Monthly Archives: March 2019

20 posts

Yes, You Can Judge a Town by Its Public Library

library

Most people judge a town by its school system. I judge it by its library.

How big is it? How versatile is its stock of books? How convenient are its hours, seven days a week?

Some towns I visit have beautiful fields for baseball, football, soccer. Some even have hockey arenas and sprawling golf courses. Lots of green that costs lots of green, but me, I like to see the green buying books, providing computers, hosting community events and readings. All at the town library.

A great library sends a signal: We care about the intellectual and artistic health of our citizens. Sports are great and have their place, but we open many, many doors to far away lands and new frontiers. We are the antidote to fake cries of fake news. We are, in fact, the enemy of fascism and anti-intellectualism.

Granted, no matter how vast and lovely, no library can cater to every taste. Thus, the inter-library loan system. Yes, I buy books and try to support writer royalties, but I’d quickly go under financially if I purchased every book I wanted to read.

Enter inter-library loan. Almost 90% of the books I seek can be found via this system. Place a hold, wait, and soon enough, the book arrives in port. Your home library.

Downsides? Not many. Some books get written in, and depending on the scribe, that can be an annoyance (though I have, on occasion, become as fascinated by the annotator as I have by the author).

Other books are marred with food and drink stains. What on earth causes people to eat chocolate, sticky buns, or cake and frosting while reading a book? Sugary fingerprints are not cool. Nor are dog-ears, the ghost of bookmarks past.

But these are minor inconveniences. Overall, there is no greater institution than a public library. It is deserving not only of your patronage, but your charity. Give a donation each year. Give everyone free access to the wonders of fiction, essays, plays, poetry, and every Dewey Decimal-ed piece of nonfiction out there. Doing so makes you a soldier of democracy, knowledge, light. There is no better way to fight the dark forces around us.

It’s a dangerous world, after all. Always has been and always will be. And the Fifth Rider of the Apocalypse? It’s Ignorance. Public libraries are the best ways to combat it—the swords to smote it down. An informed public is the enemy of authoritarian weeds, wherever they may sprout.

Patronize and support your town’s library, and if it’s suffering from want and neglect and lack of taxpayer dollars, create a committee to turn that intolerable situation around.

Sooner rather than too-later.

My Kingdom for an Audience!

audience

In this age and day, it is good to read a poem that starts with the line “How kind people are!” Not just read it, but with-an-exclamation-point read it, as if the idea needs to shout in these times where boorishness, shamelessness, and lies are king.

Connie Wanek’s poem, “Audience,” brings to mind poetry readings, where folks are, as a rule, kind. And rare. And often few and far between–but, by definition, still an “audience.”

The denotation is deliciously limber. My wife is an audience, for instance, when I unpack my troubles on her to divide them in half. It is a key part of a spouse’s job: relief through division.

My dog can serve as audience, too, tilting his head like Nipper, the old RCA Victor dog, as I go on and on, Mark Twain-like, about the damned human race (hint: no one’s in the lead).

But let’s return to Connie’s audience, shall we?

 

Audience
by Connie Wanek

How kind people are!
How few in the crowd truly hope
the tightrope will break.

Rare’s the man who’ll shoot the Pope
or throw his shoe at a liar,
though joining in—that’s natural.

An audience of St. Paul’s sparrows
is easily bored, easily frightened.
One blasphemy and off they fly.

Even a polite dog will snore
through reprimands,
though he’ll rouse to follow

the refreshments with a calculating eye.
But people, especially Minnesotans,
pull their sleeves over their watches

and want to find a way to like you.
If they can sit through winter’s sermons,
they can sit through you.

 

Sometimes poetry can send you in peculiar directions of your own making. It may be that the poet would be alarmed to hear it. Or it may be that she’d cry, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!”

Stanza one, for instance, reminds me of hockey games where fans wait out the game in hopes of a fistfight on ice. Or Nascar races where folks anticipate an exciting car crash. Stanza two, with the thrown shoe, brings images of President G. W. Bush–a.k.a. “another kettle of fish”–dodging a shoe some foreign journalist tossed at him during a press conference. Give him this. Bush had the moves if not the credentials.

Stanzas three and four bring more docile behavior to the fore. In five, the calculating eye of the dog eying refreshments cheers you. We love consistency and predictable behavior, after all, in our best friends.

