TIME ebola

Plagues on the Poor: What Ebola Can Learn From Malaria

The Malaria Project
The Malaria Project Courtesy Penguin/New American Library

Karen M. Masterson is the author of the forthcoming book, The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure, out next week.

If the U.S. spent more money on disease prevention and clinics—and less on vaccines and drugs—everyone in the world would stand to benefit

Our highest ranked public health officials have answered questions about Ebola. Most come from reporters centering on who dropped the ball, and why no treatment exists. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has tried to give the real answer: Don’t blame a lack of drugs, or bad practices at the World Health Organization; blame the absolute lack of good public health for people in poor countries.

Famous experts, ranging from Paul Farmer to Jeffery Sachs, have tried to use reason to show why investments in clinics go further to stop diseases like Ebola than do investments in vaccines and drugs. Their arguments are simple: build clinics and train medical staff to care for people, and they will be competent to tackle whatever problems emerge. (The teach-a-man-to-fish argument.) If such a clinic existed in the rural village in Guinea where the current outbreak’s original case of Ebola broke, its staff could have advised the community on how to contain the infection. That didn’t happen, and now the CDC is predicting a million infections by January.

The U.S. commits roughly $9 billion annually to global health programs that target infectious diseases that spread in poor countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea—the three now experiencing the worst Ebola outbreak ever. More than 75 per cent of that goes to treating three diseases: malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, with the vast majority of that going to drugs and vaccines. That’s three diseases, over $6 billion dollars, from one country. By comparison, the percentage going to in-country capacity for delivering good health care is miniscule.

No better rubric illustrates why Ebola spread so rapidly and uncontrollably. This Ebola outbreak has taught us that the world needs—right now—a redistribution of global health funding that places a much higher priority on infrastructure, not new medications.

This doesn’t happen, in part, because “infrastructure” fails to produce variables that accountants need to justify dollars spent. Disease-specific programs distribute a measurable number of drugs to a measurable number of people and save a measurable number of lives—bean counters are happy, funding continues to flow.

Policy makers are trapped, tied to drug and vaccine development, even though these technologies are too imperfect to eradicate their target diseases. They require huge investments up front and large clinical trials that use people like guinea pigs, only to be neutralized by resistance.

This paradigm has held since it was first cast during World War II. Malaria, at the time, had crippled forces in the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters. A half million troops contracted the disease, mostly in the first two years of America’s role in the war. In response, the U.S. government launched the largest effort ever made to fight a single disease. Thousands of psychotic patients, incarcerated criminals, and even soldiers were used as human guinea pigs to test a hundred of the best compounds—out of 14,000 made. From these trials emerged a new malaria drug called chloroquine.

This so-called “miracle cure” was used after the war in the World Health Organization’s first attempt to control a single disease, malaria. From the 1950s to 1970, through the WHO Global Malaria Eradication Programme, people in poor countries took chloroquine like aspirin. Broadly used against the world’s most prevalent infectious disease, it is today credited with saving more lives than any synthetic drug ever made. But chloroquine failed to solve the malaria problem because nature found a way around it—the parasites that cause the disease developed resistance. This is the fate of every drug ever made to fight malaria.

Before the war, the U.S. fought this mosquito-borne disease through anti-poverty programs and health care delivery, including relocating people from swamps and into homes with screens. Yet chloroquine changed that. Despite loud objections from experts, policy makers chose the easier option, and they continue to do so today. Global health programs rely heavily on drug and vaccine development, and building capacity to deliver them to the infected—be it malaria, TB, HIV, or the so-called neglected tropical diseases, like schistosomiasis, filariasis, leischmaniasis, dengue, chagas and others.

Ebola is the newest plague on impoverished people; and now it’s the latest silo for targeted spending for drug development and delivery. But while its characteristics are far scarier than the others, Ebola has one thing in common with them all: it spreads best where people lack basic health care.

Redirect global health programming to build health care infrastructure for disease prevention—not just capacity for drug delivery—and wealthy countries will get more for the money. They will also target all at once HIV, TB, malaria, the neglected diseases, Ebola, and the next scary infectious disease to emerge from the caves.

Karen M. Masterson is the author of The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure, out next week.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Why Peanuts Endures: “The Football is Always Pulled Away”

Peanuts Cover
The April 9, 1965, cover of TIME TIME

Oct. 2, 1950: The comic strip “Peanuts” is first published

Despite their wholesome, all-American reputation, Charlie Brown and his friends embody an amount of malaise better associated with French existentialists. Over nearly 50 years and more than 18,000 comic strips, Peanuts made punchlines out of loss and futility. The joke was on humanity. And it started right away: creator Charles Schulz relied on themes like unrequited love and the cruelty of children as early as the comic’s newspaper debut on this day, Oct. 2, in 1950. The very first strip shows Charlie Brown walking by two children, one of whom declares, over four panels: “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!/ Good ol’ Charlie Brown… Yes, sir!/ Good ol’ Charlie Brown…/ How I hate him!”

That combination of wit, pathos and social commentary was why TIME put Peanuts on the cover in 1965, and why the power of the strip persists to this day, as evidenced by plans for a 2015 Peanuts movie, complete with 3D computer graphics, and the fact that the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., is currently hosting an exhibit about the way the strip addresses still-relevant social issues.

“Most of us will lose more often than we win. That’s the joke of Peanuts,” TIME’s James Poniewozik wrote in 1999, when Schulz announced that he would quit writing the comic. “Schulz made it funny with characters who faced a Sisyphean suburban world of kite-eating trees and yanked-away footballs with resilience and curiosity.”

Schulz, who struggled with depression and anxiety, poked fun at his own challenges by exaggerating them in his main character. (One example that Poniewozik cites: “On Tuesdays I worry about personality problems,” Charlie Brown commented in a 1960 strip. “Thursday is my day for worrying about the world getting blown up.”)

