Tuesday, January 26, 2016

**Video: Albany Wordfest '12**

(courtesy of Albany Poets: www.albanypoets.com)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lyrics Versus Poetry-- The Debate Continues

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
-from “Lazarus,” David Bowie

     With the recent passing of the kaleidoscopic David Bowie, the notion of lyrics as poetry crossed my mind. Cryptic images in Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, have suddenly become blatantly prophetic as details of his illness emerge. Among his many talents, Bowie had a powerful command of words, and this will contribute to his body of work outlasting his physical body for many years.

     But I don’t believe that lyrics can always stand on their own as good poetry. They are conceived of as half of an expression, with music being the other half. I know that when I write a poem, I don’t hear the possibility of music, only the rhythm of the words. The unconscious goal of my poems is to imitate the rhythm and breath of human speech. Bearing that in mind guides me in line breaks, word order and stream of thought and image. The songwriter must hear differently, hears the words as riding on a tune, a flexing helix of languages. Much as I admire that art, it is not mine.

     At a folk music coffeehouse in Kingston years ago, a guitar player introduced himself onstage by explaining that he used to be a poet, but that now he was a songwriter! The implication that songwriting is a natural progression, and perhaps even the art of maturity still amuses me. In my mind, they are two separate endeavors, and both can be practiced well into one’s so-called Golden Years.

     I have from time to time attempted a sort of collaboration with some of my musician friends. Basically it involved my offering a selection of poems to the musician, and he or she playing with the words to convert them to lyrics, then fitting a tune to them. It wasn’t truly songwriting as much as providing a source for inspiration. The results have usually strayed quite far from my original poem, but I am always flattered when someone expresses an interest in working together.

     One of the things I enjoy about writing poetry is the solitary effort involved. David Bowie wrote songs and sang them for millions of people around the world during his all-too-brief life. Poets rarely enjoy such exposure, especially in modern times. But I’m OK with that.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Something Old, Something New

In 2015, I assembled a couple of chapbooks with old poems, and sent them around to a couple of contests. Predictably, neither of them found a home. Collections I've published in the past have never been based around a theme, or even written at the same time. Poems in the past have come to me one by one, and the only discernible theme has been, "me, me, me."

I did try a couple of years ago to write poems around the theme of horses. As it turns out, I had a tenuous connection at best with these beautiful creatures, although growing up on Long Island, next to a corral and next door to my grandfather's barn, they were common as squirrels. Of course, that very estranged relationship could be what I was supposed to be writing about in the first place, and not just a bunch of portraits of, "Horses I Have Known."

So, I have four or five decent poems about horses, and Long Island, and childhood. I have other poems about childhood too, so my last attempt at putting together a manuscript from poems I've already written will be to combine childhood poems with horse poems. This could work. Again, they have been written over twenty or thirty years, so they will require major revision to hang together, in my opinion. So, that project is in the pile.

This year, I decided to write one poem a month with the starting off point of current events in my life. The weather seems to open most of them, but after warming up, I think I've come up with eleven (so far) decent poems. These, perhaps with a couple others that I wrote outside of this exercise, should make a decently cohesive chapbook. As I wrote them, I just typed them up and put them in a folder, so perhaps my memory of them is a bit rosier than is warranted. We'll see in January.

I began a rather experimental project too, inspired by the works of Katrinka Moore, Anne Gorrick, and Adam Tedesco, among others. I stumbled on an old paperback copy of Valley of the Dolls over the summer. I copied ten random pages, then cut out pill-shaped chunks from the middle. I then switched around the cut pieces, and typed up rough, abstracts drafts of ten poems. I intend to make each successive draft looser and less connected to the original gibberish, but of course the results make more sense than you would think. This seems to be a good project to jump into when I can't think straight, or I'm too tired to write a "real" poem. Not thinking straight is absolutely required for this kind of word play. 

