About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking – it’s a funny poem – but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things – out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny – don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
My wife and I spent 2008-2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fellow. It was unforgettable year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an opportunity to write. Location was an open question. Our apartment was neater beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. We have just gotten married, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edifying effort to keep it sane – despite the combination of me, guests, our belongings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and daily raise a mighty paw of offense. However close to Collins-compliance state, our place was too small, too removed from pulsing, yelling life that surrounded us. I had to get out.
And so, most often I’d go to a little cafe, called Nocturno, a few minutes away from the apartment. It was a tiny duplex with a winding metal staircase that at its peak managed to host as many as three dozen people, which was kind of unbelievable. Talmud, describing the miraculous occurrences of the Temple, says: “people stood close together, yet when they worshipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables outside, bar stools, loners were doubled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s technically outside the perimeter had a few people sitting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cigarettes, but most importantly, they brewed great coffee. And the crowd was very colorful. With Bezalel Art School nearby students came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip religious Jews; secular population of Jerusalem (a wonderful and underexplored breed of their own!); lots of foreigners. A few times I spotted Israeli Arabs – a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deepest, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.