Welcome to the blog for Lift Your Right Arm, my new short prose collection. Here you’ll find news, reviews, outtakes from the book and other related material and ephemera, as well as notices of readings and personal appearances. The official website is here. Also check out my full list of online publications, my Facebook author page, or my food and travel blog.
Dear John Waters,
Yes, this is a fan letter, but not for your films—for your writing.
I will confess that I don’t feel strongly either way about your films. I think the last one I saw was Polyester. That’s right, not even Hairspray. The thing I appreciated most about Polyester was the opportunity to experience a William Castle-inspired gimmick, having been too young to catch his films and stunts in theaters, though I do remember the Thirteen Ghosts glasses my older brother Harvey brought home when I was four.
I was 16 when Pink Flamingos came out, but I went to see it with friends a couple of years later, when it was running as a midnight special at a porno theater in Bensonhurst, Saturday Night Fever territory. I had never been to a porno theater before, and this being the “golden age” of porn, they were showing Wet Rainbow, with Georgia Spelvin and Harry Reems. My friends and I arrived for the tail end of Wet Rainbow, and they let us in, a premium we hadn’t counted on. Apparently the film had a story, as they often did in the olden days, but we had arrived too late to make any sense of it. As far as the sex was concerned, I can’t even remember if it gave me a hard-on.
Of course we loved Pink Flamingos. We were 18, after all. But 40 years later I confess I can’t remember a thing about it. Some fan letter, eh?
Anyway, I recently saw your book Crackpot on offer as a Kindle daily deal for $1.99. Now frankly, I probably wouldn’t have paid retail for one of your books, but I figured, for two bucks what have I got to lose?
Then, about a week ago I started reading it, and I was truly blown away by your writing. Thank ya, Bezos! Your sentences are vibrant, the writing is incredibly funny and, more importantly, spellbindingly engaging. Now I’m singing your writerly praises far and wide. I’ve been telling people that as a writer you’re A.J. Liebling’s skinny, gay brother from a parallel universe, and from me any comparison to Liebling is the highest form of compliment. And I surely have to tip my hat to someone who can make the late films of Godard sound like fun. I think you should send your piece about Hail Mary to Pope Francis. If you ever stood a chance with a pope, he’s the one. Carpe diem!
On top of all that, your piece about teaching at a maximum security prison was nothing short of touching. The other pieces made me appreciate you. That one made me like you. Bravo!
Now I will not hesitate to pay whatever it takes to read other books of yours.
As a token of my appreciation, I’m enclosing a copy of my own recent collection, Lift Your Right Arm, which I hope you’ll enjoy. After all, what’s the real purpose of a fan letter but self-promotion?
As a matter of fact, when the book came out I was supposed to do a reading and talk at your home base, Atomic Books, but, alas, they dropped the ball. Should they ever come to their senses, pick up the ball and invite me to do an event, I hope I’ll have the chance to meet you.
With fond appreciation,
My family name, Cherches, is a Russian Jewish name. My father’s side of the family came from an area that I believe is in modern-day Ukraine. But for years I thought the name derived from Circassia, an area in the Caucasus. The Circassian people are known as Cherkess, and several academics, a classicist and a Near-Eastern specialist, on seeing my name and hearing it pronounced, posited that Cherches was a variation on Cherkess.
In 2006, on the Chowhound foodie bulletin board, I responded to a query about Circassian restaurants in New York. I wrote, “‘The Circassians, or Cherkess, are well-renowned for their horsemanship and the linguistic complexity of their languages.’ I believe this is where my name and my ancestors on my father’s side originated. I inherited the linguistic complexity but not the horsemanship.”
A few years later a video appeared on YouTube about “The work of the Circassian American writer Peter Cherches.” It was wild. There was Circassian folk music and a caption that referred to me as the scion of one of the first Circassian families to immigrate to America. Then a man with what I guess is a Circassian accent read several of my pieces.
Where did this come from? I wondered. I figured it had to have been that comment I made on Chowhound, about the putative origin of my name. Somehow I had been transformed into a Circassian cultural hero, albeit a small-time one.
