Sunday, November 7, 2021

** A Week's Dedication- Closer to the Finish Line**

 


You're sick of hearing about it I know, but recently, after thinking I was actually done with that Ziegfeld collection, I realized I had several drafts in my files that I’d arrogantly labeled, “FINAL.” Ha. I’ve spent quality time every day this past week reviewing those drafts, making notes on one main version, and retyping the whole thing yet again.

There’s a lot of spark I tend to leave out of subsequent drafts, and this process has really livened up the collection. I had random single versions of poems as well, and they were reviewed and had choice lines moved to the main version, too. Sometimes there’s just a line or phrase that really shines, and it leaves me wondering how it was excised in the first place! 

I also found poems that ultimately hadn’t made the cut. The collection has a sort of narrative arc to it, and I have been so drawn into the lives of there people, Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Ziegfeld himself, that digressive poems have naturally been written, but now do not contribute to the greater work.

I’ve made some other decisions, too. I contacted a friend with many years of experience to proofread the finished work, because let’s face it— it’s nearly impossible to do so on your own. I have made the offer when distributing every self-published chapbook to reward anyone that finds a typo. Luckily no one’s taken me up on it, or I’d be destitute. So, with all the work I’ve put into this project, it deserves a professional eye on it.

I’ve spoken in the past with an extremely talented designer, and I will reconnect with him again when the time comes. I am fairly certain this, too, will be a self-published work, but perfect bound and perhaps through Lulu or one of those other services. I too often see the vices of self-publishing, but there is a certain equity in it as well. I am hoping to make this more than a vanity project, but the target audience might be a bit too narrow for any outside company to want to take a chance.

I’m thinking about adding four line drawings, too, because if it’s going to have limited appeal (poetry, Follies) why not go all the way. I used to draw as much as I wrote, once upon a time, and I’m not sure how visual arts dropped out of my expressive tool set. I am fooling around and seeing what I come up with.

Below is one of the poems that didn’t make the cut, but similar to others that are included. My overall goal is to bring these people back to life- as stars, as humans, as Follies legends. Please let me know what you think in the comments.

 

 

Flo and Billie Disagree

 

Flo motors up to Hastings after the show, 

 

after his own dance around costumers, songwriters, 

 

bill collectors, chorus girls, and 

 

Billie is up late, waiting. 

 

“Who was it tonight, Flo? That little brunette

 

with the dimpled knees?  That big girl

 

with the icy stare and the long fingers?

 

Or perhaps Little Miss Sugar Lump, 

 

this season’s latest fashion?”

 

 

Billie picks up a cloisonne’ vase, 

 

impressed herself a moment by its weight

 

filled with water and gladiolas, 

 

then throws it in Flo’s direction. 

 

Her aim is good, her arm strength less so.

 

Flo has plenty of time to duck. 

 

The vase crashes to the floor,

 

shards of porcelain and pink petals

 

exploding across the Turkish rug. 

 

 

“Now Billie—“

 

“Don’t you ‘Now, Billie’ me, Flo!

 

I’ve had it! This is the last time!”

 

Billie finds a lamp in her hands, 

 

pink dupioni’ silk, cream colored base,

 

ginger jar style. This one’s a little 

 

lighter than the vase, and her 

 

aim superior. Still, 

 

Flo dodges the stylish projectile. 

 

 

“Billie, your problem is that 

 

you always pick the wrong girl!”

 

Flo smiles, hoping to diffuse the 

 

raging red-headed volcano before him. 

 

Another vase grazes his shoulder.

 

“Now Billie, wait! I’ve got something 

 

to show you!” He pulls a wide bracelet

 

from his pocket, unwrapped, thick 

 

with diamonds. Flo holds the 

 

peace offering out to his wife, 

 

who pauses just a second to admire 

 

the glittering stones in the dim light 

 

of early dawn. 

 

 

Billie seizes the gift, and 

 

tosses it into the far corner 

 

of the parlor, making a mental note

 

when she hears where it lands,

 

behind the potted fern.

 

She is not careless, after all.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Biopic Blogathon: "The Great Ziegfeld"

 

In a radical departure from my usual method, I did a tremendous amount of research for GHOST LIGHT, my collection of poems inspired by the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. I’ve collected a vast number of books on the Follies, including autobiographies by Ziegfeld’s wife Billie Burke, daughter Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson, and the last Ziegfeld “Girl” Doris Eaton Travis. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. passed away in 1932, and the bulk of his legacy was on the stage, ephemeral and lost to future generations. There were, however, a few movies made while many who’d seen a Follies in person were still here to share their memories.

Released just four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld, (1936) was an early MGM extravaganza purporting to tell the story of Ziegfeld himself, his rise from humble beginnings in Chicago to Broadway’s greatest showman. Burke was left with a great deal of debt after Ziegfeld died, and part of her efforts to pay them off included selling the rights to his life story. Ever the keeper of the flame, she also served as a “technical consultant” on the film, which may account for some of the alterations and inaccuracies throughout.

