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Calvin Trillin, ‘deadline poet,’ explains his political philosophy.

November 15, 2011

Last night at Miami Book Fair International, Calvin Trillin revealed the solution to South Florida’s famous and dreaded humidity: A sense of humor so dry you could measure it with a barometer.

Looking and sounding like a man who has sweat not a drop since childhood, nor raised his voice since puberty, Trillin entertained a crowd of some 400 book lovers with a constant litany of droll observations and the lame-but-pointed versifying for which he has become known as the “deadline poet” for the Nation magazine.

Trillin was both shameless — he recycled a Victor Navasky joke I heard him tell Johnny Carson on TV 25 years ago — and topical, with wry digs at the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Miami Book Fair International continues at 6 this evening with An Evening with Harry Belafonte. For more information, visit the fair’s website. NOTE: Journalist and social critic David Brooks, scheduled for 8 p.m., has canceled.

Trillin was introduced by his old friend and fellow humorist, Dave Barry, who said, accurately, “Calvin Trillin is a great writer and a great reporter, and he’s Robert Benchley funny, and I say that as a man who reveres Robert Benchley.”

Indeed, labeling Trillin a “humorist” does him a disservice, if only because it obscures his other achievements. He worked as a feature writer for the New Yorker for the better part of four decades. He’s one of the best true crime writers to ever ply the trade — precise in his facts and in his language.

Trillin is one of the best feature writers I’ve ever read — I first encountered him in a profile of the battle between Ben & Jerry and Haagen-Daz in the July 8, 1985 issue of the New Yorker. It remains strikingly vivid, as though limned by sunlight in the attic of my mind. Here’s a link to an abstract of the story, and if you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can click through to read the whole, wonderful thing.

Is that all? By no means: He is also a much-loved travel and food writer, with many books and articles on those subjects, invariably droll and charming. And finally, though an average-looking provincial from Kansas City, he famously married Alice Stewart, regarded as the most beautiful woman in New York intellectual circles in the mid 1960s.

Alice became (in addition to a pioneering educator and writer) the “Alice” of numerous Trillin books and stories, including Travels with Alice, and Alice, Let’s Eat. In 2006, five years after she died, Trillin published a lovely remembrance, About Alice.

But Trillin was in Miami to talk about his latest book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, a compendium of best comic pieces selected by the author himself, so we exclusively got the funny Trillin: Sometimes you just get lucky.

Here’s a bit on Mitt Romney from the 2008 Republican primaries he shared last night:

Mitt Romney As Doll
Yes, Mitt’s so slick of speech and slick of garb, he
Reminds us all of Ken, of Ken and Barbie —
So quick to shed his moderate regalia,
He may, like Ken, be lacking genitalia.

An indiscriminate jester, Trillin joked or told funny stories about growing up Jewish in Kansas City, about the low pay scale at the Nation (“the high two figures” — the joke I heard on TV so long ago), about being the second most famous Missouri poet of all time, after T.S. Eliot.

“Eliot used a lot of Sanskrit,” he said, confessing, “I goofed off in Sanskrit class. I’m more likely to use Yiddish. Eliot, as you know, was not partial to Yiddish.”

He offered a scholarly example of his use of Yiddish in poetry, from the early 1990s: “O.J. / Oy vey.”

Trillin poked barbed fun at the Nation, too, It is, he said, ” a Pinko magazine printed on cheap paper.” How cheap is it? “If you make a Xerox copy of an article, the Xerox is a lot better than the original.”

Trillin defined his own politics as devolving upon “an open system that keeps out only those candidates whose names are not conducive to rhyme and meter.”

Neither Bush nor Clinton met these exacting standards, and Trillin was forced to resort to Hillary Clinton’s maiden name in writing a deadline poem about the Lewinsky affair. Obama rhymes only, Trillin said, with words he has already used in connection with Osama bin Laden.

“My people, like John McCain, all those people with good, clean rhyming references, don’t make it to the White House,” Trillin said.

Trillin is heartened, however, by some of the current Republican candidates. Like Rick Perry, for example: “Rick Perry /I’ve wondered if the space between his ears is airy.”

For more than an hour, Trillin’s dry wit kept his audience suspended somewhere between an expectant grin and a helpless belly laugh. My only criticism: Next time, Mr. T, please come in the summertime.







4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 12:13 am

    the fit for Mitt
    and the pick for Rick:
    lol – I nearly fell
    out of my chair
    at Miami Book Fair!

  2. KWiley permalink
    December 3, 2011 9:26 pm

    Radio host Elaine Charles has a great interview with Calvin Trillin from the Miami Book Fair on last weeks show, . She’s great, her show The Book Report is on WIOS 610 AM on Sundays from 3-4pm in Miami. You should check her out.

  3. sally permalink
    December 25, 2011 2:22 pm

    Kwiley, I have heard about the elaine charles radio show. I am going to catch her next one with the Gabby Giffords new book. Is it worth it too go back to all the archived shows? I am looking for a good radio show with author interviews. What are they like?

    • KWiley permalink
      December 29, 2011 8:21 pm

      Hey Sally, the interviews are very candid and engaging. Elaine really does a wonderful job. I’ve been listening since Oct-Nov or so and I’ve enjoyed them all. For sure check out the archives for your favorite authors, but all the one’s Ive heard have been entertaining.

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