You men eat your dinner
eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen

So goes the blues song, “Back Door Man,” written in 1961 by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf, and later immortalized by Jim Morrison and The Doors.

A “Back Door Man” is said to be a man who has an affair with a married woman while her husband’s away. In the song, the chicken line serves as a double entendre. Chicken-eating was rare in 1961. Per capita, consumption of pork doubled chicken consumption; not until 1985 did chicken consumption surpass pork consumption in the United States.

“I eat more chicken any man ever seen,” then, likely referred to the singer’s boast that married women cooked chicken for him and saved the less desirable pork and beans for their husbands.

I am not a “back door man”-at least not in any blues sense of the phrase. However, taken literally, that chicken line is my personal anthem: I really do eat more chicken any man ever seen.

In 2007, the typical American consumed about 87 pounds of chicken. My yearly chicken consumption equals about 525 pounds-a ½ chicken almost every single night.

Most nights, I eat a ½ roast chicken. I adore The French recipe, poulet en cocotte. I believe chicken should be brined. In Puerto Rico last winter, I ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket for seven consecutive evenings. I prefer dark meat. I tolerate people who prefer white meat, though I find this “preference” laughable. Chicken legs are finger-lickin’, robust, Whitmanesque. Dark meat, replete with B-vitamins, is more nutritious than white meat, too. I believe that chicken should be shared.  Sundays, I share a whole roast chicken with my wife. Weekends, I grill chicken legs for friends and family.

This was not always the case. Growing up, I was not necessarily a prolific chicken-eater. Then, at twenty, I became a vehement vegetarian. Firm in my belief that I was nourishing my body (and, obviously, supporting the welfare of the earth and its creatures), I ate whole grains, beans, tempeh, raw fruits and vegetables-but no chicken. Skinny to begin (6″ 150 pounds), I slimmed down to beanpole dimensions (140 pounds). I acquired what Gabriel García Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, calls “the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians.”

Some thought I was rigid. A Greek chorus of friends, family, everyone, really, except my supportive and loving vegetarian wife, said the same thing: Maybe you should eat some meat.

Perhaps they saw what I did not: vegetarianism was killing me. Throughout my early twenties, I suffered a variety of health problems. In my mid-twenties, my health issues evolved. At 26, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. One year later, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I checked into the hospital at 118 pounds, and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.

Remembering this time, I think of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine”:

Daydreaming comes easy to the ill:
slowed down to the speed of waiting rooms,
you learn to hang suspended in the wallpaper,
to drift among the magazines and plants,
feeling a strange love
for the time that might be killing you.

I do not think I was unique in my stubborn will to remain vegetarian. We hang onto to diets, to ways of eating, even when they no longer make sense, don’t we? Often, we become attached to habits that might be killing us. Time, food, cigarettes–why do we maintain this “strange love”?

It wasn’t until my honeymoon in Barcelona, when I was hit by a car, and later diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, that I began to reconsider my vehemence.

Post-diagnosis, I spent 3 days in the ER, another 3 days in the hospital. When I was released from the hospital, equipped with a regime of insulin and needles, I felt my life had been cut in two. I knew who I used to be, but I had no idea who I might become.

That night in Barcelona, I fell asleep next to my new wife for the first time in seven days. Married only a month, we had spent a week apart–me in my hospital bed; her, returning to the flat alone after visiting hours had ended. Catalans are known for their late meals. I awoke around two in the morning, to a crisply delicious, salty smell. I stepped to the window and was hit by a waft of potato chips. I stuck my head out the window into the clear air. Smelling again, I realized I was mistaken. I hadn’t been smelling potato chips. No, a lunatic Catalan family was grilling at two o’clock in the morning. The scent struck me-the scent of grilled chicken, a veritable blizzard of aromatic compounds. Something about that scent struck my soul-it came to me deliciously intoning its simple message: You can change. You will survive. Eat chicken.

Since that time, seven years ago, I have eaten approximately ½ chicken almost every single night of my life.

Diet is the most idiosyncratic trait a person owns. Married people often share religious and political beliefs-but rarely the same diet. I admit, my chicken-eating habit might seem obsessive-akin in many ways to my prior vegetarianism. There is a difference, though: as a vegetarian, in pursuit of a “pure” body, I had viewed certain ways of eating as wrong or evil. Even as I refined my diet to an impossible degree, my health suffered. Today my diet is even more refined-and yet, I thrive.

I’ve abandoned the absurd belief that any way of eating is inherently right or wrong. I do not trust dietary dictums. In terms of food, my experience has taught me that the spirit with which you approach food is as important as the food itself.