The script, written by Ziegfeld veteran William Anthony McGuire, transforms Ziegfeld’s life itself into a grand theatrical production. We first meet Flo at the great Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, carnival barker extraordinaire. We also meet his lifelong frenemy, “Billings,” played with grace and humor by Frank Morgan. Billings is an amalgamation of several rivals Flo encountered throughout his career, a good-natured foil who softens over the years, coming around to recognizing Flo’s gift for spectacular theater, if not sound economics. Billings secures loans for Flo on several occasions, standing in for the many financial backers needed to keep the Follies afloat. Billings is a white-washed version of the competition, and so be it. The movie is about Flo, and to bring in too many professional conflicts would make an already complicated life even more so.

An incurable philanderer during his lifetime, Flo is amusingly portrayed in the film as a hopeless romantic. He falls deeply in love with cabaret star Anna Held after they meet in London, and brings her to New York. Luis Rainer’s portrayal of Anna won her the first of two back-to-back Best Actress Oscars, but the flighty, wounded mademoiselle we meet here is, I suspect, far from the real Anna Held’s character. Born in Poland of Jewish parents, Held’s family immigrated to Paris where she got her start in Jewish theater. Her relationship with Flo was as much about business as pleasure. The famous phone call after Anna discovers Flo’s marriage to Billie Burke makes for great drama, but Held did not die of a broken heart. It was multiple myeloma, a blood disease almost as untreatable now as then.

Billie Burke had been the toast of both the London and New York stages for almost twenty years when she met Flo at a New Year’s Eve party (Playwright Somerset Maugham was her escort that night, by the way, and not the ever-present Billings). Their romance did indeed progress in obscure places such as Grant’s Tomb. Burke’s then-producer Charles Frohman was vehemently opposed to the union. The two still managed to sneak off between a matinee and an evening show to marry in New Jersey in 1914, where the officiate confused their identities, calling Flo “Billie,” and vice versa. This is the kind of stuff you can’t make up, but somehow is often omitted from a movie.  

Burke was, by her own account in a couple of delightful autobiographies, a passionate, mercurial partner who kept Flo on his toes as much as any of his other “leading ladies.” Myrna Loy’s portrayal of her in The Great Ziegfeld seems rather lackluster by comparison, but we forget that, besides being a consultant, Burke’s star was still rising in the film world. She and the producers must have realized that Ziegfeld was the real star here, and as portrayed by William Powell, would charm the crowds and the ticket buyers her coffers sorely needed. Burke never appeared in his Follies, but he produced several dramas for her on Broadway, none of which was successful. Notoriously, Dorothy Parker’s negative review of Caesar’s Wife, led to Mrs. Parker’s dismissal from Vanity Fair’s staff in 1919.

The Great Ziegfeld was the fourth pairing of William Powell and Myna Loy, whose most memorable films together remain the Thin Man series. With Burke so closely involved with the production, there was surely a strong desire on her part to paint a rosy picture of her and Flo’s courtship and marriage. However, the fact that Flo’s reputation regarding women was so well known that the character of “Audrey Dane” was included at all, a clear amalgamation of several of Flo’s most notorious dalliances, belies that portrait of a well-meaning but easily misled rascal. It’s notable that Marilyn Miller, portrayed here as “Sally Manners,” is seen as a fresh-faced juvenile on the brink of success. Miller, too, had a passionate relationship with Ziegfeld, and at the time of production was very much alive. A threat of lawsuit, and the studio’s lowball salary offer, led to her part being greatly diminished. She passed away in April of 1936, at the young age of 37.

Berkeley Crest, the home Burke opened up to Ziegfeld after their marriage, was anything but serene. It became a menagerie of animals, actors, and other maddening souls. They clung to the property to the bitter end, Flo leaving only after he was too ill and bankrupt to manage it on his own. Billie had already started working steadily in motion pictures on the West Coast, and was soon to establish the character of the ditsy redheaded matron that, aside from Glinda the Good Witch, she is best remembered for. Flo died in a hospital in Los Angeles, not as the film portrays in a seedy apartment overlooking Broadway, with the ever-faithful Sidney the only remaining vestige of his past glory.

The movie is long and extravagant, and in that way much like one of Ziegfeld’s legendary Follies. It is a film of its time however, an overblown fable with historical inaccuracies woven in to appease all sides. Even its most famous production number, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” a giant, spinning wedding cake of showgirls and satin, is a far cry from the song’s original staging in that 1919 Follies. It was originally an understated affair, with tenor John Steel singing each verse, each recalling a different classical composer, as one by one a handful of Ziegfeld Girls crossed the stage. The Follies was about variety and texture, a true review where comedy, music, and beauty were balanced to create a memorable event each night. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the film is in black and white, despite all the money spent on its creation. This above all is perhaps the greatest flaw in a purported homage to the life and glorious creations of a true Broadway artist. 

