Saturday, July 7, 2018

Honorable Mentions- Two More ‘Follies’ Poems

After all but completing a second chapter in my ongoing nonfiction project (more on that later, surely), I’ve returned my attention to my Ziegfeld Follies poems. I’ll be doing a presentation of what I have so far at the Omega Institute on the evening of August 20th. Hopefully, I’ll also have a Power Point presentation, and brief bios for each of the subjects of the poems. I know it’s been a while, so some memories might need a bit of refreshing (ahem).

My focus with this project has been the 1919 edition of the Follies, although for reasons of interest and coherence, the poems have strayed a bit here and there. By 1919, Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first wife and part of the inspiration for the Follies in the first place, had already passed. Yet, because she is such an integral part of Ziegfeld’s personal and professional life, I’ve included a couple of poems about her and expect to add more. Olive Thomas, by 1919, had long before left Ziegfeld’s show, and side, to become a silent film star, but her enduring presence at the New Amsterdam Theater in the form of a ghost (even to this day) means that a poem or two is required about her as well.

Two Ziegfeld stars were missing from the 1919 edition, otherwise considered the pinnacle of the series. Humorist Will Rogers had also been lured out West to try his luck in films. Silent though they were, Rogers made his presence felt on the big screen, supplementing his appearances eventually with a widely read newspaper column and an easy transition into talkies. If not for his sudden death in 1935, who knows what other razor-sharp insights Rogers might have gifted us with, especially in the War years.

In August of 1919, Fanny Brice gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Obviously this put her out of work for that season, but knowing Brice’s position as a major star in the Ziegfeld universe, this must have been a frustration for both the comedienne and the producer. I knew she and her then-husband Nick Arnstein owned a home on Long Island during those years. I made the leap of assuming that it had been located on the North Shore, where many of the wealthy lived in those days. Thank goodness for Google and my ability to follow a thread! I was even able to obtain a street address, as well as some modern-day photos of the interior and exterior. It is still a private home, well kept and renovated with an eye towards maintains its Victorian charm.

I imagined two scenarios, one of Ziegfeld showing off his new theater to Rogers on a trip back East, and Brice rehearsing on her patio overlooking the Long Island Sound. Both seemed plausible to me, and yet I took a few liberties. I looked up the, and concluded that Rogers certainly could have seen the Ziegfeld Theater close to its opening date. As well, Brice’s home seems to be near enough to the water for her to smell it on a September breeze.

I’ve been a Ziegfeld and vaudeville buff for many years now, but for a while I’d stalled on doing anything creative with the knowledge I’d accumulated. So deep is my awe and respect for these theatrical pioneers that I hesitated, afraid to get the facts wrong, wary of the presumptive tone that dominates so many biographies. Finally, without cracking another book, I leaped in, starting with the stories most repeated. I probably began with Thomas at the New Amsterdam, a hard one to get wrong, but steering clear of the condescending word stuffing that I found in a recent fictionalized account of her life. I’ve got twenty-five pages or so of poems now, and my next step is to comb through the work, making better poetry out of it, and tweaking what facts I can.

I’m not sure how finished any of the poems will be by the time my evening rolls around, but I’ll do my best. My goal is to honor the legend, perpetuate the memories of these remarkable characters, all the while trying to explore their humanity. For many years there was a gap for me. They were old photos, almost always black and white, seemingly from another planet and not just another era. Lately I’ve broken through. This might be where art, the art I can live with, begins.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Birth of a Poem Continued: Rough Draft

“Pumping gas should be peaceful,” says the man on the other side.
We’re both bombarded by the actress dressed as a quick store employee
blathering on about the great deals inside, from inside a tiny TV
now attached to the pump, just above the credit card slot, no escape.

There is the option to pay inside, and a hot coffee, stale as the pot may be,
sounds good on a chilly day, too late in May for these temperatures,
but I’m on my way home, and coffee will not be my friend at 3 a.m.

The breeze brings a whiff of someone’s cigarette smoke, and I know
their free spaces are fewer and fewer every day, and despite the signs
(and probably soon too the warning of the tiny TV woman),
they will grab a puff or two while fueling the car, while running from
car to store for a coffee, a hard roll, another pack at premium rates.

The tiny TV woman tries to sell me soda, get me interested in NASCAR,
even tries to lure me in with local weather reports, but I’m too tired
for all her flashy words and pictures. I want to go home, and I want
to be peaceful. I want the lights dim, the food warm, a blanket where
my Beloved should be, and the TV tuned to people of my choice.

CAR  6/25/18

Monday, June 18, 2018

Birth of a Poem: Notes From The Road

A scrap of yellow paper has been following me around for the last several weeks, migrating from my pocketbook, to my desk, to my backpack, and now—back to the desk. It reads:

“Pumping gas should be peaceful.”
-TV Screens
-Summer chill
-Whiff of cigarette
-Gas, rolls…

Sometimes I imagine I don’t have enough time to actually write a complete poem, so I try to capture the thread of thought in quick phrases, hoping I’ll find the thread later, and the spark, too. This never, ever works, but I keep thinking that spark can be contained in a few lines dashed before, or during, work, or before bed.

I remember what inspired the poem. The pumps at my usual gas station, what used to be known as “service” stations, recently had these really fucking annoying TV screens installed, blabbing away about manly sport scores and the shitty coffee available for far too much inside. On one visit, the gentleman pumping gas on the other side of the pump made the above remark in quotes. So, there’s those two bits explained.

It’s been a cool spring, as has been the Hudson Valley’s habit in recent years. Only today, nearly the end of June, has the usual heat and humidity combined to finally make us forget March’s blizzards. I try to pump gas in the afternoon, on my way home, so I can devote my mornings to more creative forms of procrastination, like Facebook or washing dishes. So, the refence to temperature makes sense.

There is always a whiff of stale cigarette smoke outside of any retail establishment, despite the Surgeon General’s old warnings. As long as tobacco is peppered with addictive supplements, there will traces of smoke in places where people stop, even briefly, to perform a task outdoors. And yes, it’s dangerous near the pumps, and yes, we’ve seen some horrific accidents on the Interwebs. However, what are the odds, the Smokers always think…

The last line has me stumped at this point. “Gas, rolls…” The last word only makes me think of toilet paper rolls. I don’t buy them at gas stations unless I’m very, very desperate. Unless Stewart’s is closed. Burger rolls? Ah, maybe HARD rolls, like they stock up on at gas stations like this in the morning, smeared too generously with a faux butter spread and wrapped in thick, stinking plastic.

But, as I recall, the man I quote said his piece in the afternoon. It could be that my mind was beginning to wander along, connecting one image after another arising from the location. I can never be sure.

My friend Dan Wilcox has a poem that laments the loss of “the best poem I ever wrote,” to a beer spilled on a notebook, likely scrawled in an indecipherable hand. I feel that same way when I find a note like this. It will probably still become some kind of poem, probably the kind that isn’t labored over long and finds its way to the files without any public performance. It’ll never be the poem it could have been. But of course, I’ll never be the poet I could have been.