Calvin Trillin is The Nation’s Deadline Poet. He’s also a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, and has written many best-sellers, including the classic Alice, Let’s Eat. His new book is Dogfight: the 2012 Campaign in Verse.
Jon Wiener: Your new book is not just a collection of verse from your Deadline Poet contributions to The Nation—it’s a 150-page narrative poem.
Calvin Trillin: Let’s not be afraid of the word “epic” here. It’s a long epic poem in iambic pentameter, interrupted at points by what we call “a pause for prose.” There’s a prose piece, for instance, that’s called “Callista Gingrich, Aware That Her Husband Has Cheated On and Then Left Two Wives Who Had Serious Illnesses, Tries Desperately to Make Light of a Bad Cough.”
I’m from Minnesota, and I appreciated the fact that you wrote about Michelle Bachman—to a Beatles tune!
Yes I did—feel free to hum along:
Michelle, ma belle
Thinks the gays will all be sent to hell….
You may recall that Representative Bachmann said that Hurricane Irene was “God’s warning to curb excessive government spending.” That was the hurricane last year that caused so much trouble in New England, especially in Vermont. I wrote a poem called “Why be so hard on Vermont?”
We know that this God’s an all-powerful God
God’s actions are not nonchalant
We know he can punish whomever he wants
So why be so hard on Vermont?
You also managed to find a rhyme for Minnesota’s other presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty. This is quite an achievement. There is an easy way to write a poem about Tim Pawlenty, which is to put his name at the beginning of the line—something like “Tim Pawlenty, he’s the guy/Whose trial balloons would never fly.” That’s my own effort.
That’s very nice, Jon. You have a future in poetry ahead of you.
You inspired me. Now I’m going to retire from writing poetry. But you took the hard route—you actually found a rhyme for “Tim Pawlenty.”
Yes I found “cognoscenti:”
There were in fact among the cognoscenti
Some folks who placed their bets on Tim Pawlenty.
That shows the difference between an amateur like me and a true professional.
Thank you. Sometimes I object to people going into politics because they have names that are difficult to rhyme. Otherwise, I’m very open about the political system. It’s hard to remember now, but four years ago one of the people mentioned as a possible presidential candidate was the Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. I was terribly worried about Blagojevich—because my candidates have nice clean iambic names like “Ross Perot” or “John McCain.” But I later found that Blagojevich was not hard to rhyme, and I wrote one titled “On the Auctioning off of Barack Obama’s Senate Seat”:
It seemed to Rob Blagojevich
A powerful appointment, which
Was his to make—should make him rich.
His plan turned out to have a glitch:
Perhaps the feds had flipped a snitch.
One of the other things you do is take popular songs and write new words to them—“Blue Moon” for example.
“Blue Moon” I used for “Ayn Rand”:
Because of you I’m now free
Because of what you have taught
I know it’s all about me. . . .
However I didn’t find any limericks here. I was hoping for something like “There once was a girl named Callista…”
I don’t think I’ve ever written a limerick. I’m not sure why.
Maybe limericks don’t match the epic form of your work.
I like that word “epic.” “Heroic” is a good one, too: “heroic couplets.”
For “Obama” there are obvious rhymes, especially “Osama.” But you rhymed “Obama” with “Yokohama.” How did you manage that?
I also used “Cinerama.” But I don’t think I’ve ever used the best one, which is “Slap yo’ mama.” I’ve only heard it in Louisiana. It’s often used to speak about food—like “you taste this étoufée, you’ll go home and slap yo’ mama.”
Some reviewers of Dogfight were moved to write their own verse, notably Michiko Kakutani, the much-feared reviewer for The New York Times. She wrote:
The 2012 campaign is Trillin’s focus in Dogfight.
Its title invokes the Romney dog Seamus’s plight.
That poor Irish setter on the roof of the family car,
Whose tale so doggedly stuck to the former Olympics czar.
She went on in that vein for thirteen stanzas. I have to say that, in my opinion at least, you are better at this than Michiko Kakutani.
Gee, thanks! For some reason, when you write verse, people often want to reply in verse. People sometimes write letters to The Nation complaining about my verse, and they write in verse. I always find it comforting, because just about the time that I begin to think I might be the worst poet in the world, some evidence to the contrary is presented on the letters page of The Nation.
Have you ever tried to rhyme something with “Michiko Kakutani”?
Haven’t tried that. I hope that she prospers, but does not enter politics.
Do readers ever send you suggestions for rhymes that you haven’t come up with?
Yes, but usually they’re not quite rhymes. They say “so-and-so’s name rhymes with such-and such.”
And I say, “that’s not quite a rhyme.”
And they say, “it’s close enough.”
And I say, “‘Close enough’ won’t do—rhyme is all I’ve got.”
For more from The Nation’s Deadline Poet, check out his latest here.