And Schulz drew on real-world friends and relations to populate the strip with its quirky characters. One, the Little Red-Haired Girl, for whom Charlie Brown pines but to whom he is invisible, was based on a former co-worker who had rejected Schulz’s marriage proposal. In his biography, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz, he acknowledged that he had never gotten over his disappointment.

The humor of Peanuts lies in the extremity of bad luck the characters — particularly Charlie Brown — endure. Schulz’ obituary in the New York Times pointed out that Charlie Brown “once held onto the string of a kite that was stuck in a tree for eight days running, until the rain made him stop.” The obituary, reporting Schulz’s death from colon cancer the day before his final Sunday comic strip was published in 2000, goes on to quote Schulz’s summary of his formula: “All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.”

But Charlie Brown persevered nonetheless, and Schulz kept writing. More than 350 million readers joined him in laughing at life’s cruel absurdities. “You can’t create humor out of happiness,” he wrote in his 1980 book, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me. “I’m astonished at the number of people who write to me saying, ‘Why can’t you create happy stories for us? Why does Charlie Brown always have to lose? Why can’t you let him kick the football?’ Well, there is nothing funny about the person who gets to kick the football.”

Read a 2000 remembrance of Charles Schulz, here in TIME’s archives: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz

TIME Books

Harvest Boon: 7 Great Fall Books

A month of reaping great reads

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life Of Scent

    by Mandy Aftel

    A perfumer by profession, Aftel offers a combination history-slash-recipe book-slash-meditation in Fragrant. Instructions for homemade “Coca-Cola” and flower-infused chocolate, among other aromatic concoctions, are woven through scent-based sections: Cinnamon, Mint, Frankincense, Ambergris and Jasmine.

  • Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

    by Neil Patrick Harris

    Life is anything but linear in Harris’ whimsical take on the celebrity memoir. Written in the second person, the book uses a hopscotching format that invites the reader to jump around the text (“To kill someone, turn to page 165″). “You” are Harris, careering through a highlight reel of your past, from childhood to Doogie Howser to the arrival of your own kids via surrogate, with contributions from celebrity pals.

  • Lila: A Novel

    by Marilynne Robinson

    Robinson completes a trilogy of Midwestern novels that began with Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and which she followed with Home in 2008. Where Gilead told the story of John Ames, an Iowa preacher–and Home concurrently recounted that of his best friend–Lila brings us the tale of Ames’ much younger wife, who struggles from a hardscrabble youth to a quiet Christian life and eventual hard-won contentment with Ames.

  • The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel, And Buy

    by Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray

    Beckerman, a composer who specializes in “sonic branding” (he created AT&T’s four-note tune), combines experience and science to explain how we process sound. Using familiar examples from the sizzle of a Chili’s fajita to Apple’s soothing boot-up tone, The Sonic Boom will alter how you hear the world.

     

  • De Niro: A Life

    by Shawn Levy

    Levy, the biographer of his share of Hollywood heavyweights (Rat Pack Confidential; Paul Newman: A Life), takes on the iconic but deeply private actor in nearly 600 pages. Levy paints a detailed portrait of De Niro’s career and life, from his early days working with Martin Scorsese to the serious family matter, a son’s bipolar disorder, that drew him to his role in Silver Linings Playbook.

  • Breaking In: The Rise Of Sonia Sotomayor And The Politics Of Justice

    by Joan Biskupic

    A veteran Supreme Court reporter charts Sotomayor’s evolution from a poor Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx to the first Latina Justice on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor’s sense of ethnic identity, Biskupic argues, may be as important a legacy as the Justice’s legal contributions.

  • Glass Jaw: A Manifesto For Defending Fragile Reputations In An Age Of Instant Scandal

    by Eric Dezenhall

    In this primer on modern scandal, Dezenhall, a crisis PR manager, explores reputational disaster in the social-media age. The author uses his expertise to examine high-profile fiascoes (Paula Deen, Tiger Woods, the Susan G. Komen Foundation–Planned Parenthood fight) and how they might have been avoided. There is, he posits, such a thing as bad publicity.

TIME Books

Alan Cumming’s Boyhood Was No Cabaret

Alan Cumming attends the HRC Marriage for Equality USA celebration at the Calvin Klein Boutique on April 17, 2013 in New York City.
Alan Cumming attends the HRC Marriage for Equality USA celebration at the Calvin Klein Boutique on April 17, 2013 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

The actor's funny, heartbreaking new memoir recalls his struggles with an abusive father and his journey from the Scottish Highlands to Broadway

When Alan Cumming arrives for brunch at a café not far from his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, he’s wearing a blue baseball cap with a big white yes on the front. It’s been almost two weeks since Scotland voted no to separating from the United Kingdom, but Cumming, a Scot who campaigned heavily for the yes side from New York, hasn’t quite gotten over the loss. He heard the results in his dressing room after a performance of Cabaret, a revival of the 1966 musical that brought him a Tony for his electrifying performance as the androgynous Emcee when it returned to Broadway in 1998. “I just cried,” he says. “I felt like it was the difference between choosing imagination and hope and positivity or being cowed and doffing your cap and letting the establishment tell you what to do.”

Scotland still defines the effervescent 49-year-old Cumming in a way that nothing else does. He grew up there on a vast estate called Panmure where his father was the head forester. The men who worked the 21 sq. mi. (54 sq km) of woodland addressed the authoritarian elder Cumming as “the maister.” Alan and his brother Tom might as well have called him that too. Doing grueling chores under his unforgiving eye, they were always fearful of paternal rages that often ended with a beating. Cumming once wound up with a vicious haircut administered with sheep shears that left the 12-year-old bleeding and half bald.

How Cumming finally freed himself from the grip of that painful past is the subject of his new memoir, Not My Father’s Son. “I wrote the book partly to say that this kind of abuse is not normal,” he explains. “Abusers make you feel like it’s acceptable. And for the world who knows me one way, now they’ll know me in a different way, and I’m glad, because it’s all a part of me.”

