Poets Online Talking About Coffee: Joe Linker

Switch off the current, will you?

When you’re a kid your body produces its own caffeine. This is the experience of poetry. There was a television commercial, something like, “Relax with a cup of coffee,” pure propaganda, a buzz phrase. They did cigarette commercials on TV in those days too, “Come where it’s Kool,” stuff like that, pure poetry, like no one would notice the characteristics of poetry at work.

Would you like a cup, ma’am?

How can a kid growing up in such an atmosphere not aspire to poetry? I had an eighth grade nun who actually encouraged poetry. I don’t think she drank coffee. Those were the days of the big habits and cloisters though. A cloistered poet. She was cool. A cool nun.

Where are you from? London?

All these poor poets going into the advertising business. Madison Avenue. The characteristics of poetry used to sell stuff: soap, cigarettes, automobiles, hair spray, ant spray. You ever heard of the beehive hairdo? JFK was the first US poet president. McLuhan was very popular on Madison Avenue.

Have you cash for a short time?

Starbucks is the gentrification of the back street café, of measuring out one’s life in fives and tens instead of coffee spoons, in a clean, well-lighted place instead of a greasy spoon. You won’t find sawdust covered floors in a Starbucks. In China, the teens go on dates to the local Starbucks, hang out. I heard Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, say that in a Charlie Rose interview. Growth opportunity. I thought of Van Morrison, “And she brings you tea and oranges, all the way from China.” Who knows, maybe Starbucks is just what China needs, if they go with poetry readings.

But it has a Hellenic ring, hasn’t it?

Tom Standage wrote an interesting book, “A History of the World in 6 Glasses.” He claims French coffeehouses were the seedbed of revolution, of existentialism, I would add. People do talk over coffee, socialize. But if you are alone, waiting, but you’re not exactly sure for what, a cup of coffee provides a sense of purpose.

In Your Cups

Why aren’t you in uniform?

We had just come out of the water, got handed black coffee in a foam cup, the start of a solid gold weekend. But we never drank coffee before a surf session. And we didn’t start out in wetsuits. Wetsuits and coffee, the sea close by. Camus drinking coffee in Paris signing autographs and longing for the poverty of the sea.

What ails it tonight?

The best coffee is the simplest, an Americano, for example. This is true of poems too. You read William Carlos Williams over an early morning black cup of coffee waiting for when it’s time to leave for the bus. You read Wallace Stevens over a glass of zinfandel and an espresso sitting out under the arbors in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, as if you can afford to be on vacation. You don’t really understand Stevens or wine or the wealth of vineyards, but the language is intoxicating, especially on a hot day.

Is it French you are talking, sir?

Sense comes from sound. You read Bukowski on the bus on the way to work, sipping simple coffee from your stainless steel thermos. On the way home from work the thermos is empty and you’re tired of coffee and poetry and you stop off at the bar and fill the thermos with beer and you feel a little better and you pen a poem on a napkin to take home for your girl for the icebox door and suddenly it’s a swell evening and after some pasta and stewed tomatoes you have an espresso with vanilla for desert and the night is on: bright lights, big city, transistor radio, a baseball game under the light in the street.

You do make strong tea, don’t you?

For a time I drank tea all afternoon studying out in the garage behind my folks’ place. At some point I read “The Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzō, which influenced my poetry at the time. Tea is more delicate than coffee, no mud, no oil. I was drinking tea like a madman. But all a guy needs in the afternoon is one cup.

Were you in a funk?

Susan and I moved into our own place on Oak Street. We reused our tea bags. I’ve since thrown out all those poems I wrote with blacklight ink on tea bags.


Where gold from afar?

In the Army in the field the cooks made coffee by filling a 10 gallon pot full of water, bringing it to a boil, then pouring in a gallon can of bulk ground coffee. Turn the fire down and let the grounds slowly sink to the bottom. Hang a ladle on the pot. You get in line and ladle a cup off the top, a bit greasy and oily, like the floor of the motor pool, a blackish brown, and poor it into your tin cup. This was really good coffee.

And more’s mother?

I carried a paperback copy of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” in my fatigue jacket pocket. Also remember reading “The First Third,” Neal Cassady’s book, and Andy, an Army comrade, told me that was a rail yard key hanging from Cassady’s belt in the cover photo, and he wanted to read the book, so I gave it to him. He was working for the railroad at the time, out in Barstow. We were weekend warriors, coffee in the morning, beer in the evenings, a little guitar and harmonica as the sun went down over the Pacific. Smoke them if you had them, saunter off and bag down. In the morning, coffee and an illumination. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the Los Angeles Herald Express. We longed for a free press. It was no time for sergeants.

Where bronze from anear?

Well, some say much of today’s poetry is tabloid stuff, but it’s where you go to catch up on the UFO news. Anyway, yeah, and cafeteria coffee. Cafeteria style poems.

Where hoofs?

