When Lloyd Blankfein said Goldman Sachs was doing “God’s work,” Calvin Trillin was inspired to write a poem, including the lines: “The Lord has got this itch/To see the Goldman Sachs folks filthy rich.”
Trillin is a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker and also the Nation’s deadline poet. His best-selling books include “About Alice.”
For “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff,” he picked out his favorite pieces.
We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: You have a unique theory about what caused the global financial meltdown.
Trillin: An old Ivy League guy in a bar near Grand Central explained that the meltdown was about smart people going to Wall Street. In his day the lower third of the class went into finance.
They were pleasant guys. They were well-dressed. They weren’t even terribly greedy by today’s standards -- they wanted a house in Greenwich with a big sail boat.
But then, because of all of the money being made, the smart kids, like 30 or 40 percent of the Harvard class, went either to business school or directly to Wall Street. They’re the ones who caused the trouble.
Trillin: Our guys couldn’t have made up credit default swaps. They couldn’t have done the math. They had no idea.
All they knew, and they were the heads of the firms by this time, was that because of something they had no understanding of, they were getting filthy rich.
Lundborg: What are you working on now?
Trillin: An epic poem on the campaign. I did “Deciding the Next Decider” in 2008. The one for 2012 is called “Dog Fight.”
I don’t write what my family calls “grown-up poetry.”
Lundborg: How did you come to revive that great 18th century tradition of satirical political verse?
Trillin: I owe it all to John Sununu -- the former chief of staff for the first Bush administration. Everybody looked alike and there were these nice Protestant gentlemen in suits who’d all gone to Yale or Princeton.
The only one who stood out was John Sununu, who seemed mostly interested in showing he was the smartest guy in the room.
I loved his name and then I thought of a title for a poem: “If You Knew What Sununu.”
Lundborg: You compared Mitt Romney to a Ken doll: “So quick to shed his moderate regalia,/He may, like Ken, be lacking genitalia.” Is it the rhyme that’s important?
Trillin: My political feelings are strong, but people with bad meter or bad rhyme names just shouldn’t go into politics.
Clinton was for me the orange of American presidents.
Lundborg: Is it harder or easier to be funny now?
Trillin: It was easy during the Republican primary. Who knew Perry was going to do those things? When Trump showed up in the lead, we were sure it was going to be a clown show.
All the talk about Obama’s birth and being a Muslim is just race stuff coming out of the cracks. The whole attempt is to make him seem “other,” not really American.
Lundborg: You’ve written a lot about food. What do you make of all the changes in the dining scene?
Trillin: One was a shakeup of society in the early 1970s that brought a lot of educated, middle-class kids into the field. When I was in college, you couldn’t have asked a trust lawyer “How’s Frank, your son?” and have him say “He’s great. He’s a chef.”
Lundborg: What was the other big change?
We were letting in more English people that wanted to come and keeping out all Chinese people. In culinary terms that’s suicidal.
Lundborg: It’s like the bland food at fancy clubs.
Trillin: The tastiness of the food is in inverse proportion to the exclusivity of a club because they associate garlic and spices and schmaltz with just the sort of people they’re trying to keep out.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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