, more than anything, and then asked me not to go forward. It was all too much for him to think about, his words, his self, his razor-sharp incisiveness, all out there. Then in one of our last conversations, we agreed: I’d just publish the book. When, we couldn’t say, but I’d know when the time was right.
Now, finally, the time is right. The words can live out there, with you, the readers, with random people who might find a copy via Powells.com or Walmart (I can see Pete shaking his head, looking down out of the corner of his eye, not even knowing where to start on his book of poems on display at Walmart.com, having to hold himself back from getting in a little six-mile sprint to try to calm his nerves).
The book, like my article in these pages three years ago, ends with a gut-punch of a poem called “Old School Timmy” that leaves us with an image of Pete, still with us, “just kind of floating around, you know, like a really nice ghost,” and I feel that. Pete’s here. I can’t read or say the word “Merlot” without thinking of Pete and “Middle Age.” I sometimes randomly blurt out “Oh doctor!” evoking Pete. When I’ve entangled myself in some pathetic predicament, and feel myself taking ridiculous to a new extreme, I feel Pete watching me watch myself, and it’s not a smile—oh no, not quite that, more like a companionable hard sock to the shoulder.
But now that Pete is finally being published—with the help of Pete’s mother, Eve Pell, and the generous Kickstarter support of many of Pete’s friends and family—I find that for me, the center of Pete’s work remains an ever-moving target. The book contains enough breadth, enough variety, that it surprises me every time I go back in. Pete’s baring of his own pain seems, with time, more like a passage to his fully claiming his voice—a voice that, deep down, I always hear laughing.
Take “True Friendship,” for example, where two guys talk past each other until one finally confesses “You bore me! Yes! Hah! There, I said it.” And then talks about how good it feels to just come clean. From there, it’s on to more blunt honesty—“So, you really dig your daughter’s second grade teacher./I thought so. I just knew it.”—and on to the fantasies of Miss Honeycutt, in leather, so obvious “the wife” does occasionally request he open his eyes and look at her. It all wends along toward the great, good fun of the narrator confessing he’s having an affair with the other man’s wife. “Yoga, schmoga—she’s with me—downward doggy style!” A nice added twist I won’t reveal, and the final line: “Oh. Sorry. I just thought it was important to be honest.” I think I’m not the only one who pictures Pete’s face reading those lines, all but crossing his arms with an edgy smile.
‘I WISH I WAS BILLY COLLINS’ VIRTUAL EVENT
On Jan. 4, Bookshop Santa Cruz will present a virtual event to celebrate the release of the new book of Peter McLaughlin’s poems, ‘I Wish I Was Billy Collins.’ The free event will feature poets and writers who loved Pete reading their favorite poems, including GT editor Steve Palopoli, Santa Cruz Poet Laureate David Sullivan, local author and former GT writer Wallace Baine and Wellstone Books Publisher Steve Kettmann. Monday, Jan. 4, 6-7pm. Go to bookshopsantacruz.com for details.