Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hallmark- Curse or Blessing?

As well as being National Poetry Month, April is the birth month of the writer and poet Maya Angelou. Best known for the first of her many autobiographies, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, her poetry was equally celebrated, and in 1993, she became the first poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration since Robert Frost.

In 2001, however, Hallmark presented a decently designed line of greeting cards that featured Angelou’s words. Nicely done as they were, the idea of selling one’s poems, especially the poems of such a distinguished writer as Maya Angelou, really rubbed me the wrong way. It smacked of the kind of cheap self-exploitation that I would never have expected of her.

Maya Angelou documented in detail the many jobs she’d done to support herself during her life: dancer, fry cook, sex worker, actress, and activist. In the last few years of her life, in constant physical pain according to her son, she completed several additions to her ongoing memoir, including one about her relationship with her mother.

Why can’t I completely shake the idea that Hallmark cards were beneath her then? They were beautiful, a cut above the sentimental drivel that one expects from a greeting card, and are clearly still held in high regard by many. They sell on Ebay for a bit more than they retailed for fifteen years ago. No other poets to my knowledge have followed suit, and why would that be, since Hallmark has proven such a product can be done tastefully, and presumably sell well?

Maybe it’s just that so few of us send cards, or any kind of personal mail, anymore. I have to get my niece’s card in the mail tomorrow, for her Saturday birthday. Chances are whatever I find won’t be the equal of a Maya Angelou card. But, would I purchase one if it was in front of me? I still don’t know.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

How To Make Ends Meet—Art as Livelihood or Life

A recent New York Times article contemplates the effect a day job might have on the work of an artist. Is it beneficial? Is it necessary? Fact is, very few artists throughout the centuries have been able to support themselves by art alone. It may have been the fantasy many of us creative types grew up on in the 20th century, but in reality, many more spend most of their adult lives juggling art, work, and love, with varying degrees of success. Consider the Pulitzers.

An amusing little volume I may still have kicking around studies the alcoholic careers of far too many Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, including of course Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Their literary output may or may not have been adversely affected by booze, but their personal lives certainly were. Papa wore out several wives, and even himself in the end it seems, illness aside. Scott’s great love was institutionalized for the last twenty years of their marriage. He ended his days in Hollywood, doctoring film scripts and living in a shabby flat. Would day jobs have saved either of these artists? Would their lives have been more livable, but their work impeded?

When it became clear that Plan A, teaching for most of the year with summers off to write Great American Novels, was not going to come to pass, Plan B went into effect. Plan B is a mix of paying back student loans (accomplished after ten years at Cosmodemonic Communications), making a home where I could breathe easy (accomplished in 2001, about a month before 9/11 knocked the wind out of all of us), and maintaining a relationship created in passion and sustained in love and partnership (started in 2002, still a work in progress). Amazingly, I have continued to write the whole time, poetry at least. I don’t think my fictional prose is very good after all.

The arts are the roses in my life’s garden, but would I sacrifice any one of the above elements to achieve greater literary notoriety? Not now. I enjoy my medium-fish-in-a-beautiful-pond status. Without love, home and financial solvency, no art would happen for me. I was unemployed for almost two years just before I started my most recent gig, in the registration department of a seasonal retreat center. During that time, although I suddenly had many hours a day to write, I did not. I was far more concerned with keeping body and soul together. Maybe some others can do it, but I still possess a few too many screws to chuck it all for the sake of art.

Excuse? I don’t think so. Sour grapes? If someone can master that juggling act, more power to them. I cannot. And I’m fine with that. I can still smell the roses, and the thorns are mostly out of range.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

National Poetry Month- Not Just For Poets!

Some of you non-poets out there (and if you’re a non-poet and reading this blog on a regular basis, you have my undying gratitude) might have the impression that National Poetry Month ranks right up there with “National Salami Sandwich Day,” or “Grandparents Day.” It may at first glance give the impression of being the Hallmarkiest of Hallmark Holidays, spread out over thirty of them. However, unlike those other gift grabs, National Poetry Month requires no sending of cards or expensive gifts (unless you’re so inclined… PM me for my address)!

National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, but the need had existed for years. Remember all those little quaint schoolhouses you see in the movies where pupils painfully stumbled through poems they’d been forced to memorize? Well, those days are long gone. Even when I was in grade school, for the better part of the 1970s, poetry got short shrift in lesson plans. If it hadn’t been for my mother reading to us from a wonderful collection called The Big Golden Book of Poetry (long out of print, but much sought after), I may not have been exposed to much verse at all. And without trying, I committed long passages to memory about Little Orphant Annie and the Owl & the Pussycat that ring around my brain to this day.

Bullwinkle the Moose was a poetry supporter early on, too. His short segments on “Bullwinkle’s Corner,” introduced several new generations to the likes of Poe and Wordsworth. Without changing a word of the poems, he and Jay Ward created amusing visual interpretations that illuminated the work in a new way, as poetry should be enjoyed uniquely by each new reader or listener.

It’s probably still the case that outside of literary circles, not much is heard about National Poetry Month. Around my house, my Roommate is pretty sick of it already. I’ve got two short gigs booked already, including “Readings Against the End of the World,” sponsored by Albany Poets on April 21st. I’ve signed up for 11:00am, and there’s still space on the open mic list if you’d like to join me. As Dan Wilcox reminds us, “In Albany, every day is Poetry Month!” Not every city is so lucky to have a wizard like Dan to make that true.

Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, live poetry is on the upswing once again, despite the apparent demise recently of two longtime readings. Check your local listings, or drop me a line. Better yet, I’m always up for a drink or dinner in April, if you’re craving a lengthy discussion on the merits of literature in the 21st century. And, I’m always up for a free meal in April.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My Life At The Mic- Not Always ‘The Diva’


When I was in high school, I was on the staff of our literary arts magazine, Pegasus. I enjoyed discussing the work submitted, and was already writing a lot of poetry myself. However, when it came time to present my own work, I would have others read it for me. I was too shy to read it aloud myself. In high school, that never changed. Even when I got a chorus part in the spring musical of my Senior year, Fiddler on the Roof, the only thing that kept me from freezing on stage, I suspect, was taking off my glasses for performances, in an effort at authenticity.

In college, I again joined the literary magazine staff, briefly, Cadence then, and several other things since. I don’t remember how much of my own work was involved, but I’m pretty sure the pressures of my dysfunctional marriage put the kibosh on that endeavor early on. I think the first poet I heard read her work aloud was Carley Bogarad, the late professor at SUNY New Paltz. I was a flop in her Intro English class, skipping as much as I could without flunking out, not feeling a part of the clique that had been firmly established among most of the other students during the previous semester.

But, I had the good fortune (and the nerve, considering my shoddy academic behavior) to hear Carley read her impressive work on campus once. The effect of hearing the poet read, as opposed to the many hours I’d spent reading the work of so many others, always in my own voice in my head, was profound. The connection between audience and writer was palpable. This was what I had longed for in writing, and never knew was missing.

After college, after divorce, I began to become involved in the Hudson Valley poetry scene. There was a group that met bi-monthly at the Stone Ridge Library that I found helpful, supportive, and really, a safe place to find my voice. We met in a living room of sorts, cozy with couches and lamps and threadbare rugs. The Stone Ridge Poetry Society, where I made friends that I still keep in touch with to this day, evolved into the Woodstock Poetry Society. WPS holds monthly readings at a Woodstock bookstore, and as such, it’s probably one of the longest continuous readings in the county.

Then there was the Tinker Street CafĂ© readings. I was driven by then to put my work out there as efficiently as possible. Mailing poems away to editors meant they were out of your hands for months at a time, and perhaps you’d never get a reply. Reading is a little like self-publishing, in that the poet gets to decide the shape of presentation, the tone of the work, the when and where. I felt like a goddess when I managed to get to the mic, and perhaps my hesitance made my experiences there basically painless. The volatile host, Dean Schambach, had no beef with me, and the drunks at the bar must have found my poems uninteresting, and left me alone. But, I got up and waded through the testosterone of that legendary watering hole, and practiced my art. Ever grateful to Dean for the chance and the support.

Today, so many years later, I marvel at the ease with which I approach the mic. I still feel a slight rush just before, plan out my path between the folding chairs and the wires, but once I’m there, my schtick begins. I sell my latest chapbook, talk up any readings I have coming up, then get down to the work. I don’t spend too much time explaining. If the poem doesn’t say it, it’s not done. If I don’t want to say it directly, any explanation will spoil the effect. I keep within the time constraints, because I respect the host and my fellow readers, even if they don’t return the favor. I like to leave listeners wanting more, in any case.

Afterwards, I get a few handshakes, some polite remarks from friendly and unfamiliar faces. I have taken to giving away pens that promote this blog, in fact. And I am happy with what I do. Without it, what would I be? Hardly a Diva.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

(Most Of) The Truth Will Set You Free

Although there are short periods when I’m not writing much poetry, I don’t think it’s because of a lack of topics. For example, the other night I was up at 2am, not common for me but an occasional thing. I ended up writing a poem about Fred Allen, a humorist from the mid-20th Century who’s been all but forgotten in this digital age. If it weren’t for the reruns of What’s My Line on Youtube, via the Game Show Network, I’m never would have had the pleasure of seeing Fred’s spontaneous quips. He was a favorite pen pal of Groucho Marx, and for a time one of the biggest stars on radio. You might have trouble finding people under 40 who remember Groucho, much less Fred.

The poem, however, is a thinly veiled political dig. Hopefully that comes through. I’ve never labeled myself as a political poet, but in recent times, it has become a means by which I can express my concerns and suggestions in a creative manner. I try to get to the demonstrations when I can, but in the meantime, I still work my 35 hours a week. I still try to keep my home in decent shape. I get tired. But poems burst out here and there that I’d like to think contribute to the cause.

There are certainly still subjects I try to steer away from, much as I am an adamant advocate for the truth. Poetry in particular seems to be held to the highest standards, even when the story is clearly altered for the sake of telling a good story. Poetry of all the arts seems to be most often taken at face value. I even try to change the facts, if a poem is inspired by real life, in order to shape the rhythm and effect, but I am not very good at it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve finally been drawn to memoir in prose form these past few years. The poems are always rooted in fact, but with memoir, there’s no doubt.

It’s taken me thirty years to begin to tell the story of my early and ill-fated marriage, but there are still parts I’ll leave out. Truthful as I’d like to be, there are still those who don’t deserve to be involved, even as peripheral characters. Memoir is also terribly subjective. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin down dates, creating a firm timeline to organize my episodes to. But to others who were there, it might not look like anything they saw. So, unless someone is crucial to the plot (because, after all, what good’s a memoir unless you’re telling it in the form of a ripping good yarn), they won’t be included.

Poems happen, and can be shared with particular audiences I can predict will be most receptive. I was surprised by the very positive reception the Fred Allen piece got this past weekend at a gathering in Arkville. But the memoir is a bigger project, intended for a broader audience (fingers crossed). The themes, plain and subtle, should be universal in appeal and timeless.