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Stephin Merritt's Signing At Book Soup, Monday October 6th 2014

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Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt is really a strange and intriguing guy up close and personal. On Monday night, he was doing a signing of his new book ‘101 Two-Letter Words’ at the famous bookstore Book Soup in West Hollywood, and I decided to go at the last minute…. Unfortunately, I got there a little late, he had already started to read his short and curious, odes-to-the two-letter-words poems, classified in alphabetic order in the book, and was around ‘AW’ when I arrived. He was reading very slowly with a deadpan humor and without even cracking a smile, while people around me were trying hard to not burst out laughing.

How did he come up with these short poems for short words? Just because of Scrabble apparently, and probably because of his interest for these two-letter words that are really important in the game… I wouldn’t be able to tell, I haven’t played Scrabble for ages. As someone in the audience noticed, the book is full of candy-like colors and funny illustrations by Roz Chast, so it almost looks like a children book, which intentionally may end in a kid library despite its numerous sex references.

‘Sometimes one feels frisky, and
one wants to sex one’s ex.
Best to try it first with a
Tyrannosaurus rex.’

But the book works very well as a funny dialogue between Merritt’s witty poems filled of words I don’t necessary get and Chast’s clever illustrations

‘’Be yourself,’ all thinkers say;
how odd they think alike.
‘Be yourself,’ says Lao Tzu;
‘Be yourself,’ says Wilhelm Reich.’

And Merritt explains with delight the illustration going with the drawing, a couple with a man wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Be Yourself’ and the woman wearing one that says, ‘I’m with stupid’, which seems to perfectly fits the poem.

‘Does he himself draw?’ asked someone in the audience, Merritt answered that he does color forms, whatever this means…

He is on tour for the book, and he has prepared a slide presentation of some of his short poems that he cautiously reads, waiting for a reaction. This is his first book, not the grandiose novel his mother was waiting for, but it’s brilliant, subtle and funny. ‘There are many tombs, graveyards in the book’, said the guy who was presenting with him, ‘Thanks!’ answered Merritt as if this was a compliment, nobody should be surprised if the death theme often comes back in the conversation, Merritt appears obsessed by it and gets laughs each time. From ‘Am’,

‘I think, therefore I am’, declared
Descartes, while he was living.
That thought remains, while he does not
Which causes some misgiving.’….

To ‘Mu’

‘On Yasujiro Ozu’s grave
Is written mu
It means ‘nothing’ in Japanese;
Nothing in English, too.’

Another recurrent theme? A vampire Dog, Merritt’s late Chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt, who resembled a little vampire, as well as short Scottish words and American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey … ‘he began this project ‘in slavish imitation of him’ reports the New Yorker…

‘Trixie was the ox princess,
She ruled the happy oxen
Until a rival dosed her with
A nasty neurotoxin’ continues Merritt reaching the word ‘Ox’

While reading he was carrying his ukulele the whole time, and I am not sure if he used it before I arrived, but the instrument was just in his hands until he put it away to start the signing,… was it to feel more comfortable? I learned later that he brought the ukulele to make a point in case someone would have asked why these were poems and not songs: ‘I will perform one to show how badly it would have turned out.’

But does he prefer writing songs or poems? ‘Poems! Although both are cheap’… except these cocktails….’

‘Us is me and Gus, driving
our bus across the land;
when we die, just bury us
together, hand in hand.’

Gus, us,.. is this an accident? ‘There is no accident’, answered Merritt.

By the way, there is no album in perspective, but he said he was writing a musical for This American Life.

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