It’s hard to fathom how the terrorized little boy grew up to be the slender, joyful man who can’t stop cackling as he shows off photos of the pink neon sign saying “Club Cumming” that he had made for his dressing room at Cabaret. Reading the book, you understand how he got so enmeshed in the Scottish campaign. Self-determination and liberation–of himself and others–from old conventions, gender restrictions or just boredom have been Cumming’s quest since he left home at 17 to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

He began writing his memoir after his father’s death in 2010 while working his day job as the Emmy-nominated co-star of CBS’s The Good Wife, now in its sixth season. On that show, Cumming plays Eli Gold, the tightly wound, manipulative political adviser to Chris Noth’s Governor Peter Florrick and his wife, played by Julianna Margulies. His book takes us from his primary school in the Scottish Highlands to London, where he played Hamlet in a cast that included his then wife Hilary Lyon as Ophelia in 1993. His father came back into his life a few years later when a British tabloid wrongly reported that Cumming had been sexually abused in childhood. (Harking back to his father’s beatings, Cumming had told another publication that he had been “abused,” a quote the tabloid misinterpreted.)

Cumming weaves into this story his 2010 turn on the British version of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? which researches the family histories of celebrities. The program’s producers focused on Cumming’s maternal grandfather Thomas Darling, a much decorated World War II vet who died mysteriously in Malaysia. The effort to unearth the truth about his death sparks a crazy journey that sends Cumming around the world, from the former battlefields of France to a graveyard in Asia. It turns out that his grandfather died in a fatal game of Russian roulette. To complicate things, Cumming’s father hears of the family research and announces that Alan is not his son but the product of an extramarital affair of Alan’s mother’s. DNA tests eventually prove the father’s claim is false, but the episode leads Alan and his brother to confront their dad about his lifetime of cruelties toward them–after which, they never see him again.

Cumming leaves off a few years after his 2007 marriage to Grant Shaffer, an illustrator. (His first marriage ended in the mid-1990s, and soon after, he declared himself bisexual.) Now happy, settled and extraordinarily busy, Cumming suspects that not really getting to be a child when he was young might be what keeps him so preternaturally youthful now. (Holding his own in a Cabaret kick line of 22-year-olds is no easy trick.) A friend, British theater director John Tiffany, jokes that there must be a Dorian Gray–style portrait of Cumming in an attic somewhere. He just doesn’t age. “J.M. Barrie could have written him,” says Tiffany. “Alan’s got an incredibly impish, Peter Pan sense of humor. In fact, he’s a gorgeous combination of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Mrs. Darling.” (Let it be noted that Cumming’s mother’s name is Mary Darling.)

The ongoing tension in his nature between dark and light, so evident in the book, is part of what gives Cumming’s work such breadth. It allowed Tiffany to cast him at various times as both Macbeth and Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Cumming can slip from playing a movie Smurf to the übersexual host of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club and then host Masterpiece Mystery on PBS without dropping a sequin. He combines a Calvinist work ethic with an eternal party-boy vibe. And the party is almost always on. Not only do legions of friends show up nightly at Club Cumming after the show, but he even has a kind of Camp Cumming–a second home in upstate New York where the landscape reminds him of Scotland. He often invites the entire cast of whatever show he’s in for weekends.

Cumming’s brother also thinks that in his offstage and offscreen life, his famous sibling may be re-creating a childhood he didn’t have. As evidence, you could point to the big trampoline that Cumming installed at the house. When guests ask about it, he’ll insist they try it. “‘It’s really great,’ I tell them. They say, ‘No, no, that’s not for me.’ People are so afraid of being judged. But as the weekend goes on, you look, and there they are, bouncing away. I love seeing that. It makes my heart swell.”

TIME World

Leon Panetta: How the White House Misplayed Iraqi Troop Talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta Visits Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the troops during a visit to Kandahar Airfield on Dec. 13, 2013 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013.

As U.S. forces return to Iraq to counter the surging al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense and CIA chief recalls the White House debates that led to America’s departure from the country. His new book, with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, from which this article is adapted, will be published on Oct. 7.

Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me—and many others—that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.

Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

We debated with al-Maliki even as we debated among ourselves, with time running out. The clock wound down in December, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter continued to argue our case, extending the deadline for the Iraqis to act, hoping that we might pull out a last-minute agreement and recognizing that once our forces left, it would be essentially impossible for them to turn around and return. To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

Over the following two and a half years, the situation in Iraq slowly deteriorated. Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country. Meanwhile, with the conflict in Syria raging, an al-Qaeda offshoot—ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria—gained strength. Using Syria as its base, it began to move into Iraq in 2014, grabbing power in towns and villages across Iraq’s north, including Mosul and Tall ‘Afar. These were strategically important cities that U.S. forces had fought and died to secure.

The news from Iraq bothered me to no end. In my view, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al-Qaeda’s next safe haven. That is exactly what it had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. After all we have done to decimate al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and its core, those efforts will be for naught if we allow it to rebuild a base of operations in the Middle East.

From Worthy Fights, by Leon Panetta and Jim Newton, to be published on October 7, 2014 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Leon Panetta.

Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1994, and President Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. He is the founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and has served as professor of public policy at his alma mater, Santa Clara University.

Jim Newton is an editor at large of the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for twenty-five years as a reporter, an editor, a bureau chief, and a columnist. He is the author of two critically acclaimed biographies, Justice for All and Eisenhower.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Music

Billy Idol: Sex, Drugs, ‘Charmed Life,’ and the Crash That Nearly Killed Me

Dancing With Myself
Dancing With Myself Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Billy Idol is a musician and the author of the forthcoming memoir Dancing With Myself.

They say if you hear the bang, you're still alive

By the morning of February 6, 1990, I’d been living on a fine edge for more than a decade, always courting disaster to experience the biggest high. I’d been living the deranged life. I felt so nihilistic, yet why hadn’t I just tuned in and dropped out? Instead, I followed Jim Morrison’s credo, the credo of Coleridge and, at one point, Wordsworth, the credo of self-discovery through self-destruction I so willfully subscribed to until this moment:

Live every day as if it’s your last, and one day you’re sure to be right.