I can’t speak to Minnesotans, having met none in my life. That they check their watches while finding “a way to like you” speaks highly of them, though. Trained by sermons, the joke goes. And sometimes a little humor is just the right touch when it comes to the tricky part of a poem (i.e. the ending). The days of saying, “And the audience lived happily ever after” are over, after all.

Applause, please.

A Dog, Samsara, and the Sea

seadog

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. A good mantra for samsara, seems. But the Buddhist view of samsara is negative—i.e. an endless cycle of pain, sickness, and death—while the Western view skews positive. You know. Reincarnation as better-than-nothing form of immortality. Too bad you can’t remember your former lives. Unless you’re Shirley MacLaine, that is.

Today’s poem is one part samsara and one part shaggy dog. Dogs, you see, are a form of immortality too. When life hits you with trauma and misery, invest in a puppy. Voilà, as they say in Versaille. Your worries dissolve in the day-to-day delights of puppy tail and puppy tongue.

A dog, after all, lives in the moment. It has little use for past or future. In that sense, it is not only man’s best friend, but his bodhisattva, a being that long ago reached enlightenment but is there for you anyway.

So the next time you read some rule that says, “Thou shalt not write a poem about dogs,” you can either roll your eyes and ignore it OR do as David Salner does and double down: dog plus Eastern philosophy.

 

A Dog by the Sea
by David Salner

Just after dawn, we get up,
without coffee, and let the dog lead us
through a grove of wind-stunted trees,
spiked succulents, red-berried holly,
and over the dune ridge out of the gray
of still sleeping minds. A line of pink
from the not yet risen sun
reminds me of the lilac shadows
caught in the radial grooves of shells.
I take up your hand and feel the blood
warming your fingers, as the dog bounds off
dragging her leash through wet sand.
She’s after gulls and a line of waves
that repeat themselves, she seems to think,
because they want to play.
A morning breeze
stirs the now turning tide, breathing over it,
sighing toward bayside. As the waves come in
whorls of light unfold on the sand. How I want
for us to repeat ourselves, on and on,
you holding the leash of a silly dog, me
feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.

 

In addition to imagery related to the sea, note how the waves repeat themselves, the tide turns eternal, and the narrator confesses “How I want / for us to repeat ourselves, on and on.”

If you inhale deeply while reading, you’ll catch whiffs of both salt and Buddhism, meaning we have a dog poem, yes. But an oh-so-human-in-its-wistfulness one, too.

Random Thoughts for March (i.e. Madness!)

march

Every once in a while, I write a Random Thoughts post (copyright, patent pending). As advertised, it is random. The equivalent of blathering, often with the intent of being humorous. Think funny raft floating on a stream of serious, then don’t take it too seriously. Streams of Consciousness are on the protected conservation lands list, after all.

Or were, before some powers-that-unfortunately-be started “unprotecting” everything in the name of plutocracy, autocracy, oligarchy, et al. You know, as Lincoln never put it: “Government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations….”