Basically, I am cutting myself some slack over the holidays, concentrating on relaxing (!) and enjoying the season. I'm also planning a trip to Florida in mid-February, via Amtrak, a less stressful mode of travel for both myself and my Roommate. I'm letting life lead for the time being. The poems wait, will wait, have waited, will be waiting. And will demand to be written when they will, always.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

**Poem: "Imperfections" **

Even in daylight use
black mascara liberally,
wear fresh stockings
when you can, continue
to play gently with  the
faults of others.

The point is to keep on living,
to know we all reside within
our consequences.
You’re the one I can be
imperfect with,
share the daily news with,
curl my legs around in sleep.
Coffee from unscrubbed urns,
box wine served in well-
worn carafes, we entertain
ourselves with guitars,
with words and gestures.
Your quiet penance is
spending your life with me.

Memory of season
rises Ashokan blue
in your hard eyes,
then fades, quickly submerged.
Moustache flecked with
some regret and grey,
recorded in your humble
chin are motel birthday
celebrations, after school
detours, misguided teddies.

Your freshly pressed persona—
antique shop? Goodwill?—
narrow tie, somebody’s tie tack,
white button-down dreams--
For love you have been stupid, too.
I find your imperfections
sexy, a powerful attraction
to your stumbling, natural life.

CAR  5/8/10

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Winning" Poems & How They Get That Way

I attended a memorial for my friend Dan Schmidt last week. Among his many excellent qualities, Dan had a knack for focusing on the core essence of a person. He looked past the superficial details that might distract the rest of us, and connected directly with everyone's true self. He shared sincere joy, caring and grief with all he came into contact with, and remembered the details, too. I was of course stricken personally by his passing, but almost immediately realized the greater loss-- to all his friends, his birth family, and the community he adopted so many years ago as family.

And what does this have to do with poetry? Well, the day after the memorial, I attended the annual meeting of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and as part of the proceedings, the awards for the 2015 Poetry Contest were presented. As one of the judges, I felt an obligation to explain a bit about what I look for in a "winning" poem. "Winning," is a relative term, and on any given day I could have picked three other poems as winners. In the right frame of mind, I might even have challenged my fellow judge Howard Kogan to a duel to defend his choices. But, with the understanding that being a "winner" is a fleeting and subjective state, I offered a peek into the workings of my process.

Unlike my friend Dan, I am often distracted, by the presence of overused words in poetry-- "moon," "love," "soul," are just three of the words that cause me to be on guard. They are extremely powerful images, which is why they have been so frequently used. They can also indicate a lazy poet who chooses an image that s/he knows we are all familiar with instead of describing something completely, or with fresh language. If someone can write a poem with the word "rose," in it and make it sound new, more power to them. It's a tremendous goal that few can achieve these days.

What I look for in a strong poem isn't necessarily perfect craftsmanship. Forms are more of a pastime to me these days than a legitimate structure that enhances the effectiveness of the poem. Then there are all the grammatical bugaboos that can be distracting if you've been cursed with a solid education in the illogical details. These things can be gently corrected by an editor who can sense the gold within the straw.

What cannot be added is truth, honesty, passion. Poems are written for many reasons, and not always noble ones. Ego, revenge, and fear have often been the impetus for a poem. For me, the most powerful poems are written because the poet can do nothing but write. This compulsion is obvious in the work. It pulses and purrs with an unseen energy that is undeniable.

An added bonus is if the poet expresses themselves in unique language, fresh imagery. Being a bit on the lazy side myself, I find the easiest way to do this is to write the words down that come to you, not the words you've heard other poets use. Don't be afraid of writing in your own voice. It's the only one worth using, and really, the one the world wants to hear.

If you're wondering, no, I haven't written a poem about Dan yet. A few images have been kicking around the back of my brain. When I do (and let's face it, I will), it may not be the best poem ever written. But my intentions will be sincere. I owe Dan at least that much, and so much more.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How I Learned to Love (and Loath) Open Mics

     Second to mailing (and now emailing) your poems out to an invisible editor or editors, the best way to share your work with others is to read at an open mic. I cannot remember the first one I went to. I have written poems since elementary school, but I was slow in assuming the persona of a "poet." In high school I was on the staff of our fine literary magazine, Pegasus, and wasn't shy about expressing my misgivings about submitted work. When it came time to present something of my own, though, I always had a friend read it aloud for me. Poetry was too sacred, too personal an exposure for me to offer up without fear.