On this fateful morning, I’m standing wide-awake at dawn in the living room of my house in Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Los Angeles basin that falls and stretches away toward the high-rising pillars of downtown. I haven’t slept, still buzzing from the night’s booze and illicit substances lingering in my bloodstream, staring at the view of the city beginning its early morning grumblings. Daylight unfolds and casts shadows within the elevation, as if God is slowly revealing his colors for the day from his paint box, the hues of brown and green of earth and foliage offset by the bleached white of the protruding rocks that hold my home in place on the hillside.

Standing at my window, I hear sirens blaring in the distance. Someone wasn’t so lucky, I think as I tune in to the rumble of cars ferrying tired and impatient commuters on the 101 freeway that winds through the Cahuenga Pass, the sound of a world slowly getting back in motion. The constant moan of the freeway echoes that of my tired and played-out soul.

Just the night before, after almost two years of work, we put the aptly titled album Charmed Life to bed. I’m feeling some pressure, home early from the de rigueur studio party. I say that as if we threw one party to celebrate the completion of the album, but the truth is that the party went on for two years. Two years of never-ending booze, broads, and bikes, plus a steady diet of pot, cocaine, ecstasy, smack, opium, quaaludes, and reds. I passed out in so many clubs and woke up in the hospital so many times; there were incidents of returning to consciousness to find I was lying on my back, looking at some uniformly drab, gray hospital ceiling, cursing myself and thinking that I was next in line to die outside an L.A. nightclub or on some cold stone floor, sur- rounded by strangers and paparazzi.

I’ve been taking GHB, a steroid, to help relieve symptoms of the fatigue that has been plaguing me and preventing me from working out and keeping my body in some semblance of good shape. If you take too much GHB, which I’m prone to do, it’s like putting yourself in a temporary coma for three hours; to observers, it appears as if you are gone from this world.

When we began recording in 1988, we promised each other we’d be cool and focused, and not wholly indulge in drugs and debauchery. But as weeks stretched into months, Fridays often finished early with “drop-time”—the moment we all took ecstasy. And then Friday soon became Thursday and so on, until all rules were taboo. We somehow managed to make music through the constant haze. It seemed like every few days I was recovering from yet another wild binge, and it took three days to feel “normal” again. The album proved to be slow going and the only way to feel any kind of relief from the pressure was to get blotto, avoid all human feelings, and reach back into the darkness once again. Somewhere in that darkness, I told myself, there was a secret of the universe or some hidden creative message to be found.

We’d invite girls to come to the studio to listen to the music. Mixing business with pleasure seemed the best way to see if the new songs worked. We’d be snorting lines of cocaine, and then the girls would start dancing. Before long, they’d end up having sex with one or more of us on the studio floor. Once the party was in full swing, we walked around naked but for our biker boots and scarves. Boots and Scarves became the running theme.

The girls loved it and got in on the act. It helped that we recruited them at the local strip bars; they felt comfortable naked. We had full-on orgies in those studios we inhabited for months. It was like a glorified sex club. We were all about instant gratification, lords of the fix.

Now that it’s all said and done, I feel exhausted and shattered. The keyed-up feeling that prevents me from sleeping is the result of the care and concern I put into making a record that will decide the course of my future. That’s the sort of pressure I put on myself every time. Then there’s the fact that the production costs have been astronomi- cal; the need to keep the bandwagon rolling has drained my spirit and sapped my will.

Months later, Charmed Life will go on to sell more than a million copies. The “Cradle of Love” single and video, directed by David Fincher, will both become massive hits. But I don’t know this when I retreat to my home alone at 2 a.m., intending to get some rest after wrapping recording. The breakup of my relationship with my girlfriend, Perri, the mother of my son, Willem, has left me bereft, but finishing the album has been my only priority. “If the thing is pressed . . . Lee will surrender,” Lincoln telegraphed Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865. And then: “Let the thing be pressed.” That’s a rock ’n’ roll attitude. The difficult has to be faced straight-on and the result forged out of sweat and tears. That’s where I take my inspiration. The wide-screen version of the last few years’ tumultuous events plays in my subconscious and cannot be ignored. What can I do to keep away these blues that rack my thoughts and creep into my bones? It’s a fine day, warming up, the sun burning off the morning smog. Still, I feel uneasy, dissatisfied in the pit of my stomach. With the album now finished, I’ll have to take stock of life and contemplate the emptiness without Perri and Willem.

The bike will blow away these post-album blues, I think. As I open the garage door, the chrome of my 1984 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide gleams with expectation, beckoning me.

The L.A. traffic is thick and the warmth of the sun is fresh on my face, its glow spreading over my bare head. California has yet to pass legislation making the wearing of helmets compulsory, and I’ve always liked the feel of the wind in my hair. My bike clears its throat with a deep, purring growl. The gleaming black tank and chrome fixtures flash in the sharp, sacrosanct daylight. I’ve opted for all denim to match the blue-sky high.

The Harley’s firm hold on the road this morning is comforting, and I begin to relax; its curves perfectly match the contours of the pavement below. I try to outrun the demons. The sweet, jasmine-honeyed air intoxicates my spinning mind. I rev the bike, which reacts easily to my commands as I sail breezily along the winding canyon road toward Sunset Boulevard. The lush greenery and trees lining the road refresh my thoughts, and my concentration wanders. My mind is filled with images of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia speeding through the English countryside, testing his bike, pushing it to the limit, when—

WHAM!!!

An almighty explosion interrupts my silent reverie. I feel my body violently tumbling through the air, floating into a pure void. I black out before landing.

I sense beings crowding around me. I hear voices, some very close and loud, others softer and farther away. The whirl of movement in this dark vortex tells me that other worlds exist; I can feel their magnetic pull. People have a gravity of presence, and I can feel their move- ment as I slowly regain my senses. I’m not sure if I’m alive or dead.

I’m transported to just above myself. There are no white tunnels or distant lights, rather a red dimension. Walking through the shadow world on the other side, I see the beings who grace the crimson night crowding around to greet me. They pour out their love. The strange dimension sends a beam of thought: You’re all right. We love you. Don’t worry, here is love. They press and push. The circle of people holds my soul in a warm embrace.