How do you eat? In penance? With joy?

Food choices are vitally important to a type-1 diabetic. I had to re-learn my relationship with food in order to live healthfully. Every time I put food into my mouth, I must calculate the effect it will have upon my body, and I must make adjustments to my insulin regime accordingly. I cannot just eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I am bound by diabetes to live my life within proscribed boundaries.

Within these boundaries, though, I’ve discovered joy: perhaps it is a form of compulsion, but I enjoy eating the exact same thing every night. I know exactly how my body will react to chicken. I love the bluesy feeling of mirth, the wild joy of sucking on a chicken bone. I do not mean to be flippant. When I eat chicken I try to remember that I’m engaging in a significant moment–a moment that must be cherished, for it has been afforded to me through a great sacrifice of resources: land, energy, life. I cannot deny, though: to me, chicken is momentous. Chicken symbolizes my return to life.

I’ve posted recipes for my ½ roast chicken and whole roast chicken on my food blog. Here is a recipe for grilled chicken.

Grilled Chicken with Pantry Spice Rub

Over-cooked chicken, like over-cooked steak, is an offensive abomination. A good way to precisely gauge the internal temperature of chicken is to use an instant-read thermometer. Optimal temperature varies between white and dark meat, typically the best chicken measures 160-165 degrees at the breast, and 165-170 degrees at the leg.

4 naturally raised whole chicken legs 
6 tablespoons kosher salt 
2 tablespoons brown sugar 
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 
1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Dissolve the salt and brown sugar in a gallon-size plastic bag. Add the chicken, press out the air, seal, and refrigerate for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the olive oil, garlic cloves, and spices.

Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse, dry with paper towels. Rub the pantry spice rub all over the chicken parts.

Light your grill.

If using a charcoal grill, make a two-level fire by stacking most of the coals on one side of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, cover, and allow the grill and rack to heat up for 5 or so minutes. Cook the chicken over the hot coals until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to high and heat the grill until very hot, about 10 minutes. Leave one burner on high and turn the other burners to low. Cook the chicken over the hotter part of the grill, uncovered, until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move  the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

My wife,

I would’ve liked to meet you at eighty. Our busy lives behind us, perhaps we could’ve watched all those movies we missed. I would’ve liked to see Hangover II. I would’ve liked to watch JAWS one last time. I miss you already. I know, we don’t believe in Heaven, but tell me, please, when we meet again, somewhere, even if we’re just two amoebas sailing over the waters of some new world-promise me you’ll notice me. Forgive, my wife, it was I who lost our wedding rings. We never did make that trip to Jeweler’s Row. It was I who never had the money. I had hoped to take care of you. I had hoped to buy you a ring. I had hoped to buy you an entire house. I had hoped we might sit in perfect stillness and wait for the good news. I had hoped to take you to Barcelona. We will never see Barcelona again. We will never share ice cream again. Forgive me, I let my illness make me crazy.

I would’ve liked to meet you at ninety, my wife. Our busy lives behind us, perhaps we could’ve experimented with drugs. I had hoped to discover the mystery of salvia. I had hoped to discover the mystery of your nightie, how, upon waking each morning, you’d slip out of your nightie, fold it into a perfect square, and hide it under your pillow. Don’t get me wrong, I had hoped to revel in that mystery for years. I had hoped, for decades to come, to reliably discover your nightie folded into a perfect square under your pillow. And yet, at eighty, I had hoped to ask, “Why, my wife? Why do you that?” You were so mysterious. You never squeezed out the sponge after washing the dishes. When confronted about this, you said, “I’m still washing the dishes.” And yet, I could see clearly: you were in bed, reading A Visit From the Goon Squad, and the sink was empty, and the sponge, absorbing its weight in soapy water, was sitting on the counter, just one more example of how you compelled my world, how you made everything remind me of you.

I had hoped, someday, to meet our children. I had hoped we’d have a daughter. Gloria or Isabella. Or, as you once said, “Francine!” Just kidding. You never said that. You never seriously suggested a name. I would’ve liked to hear what you’d come up with. I know you would’ve waited until the moment you met her. I always admired that about you. You always waited until you met someone to decide. Even then, you never made up your mind. In the wine store. At the movies. Standing in front of a case of ice cream-a glorious predicament! You never made up your mind. Don’t worry. Even if we’re just two rocks zooming around the universe-I promise, despite your indecisiveness, I’ll love you again.

I promise I’ll use the last of the ketchup before I open a new bottle. I promise, if we’re called upon to sit in perfect stillness and wait for the bad news, I will hold your hand.