I was thinking about that Army chow and coffee line recently standing in a Starbucks in a line of young pups on their way to make some hay out of the day. That’s ok, that’s the red dust, Han Shan’s red dust, business. Every day you gotta get up and make something happen. Guy in the front of the line is ordering, sounds like something out of an MFA procedure manual: “Grande double with a hot lemon twist, spoonful of honey, and 9 ice cubes in case I dump it in my lap on the Line 15 again where it lurches to a stop at the methadone clinic on Belmont.”


Ten shillings?

The Bi-Partisan Café on Southeast Stark or Tabor Space on Belmont. That’s where poetry and coffee mix well in my neighborhood. Sometimes Albina Press over on Hawthorne, or Division has quite a few cheap dives, though it’s getting city-gentrified as we speak.

What is that? A flasher?

I like to walk. Walking, coffee, a place to go, poetry. But I still have a few promises to keep. Yeah, I carry a Moleskin in my back pocket, unlined. I like to doodle. I have to doodle.

Ticktacktwo wouldyousetashoe?

I like Stevie Smith. There you see some fine doodles with poems. Kenneth Patchen used to doodle.

What about mixed bathing

Well, there’s the creative side and the critical side. In twosome twiminds, Joyce said.

Where’s the bloody house? 

I’m thinking of Jacques Prevert penciling a poem on a napkin at a table on the sidewalk and he’s a cheap cup of coffee in a white clay cup and there’s a pissing world war on and he’s there and he’s helpless except for the cup of coffee and the napkin and the poem. That’s all he’s got. That’s all he needs. Later he’ll want something more. But it doesn’t hurt to remember where you came from and develop a taste for all kinds of poems, not just the ones you think you want. You never know when you might be drinking thin coffee out of a paper cup again, reusing the same grounds day after day while the rejection slips pile up.

Hey, shitbreeches, are you doing the hat trick?

Yeah, yeah, no, Langston Hughes did not play Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. Neither far out nor close in. You want to be in the break, sure, but surfing and poetry have made some radical moves not everyone is wanting to follow. I’m a long board poet.

Stitch in my side. Why did I run?

The Poetics of Space, The Guttenberg Galaxy, Silence and A Year from Monday, Love’s Body, Walden.  But I read anything, everything. You get a lot of recommendations. I recently read through Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, most of them. Changed my writing. Or made me want to change my writing. Saw something I had not seen before. I mean I had seen it, I recognized it, but that was it, the mirror that illuminates your own face. Reading is an art. Writing is something else.

Have you no soul?

Wilson, Edmund Wilson, sure. Louis Menand. It’s all so corny though, the robes, the berets. Give me a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt and point me the way to the beach. But all that stuff’s good, interesting, thought provoking. But who wants to be provoked? Don’t we want to be soothed? I want the poem of peace, the cup that really is relaxing.

For being so nice, eh?

I’m aware that some of my writing, my poetry, might sound decaffeinated, oatmealish. Where’s the grease the B&E? This is deceptive. You never know who might be in the audience. Some folks like sugar and cream in their poems. A soft croissant. The cherry filled pastry. Montaigne apparently enjoyed sherry. Fortified poetry. Bukowski. Some poetry comes on slowly. Some people come on slowly to poetry.


We appear to be leaving the golden age of poetry and entering the golden age of coffee. I recently ran a Google Ngram Viewer search on “poetry” and “coffee.” The results show we haven’t much time. We may already be too late. Coffee became more prevalent than poetry around 2008, according to Ngram.  Oh, well, not by word alone does man live. If you’re drinking good coffee, you should probably avoid Google. And academics. A good cup of coffee and a napkin, that’s all you need.

Can I raise a mortgage on my fire insurance?

Well, yeah, a bit of hyperbole with the Moleskin.

When will we have our own house of keys?

A poet should know something about plumbing.

Chum o’ yourn passed in his checks?

Stick to poetry that makes you cry that makes you laugh that makes you want to get up and rock and roll or run out in the street and dance jazz or blues it up and folk coffee that makes you happy. The word is not sacred man. Poetry is lingo. It’s tongue and teeth and toothache and missing teeth and bitten tongue and sores on your gums and swapping spit and all that sort of thing, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, too, yeah, and burning the roof of your mouth on a cup of coffee.

Will you come if I can get the aunt to fork out twenty quid?

Move away from the keyboard and put your hands in the air. But seriously, pen and paper, pencil, drawing, words on rocks. Slow down. What’s the hurry? You got your whole life to write poems. There are other things that are important.

Aren’t men frightful idiots?

Dali said, when asked if he painted on drugs, “Why should I take the drug? I am the drug.” I’m not sure that works with coffee, in one’s cups. But yeah, language can work like a drug when it’s poured into a poem. The five senses, you know, they keep more out than they let in. That’s Blake and later Huxley. But these are real people who want real coffee and real poems, and why shouldn’t they try to comprehend the significance of their own experience?

Are you coming into the musicroom to see our new pianola?

I don’t know where I’ll go from here. The Lake Isle of Innisfree sounds nice, but I prefer the ocean, salt water, waves, a sandy beach and a clear reach. So does Susan.

How’s the nuts?

That’s a damn good question. I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to know.

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