Introduction: Call and Response – Richard Gess

Richard Gess

Jim Morrison: Getting drunk…you’re in complete control up to a point. It’s your choice, every time you take a sip. You have a lot of small choices. It’s like…I guess it’s the difference between suicide and slow capitulation…
Jerry Hopkins: What’s that mean?
Morrison: I don’t know, man. Let’s go next door and get a drink.

Tom Nissley’s Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, is 411 pages long. Look how much space drinking takes up in it:

alcohol, 141, 213, 218, 245,256, 257, 265, 300, 333, 350, 359, 398; beer, 106, 162, 252, 359, 390; binges, 9, 76, 347, 375; in fiction, 129, 356, 404; gin, 210; hangovers, 3, 175, 176; “Lucky Jim, The,” 176; mescal, 347; Scotch, 184, 404; sobriety, 175, 390; wine, 128; and writing, 82, 252

Writing is afloat (flat on its face?) on an ocean of booze. I hardly drink at all, so I don’t understand drinking’s appeal. Because I hardly drink at all only a little alcohol can make me feel sleepy, and only a little more will ruin my sleep and remain as a headache when I wake up. I don’t understand why anyone would pursue those particular sensations—sedation, illness, regret—unless they’re wrapped up in much better ones that I’m somehow unable to experience. But I think I understand why writers drink; drink loosens the tongue. It gets writers over themselves, so they can work. And alcohol underpins writing beyond its role as a performance aid. Writers drink together, write about drinking, drink when they’re doing readings—even I drink for readings. Writers do things when they’re drunk that they may regret, which may hurt innocent bystanders, but which may also be great to write about. Alcohol dramatizes; it sets scenes in motion that would never take place among the sober. It also reduces drama to comedy, another boon to writers.

As the one writer in the bar who’s having a soda, I chose “Drunken” for EDPer 13’s theme to see what other writers and artists could tell me about drinking (or any other method of intoxication, including love). I was most interested in work that was clear-eyed, no matter how inebriated, and that saw past the usual romance or censoriousness about art’s perpetual enabler. The poets, fiction writers, essayists, and artists who responded to my call provided just the work I was hoping for. The assemblage that follows is often dark but not infrequently funny. From resistance to surrender, from regret to embrace, the contributors to “Drunken” all have sharply different angles on the subject; I am fortunate to have summoned so many singular voices that nonetheless harmonize, like the drunks in Leonard Cohen’s midnight choir.

A Lucky Jim, by the way—as conceived by Kingsley Amis—is one part vermouth, two parts cucumber juice, and a dozen parts of “the cheapest British vodka you can find.” Bottoms up—

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