Eventually I did more research on the name Cherches. I began to suspect the Cherkess connection when I learned that the people of Circassia, many of them living abroad in Israel or the U.S., are Muslims, and I could find nothing about a Jewish presence in Circassia. Interestingly, though, the Cherkess in Israel, though practicing Muslims, do not identify with the indigenous Muslim peoples of the middle east, live peacefully with the Jews, and serve in the Israeli military.
Digging further, I learned that there is a village in western Ukraine whose Romanized spelling is Czorcze or Cherche, and it’s smack dab in the heart of the region that so many Jews emigrated from, not far from Lviv. It seemed much more plausible that the family name Cherches derives from that place name than from the non-Jewish Cherkess.
But as a writer who revels in blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and creating outlandish personae, I love the fact that someone went to the trouble of creating this false biography of me, blissfully unaware that it was fiction.
Author and publisher Kirpal Gordon did this interview with me on his Taking Giant Steps Blog. We talk about my small offerings and their place in the vastness of the universe.
This is the time of year when some people do their year-end roundups. I especially hate those things that people do that look like little newspapers, like The Lipschitz Family Gazette, with thousands of words describing all the minutia of the family’s year. Maybe some people like getting these, what do I know?
The only year-end roundups I’ve done previously were on my food blog, Word of Mouth, now on hiatus, and that was all about what I ate, period. I’m hesitant to do what I’m about to do, but this has been an especially fruitful and satisfying year for me, quite possibly the best year of all my 57 varieties. So, I will do a bit of a roundup here, but ultimately it’s all about thanking and honoring all the people who helped to make this such a fabulous year for Peter Cherches. For we are nothing without the people who lend their encouragement and support to help us realize that which we wish to achieve.
Of course the biggest event was the publication of my book Lift Your Right Arm, which would not have been possible without the unconditional support and trust of an amazing publisher, Mark Givens. This is my first book in over 25 years, and it came about because Mark is a writer-oriented publisher. When Mark, whose online journal MungBeing I’d been publishing in regularly for several years, decided to start a publishing house, Pelekinesis, he invited me to submit a manuscript. At the time I had no book manuscript that I was shopping around. In fact, I had pretty much given up on book publication. But Mark’s invitation inspired me to go through my work, new and old, and come up with the collection that I felt would best represent what I do as a prose writer.
And I must also thank the other generous writers who offered blurbs and reviews, among them Billy Collins, Luc Sante, Michael Martone and Kevin Killian. And a big hug to Bob Holman, who offered the fabulous Bowery Poetry Club for my book party and reading that exceeded all my expectations. It was a blast singing a couple of songs with Lee Feldman, my esteemed collaborator since the mid-80s, and I was so pleased that two of my closest friends, who also happen to be two of my favorite writers, Peter Wortsman and Holly Anderson, agreed to join me on stage.
The rush I got singing those songs again with Lee inspired me to start writing lyrics again this year, for the first time since the ’80s; Lee and I are now working on a new show for next year.
After that heady, exciting and exhausting book release time I took a trip to Greece and Turkey. In Greece I got to realize an old dream, which dates back to my days as a student playwright: to visit the ancient theater at Epidaurus. At Epidaurus I gave myself the incomparable experience of singing my lyric to Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” a cappella. Monk is at the top of my artistic pantheon, and to sing his music at such an iconic, legendary theater was perhaps the closest this atheist has come to a sacred experience.
Thanks to the folks outside New York who invited me to read at their stores and venues: Buck Downs for In Your Ear in D.C., Minter Krotzer and Hal Sirowitz at Big Blue Marble in Philadelphia, and for my first west coast readings in over 2o years, Richard Modiano at Beyond Baroque in Venice, Bill Petersen and Eric Whittington at Bird & Beckett in San Francisco, and the folks at Rhino Records in Claremont. Thanks to the fabulous flash fiction writer Meg Pokrass for agreeing to share the Bird & Beckett reading with me, and to the seriously sweet Venice legend Michael C Ford for joining me at Beyond Baroque.
I got to play tourist for the first time in L.A., where I shot a photo of my book with Monk’s star on Hollywood Boulevard.
And thanks to the people who took the time to interview me about the book: Gerry Howard of Doubleday for my Booktalk Nation phone-in and Kirpal Gordon for the feature on the Giant Steps blog.
Thanks to old friend and book publicist extraordinaire Susan Weinstein who was so generous with her time and knowledge.
