Next Door Café: A Poet's Musings


Carmine Starnino reflects on how the Next Door Café, a bar in Parc Extension, QC, influenced an eponymous poem about "unprogress, inertia, the failure to learn from mistakes." You can read "Next Door Café: The Poem" here.

Next Door Café is an actual bar in Parc Extension, a formerly Greek north-end Montreal neighbourhood. Home to many of the city’s poorest, “Parc Ex” was a crime-ridden no-go zone until the late eighties. But over the last decade, its streets have been bustling with new immigrants (Sri Lankans, Sikhs, Pakistanis) and young renters (students, hipster couples, young families) pushed northward by skyrocketing rents in über-gentrified Mile End.

My wife and I were part of this Plateau exodus, and moved into the area in 23. Soon after, Jennifer began bartending part-time at Next Door Café, a testosterone-rich drinking hole where old and new—lifelong Parc-Exers and Mile-End expats—rubbed shoulders.

Next Door Café was a carpe noctem kind of place. I don’t mean it came alive after dark, but that nighttime was when the regulars drifted in. It was an astonishing pileup of undesirables: near-derelicts, loners, bullshit artists, showboaters, blue-collar professionals and whack jobs. Their stories—as relayed to me by Jennifer, in the early morning after one of her shifts as we walked back home—were stock tall tales, the kind that tee up a confrontation with cop, or wife or boss, and feature the killer comeback.

They were the kind of stories told by men who long ago were forced to settle for who they were but came to the bar to fictionalize better stats (humiliations endured: zero). These were men who wanted to establish a rep for no retreat, who wanted to be on record for owning a gumption always ready to move up a gear. Though you also knew they were men who woke up to the knock knock of unregarded hours, and lay there—dry-mouthed, perspiring—seized by an up-late, can’t sleep, who's there, name-writ-on-water kind of feeling.

I hope the poem captures some of their shtick and sadness. Mixed into my effort were also memories of my own barfly days. Younger, my friends and I loved nothing better than to hole up in some off-trail establishment. Far from being antidotes to loneliness, or houses of company and community, bars seemed to us the saddest places on earth.

Of course, we had absolutely no business being there. We were well-fed, mother-pampered Italian boys, with good homes and large families. We didn’t have a clue what it meant to be down on your luck. Those bars gave us a crash course. Unsurprisingly, we became obsessed by their rough-patch mood, the heartbreak hanging in the air, the sense that life was now too late for wish-fulfillments or third-act redemptions. The experience—surrounded by heads bent over drink or tilted up in quiet talk—was a lot like sitting in a Sunday pew.

The solitude enforced by the sum of all those second thoughts heightened my senses to everything around me: the low light, the TV screen, the sounds of ice clinking, the glasses being placed beside me on the plank of polished wood (it was, on reflection, the beginnings of the prepoem creative “zone” poets enter when excited by events). Unlike church, however, the ritualism was devoted to the breakdown of the body and destruction of the spirit. How apt that, in some US states, pub owners once doubled as undertakers.

“Next Door Café” sprung from those dead bodies, men idling in a borderland existence between one condition and the next. It led directly to the poem’s style: compressed, noun-heavy, with cautious, slightly energy-sapped enjambments. What rescues the languidness of those lines, in my opinion, is the way the language stands and looks.

The descriptions seem to me to have a compound-eyed quality: they try to see around and behind the various male codes on display. And while the poem is ultimately about unprogress, inertia, the failure to learn from mistakes (“where bad decisions were lived /counter-clockwise, and endlessly refitted to finish up flush”), the poem also appears to be tracking an insight. By degrees, and through repeated sounds and words, the speaker is figuring something out. We see that in the gallery of alternative selves being tried on for fit. It’s poetry as method-acting: the speaker’s inner life condensed and generalized into sundry portraits of guyhood. The poem could be read as a kind of a mini-Bildungsroman that tries to square up the many sides of the speaker’s personality. The voice, as some have told me, is difficult to situate, which I guess underscores the most difficult trick of all: to pose as yourself.

As for the poet, here’s what he figured out: a poem will often bear witness to predicaments for which it can offer no consolation. That realization only surfaced when I wrote the last line and could go no further—though I doubt it’s the sort of “click shut” ending Yeats had in mind.

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Carmine Starnino has published five collections of poetry and has received numerous awards, including the CAA Prize for Poetry, the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the F.G. Bressani Prize. He lives in Montréal.


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