 

 May be an image of 1 person and text that says 'The Biopic Blogathon Sept. 30. 2021 Oct.2,2021 Hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood'

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The After-Times: Poetry During a Pandemic, and Maybe Beyond

 

When COVID-19 was recognized as a threat to an unvaccinated population back in March, 2020, my employer, a seasonal retreat center gearing up for another round of workshops, sent the staff home for about two weeks, to be on the safe side. My Beloved and I picked up a bottle of minty hand sanitizer at the Dollar Store for safety’s sake. Two weeks soon became five months, and I was finally furloughed at the beginning of August, after working remotely. I'd watched the call volume drop sharply as the season’s opening was pushed further and further out, then finally cancelled. 

 

 While some writers thrive under pressure, I am not one of them. I had my freelancing experience back in the mid-2000s, when I’d saved up a few bucks from a miserable gig at Cosmodemonic Communications. I got by well enough, but it wasn’t the time to begin a freelance career. I’ve come to learn I need the security of a 9 to 5 to free myself up enough to be creative. It does cut into my time to do so, but it’s the only way for me. 

 

 After I was furloughed, I panicked. I tried to continue my routine- short walk at 12:00 noon, my own low impact version of yoga in the morning. Despite adequate unemployment support, I still worried I’d be out on the street in a heartbeat. A friend offered me some job coaching time, which I needed for sanity’s sake as well as to bring my own employment worthiness up to snuff. It turned out I was a far more marketable commodity than I thought. I picked up a couple of unpleasant gigs over the months, and with every new set of tasks, every new computer program, I realized that I actually missed my retreat center work. 

 

 I was called back in March of 2021, a year after this unimaginable era had begun. Again I worked from home until the beginning of July, when those of us remaining on the payroll (about half as many folks as before) reconvened on campus to birth this ‘bridge’ season. Half as many classes and participants. All must be vaccinated. Incredibly, there was kickback about this, from staff and guests alike. I gained a private office, so many had been let go. I work better and harder, and get to crank WQXR between calls. I go home exhausted. I sleep in fits and starts. I worry about the second round of the virus. 

 

 I spent a good deal of time while working from home organizing files, discarding that which no longer thrills me. I began a project to scan my old newspaper clippings onto a flash drive, which will itself probably be obsolete in a few years. I finalized my Ziegfeld poems, and sent strong query letters to a dozen college presses. I compiled a chapbook of fairly recent poems, and almost printed it before I spilled a cup of coffee on my old laptop on Memorial Day. I could reconstruct the work, much of which was backed up onto a flash drive of its own. It was the harsh reality of how dependent I was on technology to practice my art that seemed to shake me so. 

 

 In the last year I’ve had to replace both the computer and the printer. The printer in particular is the latest version of my old reliable HP, but a shittier design and now with a Wifi mind of its own. The madness between us never ends, and it has come close to ending up in the street several times. The chapbook remains unpublished. I am stymied about the cover art, usually my favorite part of the home printing process. A so-called arts festival I’d planned to sell at turned out to be a scam, and live readings are still few and far between. I let go the rush, and settled into civilian life for a while. 

 

 I’ve been writing a monthly column for Albany Poets (albanypoets.com) in the last few months, and my last piece talked about the possibility of retiring from the Poetry Life. It’s still a tempting notion. I felt I had nothing left to say, and that few others had much to say to me. Even the silly tricks of erasure and freewriting produced nothing to jog a poem from my noggin. My routine, especially without regular readings in the flesh, provided little stimulation for the arts. I gained back the 20 pounds I’d managed to carve from my frame as quickly as it had come off. A monthly group of poet friends continue to Zoom, and I’ve always managed to scrape up something to share, but I never felt the need to produce much more. 

 

 I had no regrets. I’m happy with what I’ve written so far. If I was to pass away tomorrow, there would be files and clippings to keep my loved ones occupied until grief exhausted itself. But one occurrence did inspire me again, an odd one. I am in the habit of googling exes, as so many of us are. I determined that one of mine had passed in March, of what I could not tell. It was the most bare bones obituary I’d ever seen, and sad for someone who’d been so interested in so much around him, and himself. As my Beloved pointed out, there was no one left to write his story. I wasn’t grief-stricken myself. Too much time had passed, and it had been a good break for me. But the idea of no obituary must have finally touched on a poetry nerve. I wrote a poem, one that I’m pretty happy with. I’ll run it by the Zoom group next week to see if it can stand on its own, without a knowledge of intimate history behind it. And maybe it will see the light of day sometime.