Thanks to the editors of the journals I’ve published in for the first time this year, including Ann Kjellberg of the fabulous Little Star, Norman Conquest at Black Scat Review, who had been one of the first people to publish my work over 30 years ago in a previous journal, and Adam Henry Carriere of the great online journal Danse Macabre, which in addition to publishing new work of mine has provided a home for some of my revised and resuscitated older fiction.
Another highlight of my year was the opportunity to present the great Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog to a New York audience. I love giving as well as receiving, but I definitely got more than I gave from that fabulous performance by Karin and Steve Kuhn.
And, of course, thanks to everybody I’ve forgotten to thank.
My old friend Dennis DeForge, who was my co-editor of Zone magazine, said to me recently, “You seem to be going through a renaissance.” I replied, “Give me a couple of hundred years and I may have an enlightenment.” For now I’ll do my best to keep from slipping back to the dark ages.
Sartre was wrong. Heaven is other people.
One of the greatest pleasures for any writer who is not a cur is the opportunity to honor, or even better to gift the writers and editors who have inspired and supported him. I seem to lead a particularly charmed existence, as I’ve just had a third occasion to get a book or journal into the hands of the writer or editor who no longer had their own copy.
I learned the other day that Derek Pell, editor of the journal Not Guilty!, did not have a copy of the Absurdist Texts & Documents issue, which was probably my third or fourth publication ever as a young writer. I told Derek that I thought I might have a second copy that I could send him.
I confirmed today that I do indeed have a spare, and Derek will once again have an issue of this great magazine he edited.
The previous two return stories are connected to a fellow named Themistocles Hoetis, which was actually the nom de plume of a fellow named George Solomos.
I first came across the name Themistocles Hoetis when I found a hardbound anthology from 1956, Zero Anthology, at The Strand bookshop. Zero was an avant-leaning literary magazine that was founded in Paris in 1949. This anthology, from the year of my birth featured a number of major writers. I found this description in an online sale offer:
(BECKETT, Samuel). ZERO ANTHOLOGY of Literature and Art. No. 8. Edited by Themistocles Hoetis. Octavo, cloth, 239 pages. Contains the first book appearance of Paul Bowles’ novella length story “The Hours After Noon” and two other contributions [Miller B24]. Also prints Samuel Beckett’s short story “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” [F&F 16.01]; additional contributions by Gore Vidal, Marianne Moore, Colin Wilson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Samuel French Morse et al.
Another writer in that anthology was the irreplaceable Ursule Molinaro, whom I knew. So when I next saw Ursule after buying the anthology I mentioned it to her. She remembered Themisticles Hoetis as “a very nice young man.” And she told me she didn’t have a copy. So I told her I’d give her mine. I didn’t have to think twice. She’s in the publication, so she deserves to have a copy.
Coincidentally, a year or two later, browsing an outside stand in front of a used bookstore on Ann Street, I saw a spine with the name Themistocles Hoetis. It was his 1952 novel The Man Who Went Away. It was a dollar and of course I bought it. The prose was spare, the form somewhat experimental. It was a pretty good book.
I’m not sure exactly how the subject came up, but a mutual friend had told my Themistocles Hoetis anecdotes to novelist Caryl Phillips who, it turned out, had met Themistocles in London. So, when I eventually met Caz Phillips the name Themistocles Hoetis came up, and wouldn’t you know it, several months later Caz tells me that Themistocles is coming to New York, and he doesn’t own a copy of his own novel. No way I’d let a novelist, and certainly not a septugenarian one, be without a copy of his own novel. So I arranged to meet Themistocles Hoetis at his hotel with the book.
It was then I learned that Themistocles’ real name was George Solomos. His family, he told me, had forbade him to bring shame upon the family with his writings, so he took up a nom de plume. He also told me that some years prior many of his personal effects had been lost by Greyhound in a move. To give this man back a copy of his own book, to see the look of pleasure and gratitude, priceless!
I wonder what I’d have done if I didn’t have a second copy of Not Guilty! Who has the greater claim, the writer whose contributor’s copy it is, or the editor who made it all possible? Not many people know this, but I’m a secret pushover. I think I would have sent my only copy to Derek.
Here’s a link to George Solomos’ obituary in The Guardian: