My dive bar in Kyiv is a bookstore.
Whether its Ukraine or Australia, it seems the world over people do what it takes when it comes to planning laws and permissions. The rumour about “Kupidon” – and I hope it’s true so I never ask – is that the owners couldn’t get consent for a bar so they just bolted one on to the existing and permissible basement bookshop.
I love the idea that books gave rise to beer and borscht. That is a productive and practical contribution of printed words to the common good.
It’s actually generous to call it a bookstore. It’s more like a broom closet with stacked shelves from floor to ceiling. Sets of antiquarian titles with ornate gold tooling on their spines and a steady stream of older literary types with bent spines dropping in for a chat with the proprietor. I’ve never seen anything sold. It seems commerce isn’t key.
It functions more like a cave-like confessional for authors, poets and other sundry scribes (of which I’m proud to nowadays count myself).
“Have you read so-and-so’s new one?”
“Has Mr X been by lately? Is his health okay?”
“She didn’t deserve that award. It was politics.”
“How’s the latest one going? Are the words coming, darling?”
We have these conversations because they buy us a break from the words – words that can be hard. Hard to find and hard to put down. Hard as an upstate New York lake in winter.
It feels sometimes like a bad Wi-Fi connection. There’s something there, but it’s infernally frustrating.
You start thinking: it’s hardly worth it. Every smart or clever thing has already been written. My stuff is unoriginal or has no craft. Or, whatever undermining utterances the Mental Machine of Malicious Musings wants to muster depending on whether it’s been fended off with a serving of comfortable potato pancakes or not.
(Or, I can recommend the Big Shwed Burger named after my mate, Roman Shwed, the ex US sailor from Philly, radio broadcaster and now mayor of the “Kupidon”, who nearing 80 still gets to the poetry reading here every Saturday arvo.)
There’s really only one answer. It’s the method of great American author, E.L. Doctorow (“Ragtime”, “The Book of Daniel”, “Billy Bathgate”). He suggested that writing is like driving at night time- you can only go as far as the headlights. Even writing that makes me cringe with insecurity and self-doubt in light of his mastery.
If ‘one day at a time’ has become our social slogan of slog and resignation, ‘one word at a time’ is my personal slogan of hope and inspiration.
If I can just somehow keep pumping stuff out – be it a short story, poem, or essay – something of my true voice, perhaps I find solace in a world of disquiet, calm amid the constant conflict. Perhaps, I will come to understand or at least accept so much that I simply don’t – mostly myself and my many bad choices. Perhaps, I will become better and somehow redeemed.
Perhaps, somebody will even read something and it will mean something to them. Winner winner chicken dinner.
Perhaps. In the meantime, there’s always another green tea to be ordered. There’s another conversation to ‘over-listen’. There’s a “Kupidon” to make my Kyiv home on cold drizzly day where the keystrokes keep me warm company.
And maybe that’s what I’ve learned today as I type away. That writing is a bit like the “Kupidon”. Part scam, part hidden, part hope and part failure, part art and part artifice. And those are good parts to make me whole.