Now I slip into a warp of darkness, pulled from this loving dimen- sion. I hang in a slip of time between life and death; I slowly begin to regain consciousness. The screen behind my eyes has yet to come on. It’s as if God has not yet spoken those immortal words “Let there be light.”

**

I heard the crash. Bikers say that if you don’t hear that crash, you’re already dead. I open my eyes. Bright sunlight floods in. I’m staring at the curb, my forehead resting just an inch from the sidewalk’s edge. I’m lying in a bloody heap in the street, my Harley not too far away.

I’m positioned awkwardly on my left side, on top of my left arm. I free my arm, only to see something is very wrong. My wrist is f-cked up, leaving my fingers contorted, clawlike.

I lift up to look at the rest of my body and a terrific pain courses through my nerve endings. Any attempt at movement brings waves of agony that rack me to the core. Looking down, I see that my right boot is without a heel, smashed into the asphalt. I try to move my leg; nothing happens. I see a bloody, mangled stump sticking through my torn jeans. It looks as if my foot and my lower leg are separated from me, the denim lying flat on the pavement beneath my knee, a pool of blood quickly spreading from the soaked cloth. I lie there and wait for help.

The immortal biker slogan “There are those who have been down and there are those who are going down” reverberates through my brain as I watch a man walk across the street. Though he sees my condition, he asks, “Are you all right?” Ignoring the question, I blurt out, “I’ve got Blue Cross Blue Shield—take me to Cedars-Sinai,” before passing out.

I’m zapped back to reality with a sharp jolt as the EMTs move me from the street to the ambulance on a stretcher. They start to cut my clothes off, and I actually think to myself, Just as well I didn’t wear my favorite leather riding jacket.

The herky-jerky movements of the ambulance as it picks its way through traffic—slowing down then speeding up—combined with the blaring siren are strangely comforting. The actions of the two paramedics are cool, calm, and deliberate. I am in good hands. The speed with which they transfer me to the hospital gurney and take me to the emergency operating room reminds me of an experience I had in Thai land the year before, where I was escorted speedily out of the country by a platoon of the Thai Army, tranquilized and lashed to a military stretcher. By the time I reach the emergency room, the pain is so intense my thoughts are stopped cold as my injuries wreak havoc on my nervous system. I am probably screaming, but I am deaf to any sound.

The fact is, I have been deaf to many things. The road I’ve taken may have been the one less traveled, but definitely not in a good way. It was littered with disregarded warning signs. Despite spiritual reassurance by those friendly beings regarding my mortality, back in the real world, it’s payback time. It is not the first time nor the last that William Broad will be held to account and asked to pay a heavy price.

 

From DANCING WITH MYSELF, by Billy Idol. Copyright © 2014 by Billy Idol. Published Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

Billy Idol is a multi-platinum recording artist and Grammy nominee, and has written songs such as “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell,” and “Cradle of Love.” He lives in Los Angeles.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Media

Read a Stunningly Frank 1948 TIME Letter On Truman Capote and Sexuality

Truman Capote With His Dog
Truman Capote with his dog in 1950 Mondadori / Getty Images

The author was unafraid of being frank about his homosexuality, but it made TIME uncomfortable

When Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote died in 1984, TIME’s obituary remarked that he was famous “for his lyrical, funny and gothic” writing, and for being “as much a member of the glitterati as the literati.” When his posthumously published Answered Prayers came out in 1987, the magazine wrote that he had been “on his way to a spectacular best seller, an irresistible piece of malicious mischief.”

But this magazine wasn’t always so kind to Capote, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday this Sept. 30.

When Other Voices Other Rooms, the novel that made his name, was published in 1948, the review was skeptical of the publishing-world brouhaha that had surrounded its release, and somewhat harsh to its author. He was probably “safe from smothering in laurels,” wrote TIME’s critic, because the book was merely “a literary contrivance of unusual polish.” And the critic didn’t stop at that. The following letter, which shines a light on the magazine’s practices of the era, appeared in the Feb. 16, 1948, issue in response to that review:

Sir:

You seem to advocate tolerance for the customary things discriminated against: race, color, creed, religion, etc. However, I do not believe you have ever made a reference to homosexuality (a perfectly legitimate psychological condition) without going specially out of your way to make a vicious insinuation, caustic remark, or “dirty dig.”

Your review of Truman Capote‘s Other Voices Other Rooms (TIME, Jan. 26) concludes . . . : “For all his novel’s gifted invention and imagery, the distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.”

I have seen a great deal of Spanish moss in a lot of places . . . and I must confess that some of it is quite beautiful. . . .

R. E. BERG

San Francisco, Calif.

The editor’s response? “It gives TIME the creeps. — ED.”

The tone of that snarky retort, and of the review itself, has faded into history, as has that attitude toward homosexuality. TIME’s Letters section is now generally snark-free, the magazine’s review of a 1988 biography of Capote called Other Voices Other Rooms “well written and convincingly atmospheric, with no word out of place” — and recent TIME covers have featured prominent LGBTQ activists and issues.

Truman Capote is still noted as having been ahead of his time in his openness about his own sexuality. R.E. Berg, in his or her willingness to speak up for that openness, remains noteworthy too.

Read TIME’s original review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, in the archives: Bad Little Good Girl

TIME Books

The Politician America Really Needs: A Certain First Lady

Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson Bettmann/Corbis

Jonathan Darman is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

Forget the LBJ fantasies—if we could have Lady Bird back, things might be different

In this dismal hour of American politics, there is no better way to strike just the right note of sober-minded weariness than to speak, wistfully and longingly, about the wonders of Lyndon Baines Johnson. What we wouldn’t give for the impresario of arm-twisting—the president who, in the mid-1960s, forced greatness out of Washington that transformed people’s lives. The steward of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The man who delivered Medicare. If only we had LBJ around, who could force even our do-nothing politicians to do something.

The sad truth is that today’s politics are probably too hopelessly polarized to make good use of a legislative wunderkind. What we need are politicians who are unafraid to go to the most difficult places, to look painful realities in the face. And for that, we don’t need LBJ. We need his wife.

This might seem strange, sure. In pictures from the 1960s, Lady Bird often looks like the ultimate example of a smiling, silent good wife. Throughout her long career in Washington, she was always guided by a simple question: how to serve her husband best. To serve Lyndon, a wild-tempered man of expansive appetites and unending need, that often meant suffering indignities that were shocking even in a pre-feminist era. Jackie Kennedy, who watched Lady Bird write down every one of Lyndon’s thoughts and wishes, thought Lady Bird looked “like a trained hunting dog.”

LANDSLIDE -- book jacket

But Lady Bird’s dutiful subservience obscured her strength: a rare willingness to see the world as it really was. Despite his modern reputation as a pragmatist, LBJ often struggled to look at the future realistically, preferring to alternate between fantasies of great glory or doom and gloom. At key moments in the Johnson presidency, when Lyndon would give in to paranoia about the future, Lady Bird was a lone voice of reason.

During the historic campaign of 1964, as delegates to the Democratic National Convention gathered in the late-summer heat of Atlantic City, a woe-begotten Lyndon, worried about the demands of the office, took to his White House bedroom, saying he might refuse the nomination and let the presidency go. Lady Bird wouldn’t have it. In a letter to her husband she was kind but clear: “To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland in your future. Your friends would be frozen in embarrassed silence and your enemies jeering.” Lyndon got on a plane to the convention and accepted his party’s nomination as planned.

In the fall, even as landslide victory began to look like a sure thing, Lady Bird worried about the South, where white Democrats were enraged over the Administration’s handling of Civil Rights. Though southern politicians said they could not guarantee her safety, she set off for the confederacy in a train dubbed the “Lady Bird Special” to make the case for her husband.

And trouble came. In Charleston, she was greeted by angry protesters and a crude sign calling her “BLACK BIRD.” In Columbia, South Carolina, her words were temporarily drowned out by a booing mob. It was enough to shake a seasoned politician but Lady Bird simply held her white-gloved hand in the air. “This is a country of many viewpoints,” she said. “I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you.” And with that, her harassers hushed.

Just weeks before the election, the political world convulsed with the news that Walter Jenkins, the Johnsons’ closest aide, had been caught having sex with another man in the basement of a Washington YMCA. Lady Bird urged her husband to show public support and compassion for a man who had served their family for decades. When he refused, Lady Bird defied the advice of his counselors and released her own public statement: “My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in service to his country.”

In the course of the ‘64 campaign, Lady Bird displayed a deep realism about human nature that is far more rare in a First Lady than we might think. President Obama, like his predecessors, promotes his wife as a source of real-talk, the one person who is unimpressed by his office and still gives it to him straight. But a First Lady, like any spouse, often feels the criticisms of her husband more acutely than does the president himself. A bunker of denial and recrimination can be an enticing escape for both partners in a political marriage. Hillary Clinton provided many assets to her husband during their time in the White House, but relief from paranoia and self-pity was not among them.

Even Lady Bird’s powers had their limits. As the Johnson presidency wore on, Vietnam overwhelmed everything, including Lady Bird’s ability to cut through the illusions in her husband’s head. It is tantalizing to imagine an alternate history of the Johnson presidency in which the First Lady was empowered to help her husband in Vietnam the way she helped him in other areas.

And it is tempting to imagine what would happen if more leaders today had Lady Bird’s spirit, her willingness to go to the unkind places, to face the fury of hostile crowds. Imagine how things might be different if our leaders had faith that when you look at the hard things plainly, they often to turn out to be far less frightening than they seem. And then imagine what would happen when a truly gifted leader broke that silence and spoke.

Jonathan Darman, a former political correspondent for Newsweek, is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

 

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Anne Helen Petersen on How to Build (and Bury) a Hollywood Scandal

9780142180679_ScandalsofCl-CVF.indd

The author and expert on all things scandalous talks to TIME about her new book

Everyone loves a scandal — and no one did scandal better than old Hollywood. In her new book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance and Drama From the Golden Age of American Cinema (out Sept. 30), writer Anne Helen Petersen delves deep into the back stories of some of old Hollywood’s most famous stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Mae West.

Yet Petersen doesn’t just dish the dirt; as a “Doctor of Celebrity Gossip,” with a PhD in media studies, Petersen also provides insightful historical and cultural context to stories behind the gossip. TIME spoke with Petersen about the nature of a scandal, how gossip repeats itself and how Hollywood has changed.

TIME: What defined a scandal in old Hollywood?

Anne Helen Petersen: The thing about scandals that I always say is that no action is de facto scandalous. It only becomes scandalous when it trespasses or transgresses the lines of the status quo. So something in the late ‘40s — like when Ingrid Bergman had an affair with her director and then had a child out of wedlock, she was denounced as an instrument of evil on the Senate floor. If you did that today, [the reaction would be different].

Right. And a lot of actors and actresses had affairs, the public just never heard about. How much of that secrecy was a factor of the old Hollywood system, where stars had contracts with studios that were in turn invested in keeping their images clean?

The studio system functioned in symbiosis with the gossip apparatus — so the gossip magazines, the gossip columnists, the people who were in charge of mediating the information about the stars. It was never down on paper, but it was understood that [the gossip media] toed the studio line and in exchange for that they received a constant stream of information— maybe not true information, it was often times very fabricated information — about the stars.

Elizabeth Taylor Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In a lot of your writing you connect certain scandals that took place in old Hollywood with the scandals that take place today. In particular, I know you’ve compared coverage of the Elizabeth Taylor/Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds love triangle with the ongoing Jennifer Aniston and Brangelina tabloid saga. I’m wondering if scandals in Hollywood have actually changed at all since the golden era?

