The Travel Bug

13 Jun

I wrote this piece recently to contextualize the travel memoirs that form part of my next Pelekinesis book, Autobiography Without Words. Since its function is mainly to introduce those other pieces, I haven’t tried to publish it separately, but am sharing it here. 

I caught the travel bug in 1989, when I was 33, rather late in the game. I had won the first of my several writing fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts that year and decided to use part of the booty for a month of travel and writing in the Pacific Northwest, visiting Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria.

Before that trip I was the furthest thing from a seasoned traveler. I had only left North America once, in 1985, for a two-week trip to London and Paris. The only other time I had left the country was for the Montreal Jazz Festival. Otherwise, I normally spent a week or two every year in San Francisco, and a few days in South Florida, for booster shots of maternal abuse.

I had never traveled for as long as a month before, and this time I did it solo, which was a revelation. That much time out on my own, without anybody in tow to remind me of home, gave me a great feeling of freedom. I was able to invent every day from scratch, keeping the weight of the past and the familiar at bay. I went around with a glow I had never experienced before, and I determined to make travel central to my life from that point on.

Over the next year or so I visited Venezuela and Trinidad, then Russia, the Istrian Peninsula of Yugoslavia along with Northern Italy, and India, the first of three trips to that most idiosyncratic of places. For the next several decades travel became central to my life and my identity. I focused mainly on Asia for the first number of years, out of cultural and culinary interests, then I started using jazz festivals as a motivation for further European exploration, and ultimately I began to devour Latin American locales. When I was working as an IT consultant I normally traveled about six weeks per year.

That glow of freedom traveled with me. I felt as if I were constantly reinventing myself, for the better, on my own terms. I think that may have been the final piece of the puzzle, how to turn a sad─no, make that miserable─child into a happy, at times even beatific, adult.

Part of that process, I think, has to do with the realization that, however burdensome our own private concerns may be, we’re ultimately all small fry in a vast and wondrous ocean of humanity. And our own cultural assumptions about how to live a life, our own sense of time, space, love, family, friendship, art and eating, are part of a much wider repertoire of options, of actualizations, no better than any other, just more familiar.

The lone traveler, if so inclined, is also more likely to have significant interactions with people of those other cultures, since locals tend to strike up conversations with solo travelers when they wouldn’t think of intruding on the cocoon of a couple or a family.

Shortly before I caught the travel bug I had bought a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, where I still live. Over the years people have asked me if I’d have preferred a larger apartment. “Not really,” I always say. “The world is my apartment.”


Lift Your Right Arm: The Book

18 Nov

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.

A Fan Letter to John Waters

17 Oct

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,

Peter Cherches

Three Events, September 21-22

30 Aug


How I Became a Circassian-American Writer

14 May

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.

Interview with an Ultra-Minimalist

4 Jan

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.

Thanks for a Fabulous Year!

22 Dec

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.