  • Here in the Estados-Disunitos, we have this thing called “March Madness,” denoting a time of year when a billionaire organization (read: The National Collegiate Athletic Association) reaps fistfuls of advertising dollars while “student-athletes” play for no pay.
  • It’s called “Madness” because every American worker, student, and self-anointed “expert” jumps into a pool (despite the chilly time of year, the water’s fine!) and speaks mysteriously (e.g. “Hey, Bud. All three of my upset picks won last night,” and “Oh, man, is my West bracket busted, or what?”).
  • Nothing galls the office pool dudes more than some “mere woman” winning everything because she picked teams by color, mascot, or dartboard. Thus, the beauty of it all.
  • What? The Mueller Report is out this weekend? I lied. March Madness means the same as every other month’s madness we’ve been experiencing since January 2017 when the White House turned into the House of Orange.
  • Given the increasing time it takes to hear back from poetry markets, I’d say, as is true with the casino industry in the northeast, that the market is saturated.
  • Quick-response poetry journals, when they reject you within a week, are the poetry-journal equivalent of euthanasia. A bittersweet form of mercy, that!
  • Speaking of bittersweet, it’s always odd to enjoy a personal note from an editor (vs. a boilerplate rejection). You know the one I mean: “We particularly enjoyed your poem ‘Dover Beach’ but decided the tide wasn’t quite right for us just now. Please consult your tide charts and try us again six months from now.”
  • Such notes are found in the dictionary under paradox (n.) — “a compliment that isn’t; an endorsement that confirms and denies; a pair of mallards.”
  • Goodreads continues to skew bad. Since Amazon dot glom took over, they’ve slowly been trending more and more toward being an advertisement site, one where members get “used” for free (kind of like basketball stars in the NCAA!).
  • Exhibit A: Huge ads framing 40% of the screen when you click on a book title to learn more about that book (hint: the ad is for a completely different book). The moral of the story? Pay no attention to those blinking GIFs and videos no longer behind the curtain!
  • Exhibit B: the second entry on your activity feed, which is now an ad pretending to be an actual activity feed, saying something like (Goodreads Friend Z loves “Book Title Whose Publisher Has Paid for This Ad”).
  • Of course, Goodreads Friend Z has no clue that her innocent “like” of a book has been appropriated by the Amazons-That-Be for free advertising. It’s all in the fine print written by lawyers (a.k.a. “Terms and Conditions”).
  • Speaking of Goodreads “likes” and other fluff clicks, can you imagine if the “Wants to Read” button was a “one-click” purchase of said book? All of you writers under small, independent presses would be feeling the love (vs. the cruel tease) right now! Right in the royalties!
  • What if there were brackets for the Top 68 poets? Who would make your Sweet Sixteen? Your Elite Eight? Your Final Four?
  • Would it change, year to year?
  • I hope so. But then, I hope a lot of things. Kind of like Pandora, just before she shut the box as someone quipped, “Too late, sister. But good luck to you.”

Jack Kerouac & Gary Snyder: Two Haiku Buddies

jack

Last night I started reading my first Kerouac. Oh, I had tried On the Road many decades back, but I soon lost interest and got off the road. You know. Rest stop for 30 years or so.

The book I picked up last night was The Dharma Bums. I figured my interest in Buddhism would sustain me. That and the fact that the protagonist’s buddy, Japhy, was based on the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder.

After reading the introduction I learned that Kerouac, a good Catholic boy from Lowell, MA, dabbled in Buddhism himself. Thus, the book. The introduction made it clear that both Kerouac and Snyder thought highly of haiku. That’s right. The much-maligned (these days) poetic form taken over and held ransom by so many classroom teachers and their students.

First, here’s a haiku by Gary Snyder, called “A Dent in a Bucket”:

Hammering a dent out of a bucket
      a woodpecker
               answers from the woods

And here are three haiku written by Jack:

The bottoms of my shoes 
     are clean 
From walking in the rain

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

Useless! Useless! 
—heavy rain driving
into the sea

Kind of fun, that. The guy known for spontaneous writing (and it shows) in his novels playing within the most restricted, most succinct parameters on the poetry chessboard.

Hey, at least I’m expanding my horizons. Previous to this, the most exposure I had to Jack Kerouac was listening to Natalie Merchant’s gravelly voice in 10,000 Maniacs rendition of the song, “Hey, Jack Kerouac.”

Sing it, Natalie. You, too, Jack. In three lines only, like a good Buddhist boy from Lowell, MA….

The Endless Reservoir of Self-Doubt

airport

When it comes to inspiration, we think of the usual suspects: love, nature, emotions both positive and negative. What we seldom think of, but have ample reserves of, is self-doubt.

Unless we are megalomaniacs who think we’re the greatest, we tend to question ourselves frequently. We are our own greatest critics. Why? Because we know ourselves better than any outsider, warts and all. This is why we often love mates who are opposites of ourselves. This is why we loathe people who are mirror images of ourselves (despite not realizing it).

Watch how Jeffrey Harrison mines the endless reservoir of self-doubt in his poem, “The Day you Looked Upon Me as a Stranger.” His self-doubt flourishes in the Petri dish we call marriage. You know, the old flower petal trick: “She loves me, she loves me not.” Read what I mean:

 

The Day You Looked Upon Me as a Stranger
by Jeffrey Harrison

I had left you at the gate to buy a newspaper
and on my way back stopped at a bank of monitors
to check the status of our flight to London.

