Ingham County, MI, and Burned-Over District, NY
Front Porcher Bill Kauffman’s 11th book, Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America, was recently published by Front Porch Republic Books (and duly praised over at Hearts and Minds).
Here he sits down with the receptionist and head janitor at FPR Books to talk about his new tome and other important matters.
Peters: As the editor of FPR books, I get one free copy of Poetry Night (though I have to pay shipping & handling). But give me a good reason to spend the money–not at Amazon–for another three copies to give as gifts. And to what kind of person should I give them? Which of my relatives should read this book?
Kauffman: Your queer uncle, your cousin the disillusioned Iraq War vet, and your niece who likes Exene Cervenka.
Peters: Early on in your career you published a novel, and a funny one at that—Every Man a King—and then before this recent book you wrote the screenplay for Copperhead, the latest film from director Ron Maxwell. But in between there’s been a lot of non-fiction and narrative non-fiction, reviews, columns, speeches, and, to help you pay the really big bills, a fair amount of editing, or “editing.” Tell us a little about the trajectory of your life as a writer—without giving me grief for using the word “trajectory.”
Kauffman: I’m not an outliner—I am an outlier, I suppose—but I had a plan, of sorts, all those years ago. As I told my befuddled friends, I was gonna be the Hamlin Garland of the Burned-Over District. I wanted to write fiction, history, the occasional overwrought manifesto. I wanted to rekindle the Burned-Over District, to define a peace-and-love localist/libertarian alternative to the empire. It sounds ridiculously grandiose and self-mythicizing, but I took my shot. I used a line from William Appleman Williams—“so let us think about the people who lost”—in one of my earlier books. With a nod to the Emersonian dictum about hobgoblins, I guess that’s also been a consistent theme of my career, or “career.”
Peters: And weren’t you at one point too high-minded to accept the entreaty of a movie producer in the wake of Every Man a King? What do you think about that act of literary purity now?
Kauffman: Yeah, I was like Henry James being asked to write ad copy for liver pills. Of course I snuck back into Hollywood decades later by writing the screenplay for one of the most subversive feature films ever released, taking up as it did the supremely unfashionable subjects of dissent, pacifism, rural Christianity, forgiveness. We do not, alas, live in a golden age of dissent. You have execrable taste in pop music, Peters, so you’ll remember—heck, you probably courted the Chief Eye Roller to the strains of—that horrid anthem “There’s Only One Way to Rock.” That’s 21st-century American discourse. You may assent to the consensus.
Peters: Is there a book, or are there books, of yours that were easier or more enjoyable to write than others? And ones that became so laborious as to suck the joy of writing right out of you?
Kauffman: Nah, I was doing just what I wanted to do.
Peters: In Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette especially you write about your own small place and also about people who are actually still living. There’s a danger in that—in treating a place and other people as “material.” Can you do that in the Batavia-Elba stretch, even in your amiable way, and still be liked? Or don’t you care about being liked?
Kauffman: Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette cut so close to the bone I still have the shakes. But I’m blessed. My neighbors were encouraging, tolerant, quizzical, amused, even a little proud. As Sinclair Lewis wrote, “To its fugitive children, Grand Republic will forgive almost anything, if they will but come back home.”
Peters: Joe Namath is in the Hall of Fame but the recently deceased Ken Stabler is not. Many of Stabler’s stats are better than Namath’s. Former Raiders’ coach Tom Flores says that Stabler would be in the Hall had he played in New York. Do you account this a remark worthy of the Front Porch?
Kauffman: Problem is I hated the Raiders when I was a kid. They were always vanquishing the Bills, almost as an afterthought. By the way the Bills, who seem on the verge of being good again, have become a repugnant team: The owner is the King of Fracking, the coach is a blowhard foot-fetishist, and the GM focuses almost exclusively on players from the most egregiously corrupt Southern football factories. What the NFL, like all pro leagues, ought to have is a territorial draft, so that the Buffalo Bills are in some real way representative of Buffalo and Western NY. But as Buddy Holly and Ethan Edwards said, “That’ll be the day.”
Peters: This new book, Poetry Night at the Ballpark, collects three decades of work. It ranges over a wide variety of topics but also over the—how shall I put this?—rolling landscape of your work, from the juvenilia, as it were, to your more mature work, if in fact there is anything in the Kauffman oeuvre that might merit the epithet “mature.” The book’s an honest representation of what you’ve been up to, even back when you had hair. That had to take some guts.
Kauffman: No, just a latitudinarian editor.
Peters: You’ve found interesting ways of describing yourself politically: “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist”; you have also described yourself as an “Independent. A Jeffersonian. An anarchist. A (cheerful!) enemy of the state, a reactionary Friend of the Library, a peace-loving football fan.” Get serious for a moment and tell us what kind of political beast you are.
Kauffman: I was being serious. But okay, how about this: I am the illegitimate son of Dorothy Day and H.D. Thoreau, conceived amid the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate NY September.
Peters: Tickets to game seven of the World Series in any of the country’s great old ballparks or another failed poetry night at Muckdog Stadium: which does Family Kauffman choose to attend?
Kauffman: Haven’t been to a major league game in 30 years. What have I missed: Three-minute TV timeouts? Nine-dollar beer? I’d rather sit through an 11-0 rain-delayed game in the Appalachian League than rot in a luxury box in the nearest MLB stadium (the soulless Rogers Centre in Toronto). Small leagues, si! Big leagues, yawn.