I think certain tropes of what we expect of a woman or of a man or of a relationship have shifted over the last 100 years, but we’re still very much engaged in policing those [expectations] as a society. So the reason it’s so easy to relate scandals that are happening now to scandals that have happened historically is that it’s the same sort of policing taking place. So while the specifics of the scandal may change, the actual ways that society and media treats it has not.

Were there any differences in the types of scandals that actors versus actresses faced?

In the book, some scandals aren’t scandals at all. With the story of the affair between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard or the relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, it’s a story of how something didn’t become scandalous. Because if you were a white straight male, you could handle a scandal. Unless you were a white straight overweight male like Fatty Arbuckle.

Fatty Arbuckle Library of Congress

But the real tragedies of the book are all women. Today [it's not quite so bad]. When Kristen Stewart was caught cheating with a director, it was a scandal, but [not in the same way it was for] Ingrid Bergman, where it ruined her career.

What effect has the rise of entertainment media had on Hollywood?

Even in classic Hollywood there were always people who wanted to know the dirt and tried really hard to get it. But what happened with the demise of classic Hollywood — and you see this in my book in the last section about Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando and James Dean — is that there were these stars who weren’t on studio contracts and that allowed for all sorts of scandalous material to come out about them.

Marlon Brando Library of Congress

As I see it, there are the two modes of reporting on celebrities: you have the people who want to serve up stories that affirm that celebrities are exactly who we think they are. And then there is the mode that kind of tears down the celebrity. There are just more outlets on either side, whether they are bolstering or tearing down stars. So it makes it harder to have a really coherent image of a particular celebrity. I think that’s the reason that people really seem to like Jennifer Lawrence, because she’s just so on message.

‘On message’ is an interesting concept. Do celebrities have more control over their own image today because of things like social media or a more savvy awareness of branding?

Well, we think we have more access to the stars with social media, like there’s this real semblance of authenticity and that we somehow have a direct conduit to everything that a star is doing. But actually I think that it’s a way that they can control their brand message even tighter.

The way I think of the history of Hollywood is this cycle of control and rupture, control and rupture. So in old Hollywood everything is locked down, as with the studio system. And then there’s the rupture of the 1950s, [where actors were beginning to work without long-term contracts]. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, everything was very controlled and locked down again by these incredible publicists. Then, with the rise of digital technology, you have TMZ and gossip bloggers like Perez. The crazy gossip period of 2005 to 2008 is again this time where people are trying to reconfigure [celebrity]. Now, a star thinks, People can take a picture of me anywhere and I can connect with my fans directly through Twitter. How do we [make this work for] our message?

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is based on your popular column over at The Hairpin. What can your regular readers expect from the book?

It’s based on the same concept as the column but it’s all new content. My goal for the book — and really for all of the writing I do now — is to do this hybrid, where I take the ideas that I know from academia and then write them in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience.

Dorothy Dandridge Library of Congress

What’s next for you?

I think that my next book will take contemporary icons — people like Jennifer Lawrence or Kanye West or Beyonce — and look at their antecedents from, say, 20 years before. So I’ll look at Princess Diana in the 1980s and then I’ll look at Kate Middleton. Then there will be the tortured genius, so I’ll look at Michael Jackson and Kanye West. It will still use the historical context, but it won’t go as far back in history.

TIME Books

Saeed Jones: “No One Is Safe” In These Poems

Layout 1
Coffee House Press

A conversation with Jones about his debut collection, Prelude to Bruise, and whether poetry can ever go viral

When he’s not editing BuzzFeed’s LGBT vertical by day, Saeed Jones is also a poet. His debut collection, Prelude to Bruise, hit shelves earlier this month, and though listing its topics hardly does the critically acclaimed book justice — you’ll have to see the words arranged on the page yourself — the way these poems address violence, life in the south, race, sexuality and relationships makes for an engrossing read best consumed in as few sittings as possible.

TIME met up with Jones last week to talk about his work.

TIME: You live in New York now, but many of these poems are several years old and were written in the South, where you’re from originally — as well as during other travels. Is this book closing the chapter on that time in your life, or going back in to investigate it?

Saeed Jones: Yeah, it is [closing a chapter]. There’s a line in the very last poem in the book where I say, “I’m in the woods again.” That’s often how I felt working on the book. I would think I was finished, and then another door would open, and I’d be like, crap! I’m still here! When am I going to be done with this? It feels very good to have the book finished and out there.

Anything you write is filtered through your life, so even though I may not say in the poems, “I too am on a journey as a writer!” I like that that comes through and really shaped the physical shape of the poems — they start to look different as you move. It’s important that the speakers have revelations and a sense of age. By the end, the speakers certainly sound older, the dynamics of the relationships feel differently.

Talking about the book does bring things back, and you find yourself realizing things about yourself and the poems I maybe wasn’t really thinking about at the time. I realized I was trying to answer some questions. One of the questions was, how are we using other people and their bodies to understand who we are? And that’s in terms of sex, that’s in terms of relationships, that’s in terms of sexual orientation. It’s experimenting, right? Certainly your first few relationships, you’re kind of figuring this out, and that requires having another person to work with. That’s actually kind of weird! For me, one way that I know I’m clearly in a different point in my life is that I’m not in any way interested in experimenting with identity in the way that I was when I was in my teens and early 20s.

Yeah, I was going to ask about the powerful body imagery you have here — that seems like such a focus of the book.

Aside from mythologizing coming of age, the book is also about black men’s bodies. I was thinking a lot about the way black men are written about and described, how we become hooded figures and this very particular assumption of masculinity. Where does that leave queer black guys? Who are often just as nervous and human as anyone else? I’m not trying to steal anyone’s purse! I’m maybe looking over my own shoulder. Everyone’s in peril in these poems — no one is safe. No one is going to save you in these poems. Being deeply aware of your mortality, that there are bones and blood and how easily we can bleed and be cut, that is something I’m always thinking about. Hopefully it’s a way to remind us of the value of life, even if it’s someone who’s very, very different from you. I hope you don’t have to be a black gay guy from the South to understand the journey these speakers are on in the course of the book.