I promise, the news won’t always be bad.

By the time we meet again, I predict a cure! Forgive me, I let my illness make me crazy.

Thank you, my wife, for saving my life. Thank you, my wife, for using the last of the ketchup. You were never meant for the dregs. And yet, for me, you took the dregs. Even if we’re the dregs at the bottom of some new world’s primordial puddle-promise me, my wife, promise me, you’ll tell me about the future. Skyscrapers! Plums! iPhones! Forgive me, I broke your iPhone. I broke your iPod.  I broke every single thing. I only wanted to see what was inside. I broke you, my nesting doll, and discovered another you.

I promise, someday, somewhere, I’ll make it up to you. Wedding rings. Mint chocolate chip. Three or four daughters: Gloria I, Gloria II, Gloria III, Gloria IV.

Oh, my wife, I miss you already, but I just know we’ll meet again. Even if we’re just two amoebas sailing over the waters of some new world-I promise, I’ll notice you.

For now, goodbye, but only for now.

love,

Me

When I recently received the good news that my uncle Deano, a poet, had undergone a successful heart transplant, I celebrated by re-reading some of his books. At the time, I hadn’t read any poetry for months; and, though I began writing, at sixteen, with the ambition of following my uncle, I hadn’t written a poem in six or seven years.

This experience-the joy (relief!) I felt for my uncle, coupled with my reading-initiated a new season for me.

Since then, I’ve devoured poems in the way, post-diagnosis, I’ve devoured medical information: with an obsessive, indiscriminate mania; as if in pursuit of some transformative antidote.

I began with Deano. Then I moved to his forbearers: Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara. John Ashbery. Stretching back, I read The French Surrealists. Rimbaud. Whitman. I punctuated my reading with my own preferences: Dilruba Ahmed, Ross White, Laura Van Prooyen, Matthew Olzmann, Alicia Jo Rabins, Gabrielle Calvocaressi, Iain Haley Pollock. C. Dale Young, Angela Narciso Torres, Dwayne Betts, Jenny Johnson, Rj Gibson.

Then, two weeks ago, after a lunatic evening out with some friends, I wrote a poem. Inspired, I wrote two poems.

“It’s on,” I said to my wife that day.

“What’s on?” she asked.

It was a good question. What was on?


Sweeping the Temple Steps

When I was twenty-one, my uncle wrote in a letter to me:

“Remember, Seth, you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”

I cannot imagine this-all this sweeping-and this is why I am not a poet. I sit and work for hours on my fiction, yet the thought of sitting to write a poem without the germ of a poem already in my head strikes me as ridiculous.

How do you do that?

In the same letter, my uncle wrote:

“There’s a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightning, so you want to make sure you’re holding a pen when it happens.”

So, for now, furiously inspired, I carry around a pen. This fury, I believe, is good for me, yet it’s a fickle fury.

Soon, I will lose my spark.

And yet, I wonder, in the absence of work ethic: is it possible to live in a manner that is favorable to writing poetry? If one were to at least attempt the project how might one actually go about sustaining inspiration?


Make Yourself as Shitty as You Can

“The idea,” Rimbaud writes, “is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.”

Is this how you do it?

Rimbaud wrote this line in 1871, at the age of sixteen, in the midst of a sequence of two brash letters that came to be known as the “The Seer Letters.” The first letter, to his teacher Georges Izambard, announced Rimbaud’s intentions to become a poet, and it included a poem, which begins with a choice line: “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.”

Izambard blasted the letter. It was vicious, detestable, he later said. Rimbaud seemed to want to fuck himself up, as much as possible-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Yes, Rimbaud was fucking himself up, but he was serving an inviolable master: Poetry.

“Right now, I’m making myself as shitty as I can,” he wrote. “Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer…The idea is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet.”

“The derangement of all the senses” is one of poetry’s most celebrated phrases. In the second “seer” letter, to Izambard’s friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud qualified the notion crucially with the adjective: “reasoned.”

Although Izambard and Demeny both dismissed his letters as utter inanity, practical jokes at best, utter filth at worst, Rimbaud, in proposing “a reasoned derangement of the senses,” was not joking at all. Rimbaud, it seems, meant to transform poetry into an act of living.

Within months he was carousing Paris, living on little else than absinthe, hashish, and the erotic adulation of Paul Verlaine, and conjuring his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. At sixteen he wrote, “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.” Two years later, he’d finished A Season in Hell.

From poop to poetry-the evolution of Rimbaud was furious. Two portraits taken around this time seem to prove this point.