Peters: I’m not the only one to notice that every place you go to you seem to arrive as a local historian. You know more about these places than most of the people living there. How does that happen?
Kauffman: I love reading up on the cultural and political history of the provinces. I mean, is there any doubt that North Dakota is far richer and healthier and more variegated and infinitely more interesting than, say, Manhattan? (Except, of course, to a Manhattanite, whose localist pride I honor.) I’ll take Larry Woiwode, Gerald Nye, and Timothy Murphy; you can have Anna Quindlen, Abe Beame, and Lady Gaga.
Peters: You once said that Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is the kind of novel a neoconservative would write—if a neoconservative could write a novel. Identify the arch-neocons and vent a little more spleen on them.
Kauffman: The paleo-neocons were mostly social scientists who delivered often trenchant critiques of the welfare state. Men and women worth reading, even if you disagreed with them: Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Almost all have died or doddered into dotage. Their heirs are chickenhawks—Hell hath no fury like a noncombatant—who design and propagandize for wars wholly unrelated to the American national interest: wars in which kids from small towns, ghettos, barrios, the farm, and the working class are invited to sacrifice their lives for un-American causes that drive nails ever deeper into our national coffin. Dick Cheney is their prince of darkness.
Peters: This localist thing for which you have been an eloquent—and also a leading—spokesman: does it have a future, or are people going to continue to pay for the drivel coming out of New York and L.A.?—I mean the televised and cinematic shit that treats most Americans and all that they hold dear in utter contempt. And will your latest book, which gives us such vivid scenes from an alternative America—a book that is a clear contender for the number-one spot on the NY Times Bestseller List—will Poetry Night have the effect your millions of loyal readers think it will?
Kauffman: Oh, yes, the whole rotten edifice is teetering, and the Stephen King-esque sales of Poverty Night will tip it over. From the ruins will rise new (Grant) Woods, (Wendell) Berrys, Forrests (McDonald), (Tom) Leas, (Jayne and Audrey) Meadows….well, maybe not Meadows, but you catch my drift.
Peters: We all know what a noble game basketball is and what a disgrace to the word “sport” soccer is. But: Pro basketball, or Saturday morning soccer for the local third-graders?
Kauffman: Wow. That’s like asking Whoopi Goldberg or Caitlyn Jenner. I’d rather sleep late.
Peters: Which writers have been especially important to you?
Kauffman: The contemporary trinity would be Gore Vidal, Wendell Berry, and Edward Abbey. Reach back into the dim mists of the long-lost republic and there’s Sarah Orne Jewett, Sinclair Lewis, Edmund Wilson, Frank Norris, Harold Frederic, H.L. Mencken, Jack Kerouac, Henry Clune, Raymond Chandler, and Hawthorne and Whitman and Melville and Twain and what about Ray Bradbury, Howard Frank Mosher, Murray Rothbard, Tom and Thomas Wolfe both … jeez, the list never ends. What’s Vidal’s line? “I do not invent my literary ancestors. If anything, they invented me.” Which is not a statement of vainglory but of debt.
Peters: There’s no chance that you’re not working on some choice lines for the upcoming presidential primaries. Can we have a sneak preview?
Kauffman: I’m saving them up for the Lindsey Graham roast.
Peters: No interview with a writer would be complete without a question about your daily routine. What’s a day as Bill Kauffman like—I mean after you count the head hair circling the shower drain?
Kauffman: I say a quick prayer thanking the Lord for the hairs that remain, then I spend the day editing books and smaller projects (which is how I pay—sic—the bills), taking a long walk with my wife, gazing out the window, editing some more, reading whatever I happen to be reading at the time (just now it’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Trials of Phillis Wheatley and a rereading of David Brown’s Beyond the Frontier), visiting with my parents, writing to or joking with friends … you know, living.
Peters: You’re a cheerful guy and a hopeful one as well, or so it seems. What gives you hope in these dark days as, more often than not, our sorry Republic confuses itself with its military, its bellicosity around the world, its willingness to settle for such witless sitcoms as Friends, its disregard for the splendor of local culture, and especially its indifference to a certain FPR contributor whose pieces appear regularly on Wednesdays?
Kauffman: Your last example suggests that the world hasn’t entirely surrendered its critical facility, but as for the others … despair is not only a sin, it’s also boring and soul-draining. What have I done over the last 48 hours? Listened to my old neighbor play a concert along the Erie Canal. Walked with my wife under twilit skies. Sat among my parents and friends and watched a minor-league baseball game in the park that has been my lair since I was eight years old. Drank, without apparent internal damage, a beer brewed by a friend. Read William Stafford. Laughed a hundred times. Sure, the empire is collapsing. Good riddance. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. . . . We go on.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, which earned the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books, and Look Homeward, America, which the American Library Association named one of the Best Books of 2006. He also wrote the screenplay for Copperhead (2013). Kauffman, a graduate of the University of Rochester, was a Legislative Assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and an editor with Reason and The American Enterprise. He writes a column for The American Conservative. He is a founding editor and contributor to Front Porch Republic. He admires his interlocutor Jason Peters’s prose style and toupee.