Stopping by with Daniel Handler
During this extraordinary moment—of both pause and activism—we asked writers, musicians, curators, and innovators to reflect on the power and memory of language, shared spaces, and this moment in time. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more Stopping By responses and to keep updated with the PSA.
What is the last thing you read that moved you?
Christian Robinson's contribution to The Diary Project. Robinson has always been a glorious illustrator but this story of his is particularly piercing.
What is a piece of art that changed your life?
Driving home the other day, I heard, for the gazillionth time, "Let's Go Crazy" by Prince and the Revolution and remembered being 14-years-old and hearing "This life, you're on your own," like a goosepimply punch in the stomach. Prince's endless ingenuity, tearing down all discernible boundaries to make a solidarity out of fury and camp, purity and filth, into a catchy truth—it's a strategy I've been struggling to follow ever since.
Is there a book you think everyone should read or piece of art everyone should encounter or listen to?
If I might just ask nicely for everyone to go listen to Duke Ellington's soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder, I cannot imagine it wouldn't do all of us some good.
What is your first memory of poetry?
Probably singing songs with my family in the car:
Looking through a knothole
in Father's wooden leg,
Why did they build the shore so near the ocean?
Ashbery would kill for that kind of scansion.
The pandemic has emptied many public spaces (libraries, concert halls, museums, parks, transit systems, etc.). What space—and community—do you miss the most?
I miss the ritual of reading in a coffeehouse until the espresso's caffeine sends me to a bar, and then reading until the Manhattan's alcohol sends me home. Moving from room to room in my house just isn't the same.
Public space is rife with words—signs, logos, advertisements. If you were to choose one poem or text to inscribe in a public place right now, what would that be? And where would you place it?
Oh, there's enough visible text. Maybe just a few more comfortable chairs and benches, where people could sit and read whatever words they’ve brought with them.
Have you thought differently about the role and power of language and art in the wake of murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the wide-spread protests?
It is always urgent to hear a message that people aren't being heard. This wave of Black Lives Matter action has sent me to my bookshelves and stacks of music, to listen closely to Black American voices. It is always an education to reread a classic, and this time around, Gwendolyn Brooks—the zaggy cadences of Maud Martha, the elegant audacity of Riot—has been someone from whom I cannot turn away.
Have you created something during the lockdown, or are you working on anything now?
Oh, I'm working. I seem to have found the pluck to write a book I was previously afraid to approach. It's good to work. Difficult times shave off, over and over, little tiny layers of ourselves. We have to ink them back in.