Do you have an extra cigarette?

image of a long road that fades into the distance taken from inside a car
long road

Have you ever heard Aram Saroyan read his poem “Biography”?[1] It is a poem in which he recites every year from his birth to the current year in his usual steady, calm cadence. I’m a bit fascinated with this poem; I seem to bring it up often. It really can’t be beat. It’s a pure poem. I heard him read it in 2007 (I think) at Poet’s House in New York. There are a hundred things to say about the poem, how the simplicity of it belies the fact that it describes something huge, i.e. a human life, how it disrupts the idea of a poem, a list poem in particular, how cheeky it is, how the poem must change every year and so, in a way, it is unpublishable (if we think of publication as an unfuckwithable record, certainly Lyn Hejinian doesn’t [see her various updates of My Life]).

Anyway, when I listened to this poem I felt many things. I had an initial laugh near the beginning after hearing five or six chronological numbers and realizing he must be reciting the years from his birth year and how clever that is since the poem is called, simply “Biography”![2] And then I felt a knowing, in-on-the-joke feeling, as he continued to recite the years. And as it continued (I'm not making an age joke here), I settled into two feelings between which I vacillated. The first was “Okay, I get it, Aram” — not boredom but surety, like how it might feel to know the future. The second was a kind of joy, an oh-hell-he’s-going-to-go-through-with-it, feeling. The combination of these feelings made me laugh out loud a time or two, and smile quietly, and fidget. These last two feelings are what happens when I confront excess, repetitive excess, in art. It’s a particular kind of humorous feeling.

It might be unfair to choose Saroyan since he is a master of this repetitive excess, consider his poem Crickets. But there are many poets who do this, and many artists, and, of course, your Uncle Terry who repeats his jokes until they are busted up shards at your feet and your soul is a gaping maw. In this way, Uncle Terry is an artist.

(In a 2007 Armenian Reporter interview, Saroyan clarifies that it was Robert Duncan, not George Plimpton, who chose Saroyan’s lighght for the NEA award.[3] And an ANGEL conveyed this choice to Duncan, an angel! It is pure joy to know this. Plus how amazingly excessive is lighght, no?)

What is the relationship between humor and excess? (Choose the best subtitle.)

    • A thirty-part opinion series Sommer will tackle in five-hundred words.
    • A nine times failed AWP panel proposal.
    • Tonight at 11.

I don’t know. Frankly, I hate opinions; opinions cause a lot of pain. I also hate when someone asks you, Do you have an extra cigarette? Because cigarettes are things that can never be extra.

Maybe try to define excess? Like in a sentence?

Life is merely an excess of life, a pessimist might say. While death is an excess of death, his unbearable brother might add. It is very hard to please a pessimist, let alone two.

Addiction is excess depending on which side of it you’re on.

Power is always in a state of excess while there is nothing excessive about love.

I have witnessed over my forty-two years, and over the last two years, more evidently and rapidly than ever before, my black and brown friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues systematically attacked, my differently abled friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues systematically attacked, my differently gendered and sexed friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues systematically attacked, my gay friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues systematically attacked, my friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues born in different countries systematically attacked. And this, too, is a kind of excess. There is nothing to reconcile here.

What I mean is there is a vast difference between the way one (I) can intellectualize one’s (my) feelings about the meaning of a concept (excess) and the way one (I) see the concept (excess) made real, visceral, and every-day. And, basically, one (you) may think they both don’t belong in the same essay or blog post or life or calling or poem or whatever in hell this (anything) is, and if one (you) does (do), they, in my opinion, undeniably do.


1. Have I? I have never been certain of its title.

2. Again, I have no idea if that is, in fact, what it is called.

3.  Lola Koundakjian, “Questions to Aram Saroyan,” Armenian Reporter, December 8, 2007, C17–C19