Also, Americans love sex, obviously. But we’re still very Victorian about sex, and that’s something that’s always irritated me. So why not just start there? Start in the bedroom! And it’s fun to write about. I remember reading a poem once where someone was writing about spreading jam on toast, and I was like, “I couldn’t write that!”

A lot of these poems deal with trying to move on from your past while still acknowledging the ways your past has shaped you.

Over the course of the book, everyone’s remembering, and kind of under siege by, their past and not doing the best job of moving on. Certainly as an LGBT news editor, I see that when I’m reading stories: LGBT people who have survived but maybe have not had the opportunity — because it is a certain kind of privilege — to process. And if you don’t process, I do think there’s a reliving, recreating circumstances.

Roxane Gay actually said this yesterday [at a BuzzFeed event]: it’s always helpful when you’re thinking about whatever your history is, whatever is true, one fact is certain — you’re not still there. I think that’s very helpful. As I was working through the book and reflecting, I started thinking about, well, okay, this character is struggling, I’m struggling, but we’re also alongside other people who are struggling. You in the present moment are surrounded by people who are also on a journey. That’s the question in the poem “Body & Kentucky Bourbon.” He’s been in this relationship with this man, and it’s ended, and only after it’s ended is he able to think about, wait, this guy had a past too that he was grappling with. I’m sure he would have liked to have been able to figure that out before.

As someone who’s very new to poetry, I’m still getting used to the ambiguity of it — what’s happening, who is speaking, is this real life? Is that as liberating for you as it is unsettling to a first-timer?

It’s amusing! I can see it sometimes when I’m talking to people. I can often see the flash of trying to understand. I do think it’s part of American book culture. We’re used to fiction and nonfiction, and we’re obsessing over a memoirist fictionalizing and a novelist drawing from biography. Poetry is, “We don’t know what to do with it!”

Often when people see an “I” in poetry, there’s an inclination to assume its autobiographical. Once I remember someone asking me what it’s like to be writing and dealing with being a survivor of child abuse, and I was like, “Oh! I am not a survivor of child abuse.” There are certainly shards of my life in the book. But it’s usually details. It’s usually setting. Like, I did have sex with a boyfriend in the woods, but it was at a party! We weren’t running away from home. My house obviously isn’t on fire. I’m sure there are some readers out there who are very worried about me.

Is there more of a risk in the poetry world of becoming “a black queer poet” versus a poet who happens to be black and queer and write about those things?

I’ve been to readings where I’ve been packaged as a Southern writer, and at other readings, it’s black writer, queer writer. It’s always being arranged. Typically it’s for the audience — it has nothing to do with me. I think about the 18-year-old gay kid that I once was in Texas. If I found out there was a reading and there was a gay poet and saw that in a bio, I would go! As long as my work is out there and able to get into peoples’ hands, and as long as the questions are thoughtful and in good faith, I’m fine.

Not that writing a book of poetry and writing for the Internet strike me as particularly at odds with each other, but has working for the social web changed anything about how you work and write?

It’s a good question, and it’s something I think about. I’ve been working on a memoir since I started at BuzzFeed, so I haven’t been writing a lot of poems. But it has to have an impact on my writing process. Because I’m online all day and am reading all day, it reminds me that readers, wonderfully, have so many options. Maybe that’s why it is an intense book and all the poems have their fingers curled. I don’t feel like wasting someone’s time with poems about the weather. There’s a sense of urgency that I’ve gotten from engaging in the social web. Looking at your TweetDeck, there’s so many things shouting urgency at you. What does that mean for literary writers? We have to be very honest with ourselves. Why am I writing this? Am I writing this because I want to write a poem? am I writing this because I want to publish a book? Only you know the answer to that question.

Do you hear from a lot of first-time poetry readers who try out the book because they know your other work?

Yeah. I think for any poet, certainly in America, that is a constant, and it is a wonderful compliment. Often the way we’re taught poetry when we’re educated here is we’re reading great poetry written centuries ago, if not decades ago. Shakespearean sonnets become all of poetry, though there is wonderful poetry being written all the time that’s narrative or whatever would make people feel more comfortable. This book, it does push you to read it in one sitting, because you’re like, what’s going to happen to this seemingly disaster-prone young man? His father is hunting him with a rifle! I want to turn the page and see what happened.

Binge-watching poetry! Though I guess that’s basically just reading a book.

Totally! That’s how I stumbled into what the book became. I was writing a lot of poems in the southern landscape, and it was three years before the Boy [a character in many of the poems] even appeared. I got curious about him. It started with the poems about the mother’s dresses, and I was like, why would he be so interested in his mother’s dresses? That process reads like a bit of a novel.

Does poetry have a capacity to go viral? You mentioned something just now about discovering all the poetry out there that could be up your alley, and I remember having that realization when I first came across Patricia Lockwood’s work. Her “Rape Joke” poem obviously hit a nerve on the Internet.

Patricia Lockwood certainly figured it out very successfully. I’m pretty stubborn with poetry. I like writing in so many different forms — if it’s an essay, I’m going to write an essay! I don’t know if one of my poems would ever be able to go viral, honestly. But there’s huge potential. If people can memorize entire sections of The Iliad, why not?

Part of the reason Patricia Lockwood’s poem worked so well was because it was so in line with the engine of the conversation we’re already having. It works as a beautifully written and structured poem as well as an essay. Prose poems in particular, that are straddling that, I think, are totally possible. Poetry emphasizes language, and obviously on the social web, outrage-driven stories, whether it’s something the police chief in Ferguson said, or Alessandra Stanley’s “Angry Black Woman” [article about Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times], so often the things that are driving these conversations online are about language. Poetry distills the focus and forces you to look at blue-black, boy, burning. You’re looking at words that can illuminate the way we look at everything else, because in general we have a more casual relationship with words.

So I would love to see more poems go viral. But in order for that to happen, it has to be in step with that conversation — and genuine! Oh my gosh, if people still writing poems with the intention of going viral? God help us.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser