Earlier this week, Joseph Helmreich wrote about writing what you know — and what you don’t. With the release of his debut novel, The Return, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
In the summer of 2006, fresh from a brief stint at Hebrew University, I took an internship as a script-reader for a New York film studio, hoping to jumpstart a career in the “pictures.”
To my surprise, life at the studio turned out to be fairly mellow. Sure, at any moment you could be asked to read a novel, screen the upcoming film based on that novel, and turn in “coverage” of both by morning. But by and large, it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle glamorized in shows like Entourage. Mostly, interns read scripts and books at our leisure, dreamily escaping into other writers’ fantasies while marveling at how their hotshot agents had let the material loose with multiple typos and incorrect formatting.
When it came time for lunch, though, I’d indulge in a different sort of escapism. Since kosher food in the neighborhood was scarce, I would make my way to NYU’s Weinstein cafeteria where, dining amongst students and professors alike, I would live out the cosmopolitan NYU experience I never had. On the walk there and back, I would soak up the bars and cafes of MacDougal Street, the crowds and buskers of Washington Square Park, the famed, past-their-prime rock clubs of Bleecker Street.
I always paid particular attention to coffee shops, eager to spot any of the distinguished philosophers I’d studied in college (NYU has the highest-ranked philosophy program in the world). Once, glancing into a café window on University Place, I thought I’d finally found one. When I took a second look, I realized it was actually the poet, Samuel Menashe.
Menashe, who lived much of his life in a small railroad flat on Thompson Street, was a paradoxical figure, famously obscure. Although revered by a select group of critics and peers, he somehow never achieved the wider audience he deserved and in 2003, at the age of 79, he became the first-ever recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s “Neglected Masters Award.”
I had seen him recite at the Bowery Poetry Club once. His poems were powerful, concise works with spiritual themes and evocative titles like “All My Friends are Homeless” and “No Jerusalem But This.” When another poet later remarked from the stage that she didn’t memorize her poetry like Menashe did, he’d called out from the crowd, in a genteel voice that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart and Pete Seeger, “I don’t memorize my poems — I know them because I wrote them!”
Menashe had just finished lunch at the cafe and as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, I approached and expressed my admiration for his work. He was friendly and gracious. But when he asked about my vocation and I explained that I evaluated screenplays for a movie studio, he suddenly looked aghast.
“You mean you decide whose work will be considered and whose won’t? My God, what an awful responsibility!”
Well, I explained, trying not to stammer, I did my best not to discard anything of quality,
“But how can you know?”
In his 2011 New York Times obituary of Menashe, William Grimes would quote Stephen Spender’s assessment that Menashe’s poetry “compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds” and would remark that though his work often appeared in important journals, “he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.”
He had of course been right that day in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t truly know that I wasn’t passing over richly deserving work. Surely, there was no one who better understood why that mattered than Samuel Menashe, the poet of Thompson Street, the great Neglected Master.
Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return (2017, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody (Greenwood Press, 2008). In addition to his writing, he is a member of alternative folk duo, Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.