In the first, Rimbaud, recently arrived in Paris, appears to be no more than a child, a puffy brat, poised for naughtiness-the type of child capable of writing a manifesto on poop.

In the second, Rimbaud has seemingly aged considerably; his face-chiseled, evocative, “angelic,” according to Jean Cocteau-is the face of a poet, a man.

What could’ve happened in the span of two short months to bring about this transformation?


Lunatic Evening with Friends

Among friends, I’m known as a somewhat fastidious person.

I eat the exact same dinner every night: chicken. With the chicken, I eat potatoes or sweet potatoes. I’ve done so, with unerring consistency, for six or seven years.

I rarely eat out. When I do, I thoroughly pre-inspect the menu. The place better have chicken. And, no matter what the menu says, I bring my own potatoes-boiled, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, smuggled in my wife’s purse.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I met some friends at Melograno in Philly: C and his girlfriend, H, as well as a new friend, M. My wife and I had met M a day before, at a poetry reading. The fact that we’d invited her to dinner struck C as somewhat impulsive.

We parked in a garage. $12.00 for the evening. It was one of those dangerous spring evenings when the intimations of summer are too much to bear, when, early in the evening, you worry that your fervor might lead you to forgo your smuggled potatoes in favor of the “roasted potatoes”, which M points out, have actually been fried; to the inevitable Malbec spill, H’s blouse swiftly more stain than not-stain; to the interlude in the garage, the attendant hiding behind the partition, M smoking on the street; to the embarrassing, glass-smashing incident at Ten Stone; to the suggestion that maybe you abandon C and H and go on to some other place; to the pointless walk up and down Walnut; to asking, “Can we go home”?; to M’s corn nuts and whiskey; to the delightful moment when M and your wife agree, “Yes, we can go home now”; to the goodbye on the street, M waving as she climbs into her car; to the parking garage, which is barricaded closed with your car in it; to the recognition that you’re stuck in Philly-stuck without your probiotics and Noni juice, your bed in Ambler, a forty-minute drive away; to running out to Sansom, hailing M’s car; to hopping in; to driving back to M’s place in Narberth, her pointing out Robin Black’s house on the right; to falling asleep in M’s son’s bed with your wife, the single the size of your childhood bed, the bed you first shared with your wife sixteen years ago, as M munches on a Klondike Bar outside the door; to waking up in an unfamiliar town, bereft of your routine, your insulin missing; to a long walk to Starbucks, but no food for you, because where’s your insulin?; to the discovery, back at M’s place, of a book case jammed with poetry; to picking up Skid, the one book by Deano that you’re not really familiar with because your first copy was stolen, your second copy left in that Starbucks in Encino; to reading “Whale Watch” and feeling, the exact coordinates of your soul struck, that perhaps you shouldn’t have borrowed $50,000 for that MFA in fiction, you could’ve probably made more money by now, and you just want to get home, back to your insulin, yet it was good to get away, you’re already writing your first poem in years.


“What happens when your head splits open/ and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?”

Poems, I’ve been reminded recently, are fucking awesome. I will not stop reading poems. I will probably stop writing poems. Still, my recent experience has me wondering: How do you become the type of person who writes poems? Sustaining inspiration aside, perhaps this is the question.

Is it wrong to assume that kick-ass poetry comes, not necessarily from the best writers, but from the most kick-ass humans?

One might live, of course, in any number of ways, just as one might write a poem in any number of ways. And anyone can, and should, I think, write poetry. But how does one acquire the ability to continue to write poems, after the inspiration vanishes?

Is it a practice of writing or living? A successful poet, of course, writes poetry, studiously, day after day. Yet, the source of poetry seems to issue from some seriously untidy place.

Is it wrong, to assume, as Rimbaud does, that a successful poet must also live in a certain reckless way?

On the one hand, millions of hopeful idiots like me have followed Rimbaud, misunderstanding him completely, fucking ourselves up into the night.

On the other hand, it has nothing to do with alcohol, but the poets I’ve met are usually drunk in some serious way.

Is it unreasonable to approach poetry, or life, with the expectation that it send you into the storm of your own being-that it transform you?

Transformation, obviously, can take many forms. Transformative two months in Paris. Transformative potatoes. Transformative poem. Transformative email. Transformative heart surgery.

Early on, Deano suffered a few setbacks. For months, we waited for news. He received his heart April 14, 2011. I read the news the next morning. 6:45 AM. I burst into joyous tears.

It’s on, I thought.

And then I asked myself: What we he will write now?