    When I went away to college, I continued to write, and for a short time even joined the literary magazine staff there, which had a tendency to dissolve and reconfigure itself semester after semester. I  was becoming more comfortable, more confident about my poems, and began to value them as my chosen mode of artistic expression as well as cheap therapy. I wrote my way through a difficult marriage and divorce, all the way to independence and sanity of a kind.

    After college, I saw an ad in the Shadwrapper (the local newspaper) for a poetry group that met twice a month at the nearby Stone Ridge Library. The Stone Ridge Poetry Society, founded by Shirley Powell, was my first adventure in poetry outside of academia. I made friends that are still friends thirty years later. Meetings combined workshopping poems with one or two featured readers. It was probably here, in the cozy living room-like space where the group met, that I had my first feature.

    Woodstock, the REAL Woodstock, New York had always been a welcoming place for artists of all levels of accomplishment. The open mic at the Tinker Street Cafe', hosted by Dean Schambach, was a challenging atmosphere for a twenty-something female, let alone a poet. There was alcohol, there were sometime fisticuffs. Dean was and is a contentious character with both champions and enemies. I myself had nothing but the most genial interactions with "Gungha Dean," as he is sometimes known by the locals because of his stirring rendition of Kipling's classic poem. Hecklers at the bar were something else again, but I still consider it a personal accomplishment to have survived the readings at the Tinker Street Cafe' relatively unscathed.

    One of the highlights of living in Albany was the longtime open mic hosted by Tom Natell at the legendary QE2, now both departed. I sometimes think I should have spent more of my student loan there instead of on tuition, but what's done is done. Since then, I have spent a lot of time commuting back and forth between The Emerald City and the Hudson Valley for readings there. There is an attitude of respect that rarely wavers-- for the audience, for one's own work-- that I find to be rarely matched. Readers don't often take advantage of the mic, or apologize in advance for the work they're about to impose on you. Time limits are clear and rarely violated.

    When my Roommate and I connected, I was running from one open mic to another almost every night of the week, and hosting an annual event called The Sylvia Plath Bake-Off, which at its height attracted 50 or more attendees in a single evening. Since that time, I have become more particular about which readings I attend. If a reading is poorly managed, if egos are allowed to run amok and hog the mic, if the open mic list is either endless or absurdly restricted, I will probably not be back soon. And I may or may not be missed. I'm OK with that.

    Unlike other artists, poets can be reasonably certain that there is no "Big Time" level of achievement for them to aspire to. It's one of the things I like about being a poet. It's a sort of exclusive club that, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, few would want to be a member of. But when all have gathered to share work, philosophies, secret details they may never tell their partners or families, and when they are sincere, I feel privileged to be in their presence. The Internet can at times echo some of that intimacy, but it's not there yet. The Open Mic, at its best, has yet to be equaled in the age of chat rooms and e-zines.

Friday, November 6, 2015

**Poem: "Chances"**


The rest of the world has lived like this for years.
We only begin to see the cobwebs on the beams,
smell smoke of our own flesh, a bomb on every corner,
and DVD collections do nothing to preserve the season.

Tonight my big chance has to do with taking my ponytail down
instead of securing an orderly stripe
down my itchy back, no brush in the morning,
after banana, prior to toast.
I leave it for him to plait into knots of love,
distrust and the idle flies of memory
that buzz our bed.

Nat King Cole is not for me on the stereo downstairs.
It is a lesson for his children, sleeping on couches,
on what a Negro used to be in a world of
picket fence pearls and stay-by-night Moms,
Dads in freshly pressed slacks, a fire on every corner,
perchance for them to sleep and to wake,
Pokemon purged from their ten-year old heads.

In the same morning, my head a nest of indiscretion,
foggy acrobatics in the raw August row,
they all return to home,
his curls, my love's grey curls,
unbattered by my ineffective hands.

CAR  8/23/04