That was when you noticed a middle-aged man
in a brown jacket and the green short-brimmed cap
I’d bought for the trip. It wasn’t until I turned

and walked toward you that you saw him as me.
What a nice-looking man, you told me you’d thought—
maybe European, with that unusual cap …

somebody, you said, you might want to meet.
We both laughed. And it aroused my vanity
that you had been attracted to me afresh,

with no baggage. A kind of affirmation.
But doubt seeped into that crevice of time
when you had looked upon me as a stranger,

and I wondered if you’d pictured him
as someone more intriguing than I could be
after decades of marriage, all my foibles known.

Did you have one of those under-the-radar daydreams
of meeting him, hitting it off, and getting
on a plane together? In those few moments,

did you imagine a whole life with him?
And were you disappointed, or glad, to find
it was only the life you already had?

 

What rings truest in this poem is the way the narrator first experiences a bout of vanity when his wife confesses to not recognizing him briefly. But then he thinks too much, and nothing encourages self-doubt more than thinking too much.

Thinking is bad, then, you ask? Yes and no. It can lead to self-doubt, which is bad, but it also can lead to writing inspiration, which is good. What is poetry, after all, if not thinking too much? Looking at something from every angle? Trying to suss it out from angles no one has before you.

Think about that next time you’re driving yourself crazy with doubt. Instead of getting worked up about it, take pen to paper and think it through. Inspiration hides in the strangest places, for one thing. And readers will relate, for another.

Funny, that.

Thanks, I Needed That!

penn

Once upon a time on a television far, far away, there was a strange series of commercials for Mennen Skin Bracer that featured the catchy byline “Thanks, I needed that!”

Those words quickly entered the lexicon of everyday America, with people, for various reasons, offering sincere or tongue-in-cheek gratitude under the precedence of Mennen’s advertising wisdom.

For those who submit poetry online, the “Thanks, I Needed That!” mentality looms large. Using Submittable as a tracking device, we launch dozens of our poetic progenies into the endless vacuum of hyperspace, then retire to the waiting room from Hell where we wait. And wait. And wait.

Honest, the wait-time has reached epic proportions. Months peel off the calendar. Soon responses have taken longer than it takes for a baby to enter the world. Soon you’re knocking on a year’s time with no news.

The journals are that backed up. Too many submissions. Too few readers.

Given that, imagine a market that prides itself on rapid response, even to the point of flaunting it on their “About” pages. University journals, with their deep benches (as they say in basketball) of student-readers, are especially suited to quick turnarounds.

As Exhibit A, I offer you The Penn Review’s “About” page. Note the words “Currently ranked as one of the 25 Fastest Fiction & Poetry Markets in Duotrope’s database, we strive to respond to all submissions within a week, and are currently averaging a 2-3 day response time.”

You read correctly: A response to your blindly-read poems in three days is unheard of (at least until you tune your ears to the University of Pennsylvania). The frustrated poet, whose line-up of submissions on Submittable currently resembles a 300-year-old redwood tree, can’t help but give it a go, even if it leads to a “no.”

That’s right. Go ahead, UPenn. Reject me! But do it quickly, please, like removing a Band-Aid. Fast. Ouchless.

Show me someone’s out there, in other words. Someone actually reading my work. And then, if you deny my five poems your editorial love, at least let me move on and try them elsewhere (or let me back them into a poetry port for some additional body work).

I promise to speak highly of you, even if you reject me. I’ll do it in the name of expeditiousness. I’ll sing your praises. I won’t even fuss over the rejections, if it comes to that. In fact, I’ll crow, “Thanks, I needed that!” and pass on the skin-tightening after-shave.

Sometimes doing your job quickly is all it takes to make friends in this world, especially if it’s the tortoise-paced poetry world where all manner of shell games take place.

Note to other journals: See how easy…? Go ahead. Make like Menen and slap yourselves in the face. You’ll be happy you did!

Three Merwin Poems

palms

Sad, but true. Famous writers are made most famous by death. Sadder but truer. Famous writers sell more books in the weeks after they take on Death as an agent.

Ah, well. At least there are the beneficiaries.

But we are all beneficiaries, in a way, if we read and enjoy a poet’s collected works. And if you decide today, the day after his death, to begin reading Merwin’s poetic output, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

He wrote a lot of verse about the world, from topics big to small. And he left a lot to his reader, too. Like punctuating. You want to read Merwin? Take pause to punctuate! Here’s an example of Merwin’s work, in this case about a mere (ha!) word:

 

Term
by W.S. Merwin

At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do

 

In addition to language and nature, Merwin was marked as we all are by his beginnings. His was a difficult childhood, marked by the classic distant father, a busy minister. That, coupled with the antediluvian story of Noah, brought us this:

 

Before the Flood
by W.S. Merwin

Why did he promise me
that we would build ourselves
an ark all by ourselves
out in back of the house
on New York Avenue
in Union City New Jersey
to the singing of the streetcars
after the story
of Noah whom nobody
believed about the waters
that would rise over everything
when I told my father
I wanted us to build
an ark of our own there
in the back yard under
the kitchen could we do that
he told me that we could
I want to I said and will we
he promised me that we would
why did he promise that
I wanted us to start then
nobody will believe us
I said that we are building
an ark because the rains
are coming and that was true
nobody ever believed
we would build an ark there
nobody would believe
that the waters were coming

 

You don’t have to be a kid to sometimes wonder if the world deserves a second soaking before it consumes itself in fire. Only who is the chosen family? Who Noahs?

To give  you some sense of Merwin’s expansive life, he recalls meeting Ezra Pound in the video link below: “You want to be a poet? Write 75 lines a day.”

W.S. Merwin Video

And for a bit of what went into the making of a Merwin documentary, called “Even Though the Whole World Is Burning,” we hear how Merwin passed on the typical poet’s  life in academia for one closer to the land, the seasons, the flora and fauna of the world. Thoreau, who struggled himself as a teacher and gave it up, would be proud!

Even Though the Whole World Is Burning

He ends the above clip by reading this poem:

Rain Light
by W.S. Merwin

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

Thank you W.S.–tree planter, poet, painter of patchworks spreading on hills….

R.I.P. W.S. Merwin

merwin    young merwin

The poetry world lost a big one in W.S. Merwin today. What’s amazing is how much an obituary teaches you about a person. Palm gardens. Walden on the Pacific. Hawaii!

Oh, and poetry, too. So much poetry. Not to mention essays, short fiction, a memoir (Summer Doorways, which I enjoyed last year), and copious amounts of poetry, which would win him a National Book Award once and the Pulitzer twice.

Not bad for a day’s work.

You can read a fine obituary on W.S. Merwin here, on the New York Times’ website.

Fare thee well, William Stanley. You will be missed!

 

Famous Quote, Humble Catalyst

radio

Galway Kinnell once said, “The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness.'” David Kirby must have been listening. Check out where his poem “Taking It Home to Jerome” starts and ends:

 

Taking It Home to Jerome
by David Kirby

In Baton Rouge, there was a DJ on the soul station who was
always urging his listeners to “take it on home to Jerome.”

No one knew who Jerome was. And nobody cared. So it
didn’t matter. I was, what, ten, twelve? I didn’t have anything

to take home to anyone. Parents and teachers told us that all
we needed to do in this world were three things: be happy,

do good, and find work that fulfills you. But I also wanted
to learn that trick where you grab your left ankle in your

right hand and then jump through with your other leg.
Everything else was to come, everything about love:

the sadness of it, knowing it can’t last, that all lives must end,
all hearts are broken. Sometimes when I’m writing a poem,

I feel as though I’m operating that crusher that turns
a full-size car into a metal cube the size of a suitcase.

At other times, I’m just a secretary: the world has so much
to say, and I’m writing it down. This great tenderness.

 

Of course, I don’t know that Kirby was familiar with Kinnell’s words, but it almost seems like “Taking It Home to Jerome,” which starts with a specific and quixotic DJ in Baton Rouge (of all things), was written in response to the Vermont poet’s observation. Quote as prompt, if you will. And personal challenge: Can you take some specific quirkiness from your past and distill it to an abstract found in some famous person’s quote?

Occasionally, poets will be upfront about their inspiration. They might include an italicized quote under the poem’s title before launching in. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing. It is just as likely me making connections about tenderness as Kirby, in other words.

Tenderness, after all, is a universal feeling, and like all universal feelings it is in the public domain of ideas that all poets cherry pick from. A quote may try to sum the big word up succinctly, and a poem might attempt to elaborate, only the elaboration must be an act of compression, as all poetry is.

Have a favorite quote with an abstract emotion at its heart? Try writing a poem to it as a compressed exercise in elaboration. It may lead you to some surprising places, like Baton Rouge where, decades ago, a certain DJ had a certain saying that we might equate to poetry writing itself: “Take it home, Jerome. Get that poem done.”