Monday, January 29, 2018

Writing Retreat- Imagined and Reality

My Beloved is gone until Friday, and as much as I’ll miss him, I fantasize about how I’ll structure my days and, mostly, my evenings. I got some yoga in this morning, had pesto on my egg sandwich, and drank a large green tea with Stevia in lieu of the usual coffee and half & half. It will be a complete day for me if I can get at least an hour of writing time in after work.  

            I’ve submitted a sample chapter for a non-fiction project that may or may not take flight. In the meantime, there’s always something else brewing. I’ve got some new notes regarding the Ziegfeld poems, and a stack of books center stage on my desk, waiting for the pages to be opened once again. And the memoir I put on pause last summer is coming back to me in a new voice, a freer flow that will benefit from the hundred or so pages I’ve already written. So far, the majority of my memoir work has also included research. I’ve felt compelled to pin down exact dates, details, locations. That’s all been fine, but it has slowed the actual writing, and reduced the pace of work to a crawl.  

            Memoirs are subjective. History is written by the survivors. No one has access to the data bank of events and details that I do. Therefore, no critique on that basis will be possible. Research, in the form of old letters and journals, has changed the tone of the narrative. I believe my brain, like all our brains I suspect, rewrote the story so that I could live with it. The journals tell a slightly different story. Players I’d remembered so glowingly have become more complex. Villains (for what is a memoir without some sort of villain) soften and sharpen all at once. I see myself as the anxious parent now of my younger self. To write without judgment is a challenge. I vacillate between my regular snarkiness and objective journalism.  

            Up to this point, I’ve also been writing in longhand. I hope to sit down at the laptop and type. The process is different, and so is the result, but I’m interested in the speed, easing the flow of words a bit. After the fact, I can be more objective about what’s been written when it’s typed, like I’m editing somebody else’s work.  

            Of course, I’ve spent most of my work day listing excuses about why I can’t go to the gym after work. I’m an expert at that. None of them carry much weight though (unlike me), so I’ll get there today. And it’s not like I’m forbidden to write when my Beloved is home. I just make the easy choice of enjoying his company. Not enough hours for both. So today, after the gym, I’ll head home, make another cup of tea, and hopefully settle in for a solid hour of writing something. And Day Two of my self-designated ‘Writers Retreat’ will start again tomorrow night.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Plan, In All Its Parts

Sometimes I think I’m not entirely committed to poetry, and sometimes I think that’s not such a bad thing. I’ve never been able to support myself with it. My first plan was to teach during the school year, and have my summers free for writing and lots of other fun stuff. I suspect this plan was inspired by the refuge I found in school, due to my being a quick learner and the equity and dependable routines I found there. When this plan faded, after graduating with a degree in Secondary Education and no passion to teach, and no desire to put time in teaching where life was hard and teachers were needed, I had to come up with another plan.

Retail paid the bills for quite a while, while I halfheartedly continued to pursue a teaching gig. My apartments got smaller, and my cars older. Finally, at my sister’s insistence, I applied for a job at Cosmodemonic Communications. For ten years, I worked as a Residential Sales & Service Rep, in a job that started out as “Residential Service & Sales.” The Powers That Be said that Sales WAS Service, and so the flip. I made more money there than I’m sure I ever will again, and earned it in sweat, stress and emotional abuse. Finally, I put in for a buy-out, but I was just a few months shy of what was required. I decided to resign anyway. I had another plan.

For several years, I pretended to work as a freelance journalist. I say “pretended,” because I am sure now that I lack the steel grit necessary for such work, and the attention span necessary to follow a story through over months, sometimes years, to its logical conclusion. Being able to construct a decent sentence is just the beginning. Afterwards I thought I had supported myself decently, but when I tracked the withdrawals from my 401K, I realized that I had barely made ends meet. Had my Beloved not been living with me (and endured my sudden resignation), it’s possible things would have been much, much tighter.

Several more jobs followed, and finally I landed at a seasonal retreat center about a half an hour from my home. The hours are regular and the pay is decent. My Beloved keeps more of his paycheck these days, and between the two of us, we can breathe a little easier. But, in every version of the plan, although I continued to write and read and publish, I never once thought that poetry, or even fiction of any length for that matter, would pay my bills. It’s the dream people my age grew up with, the leisurely college prof who published to avoid perish, or the Connecticut novelist who gazed out on the garden while waiting for the next golden phrase to alight.

Please note that most of these dreams featured male writers. Women writers were invariably portrayed as “spinsters” of one stripe or another, or bipolar comets like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. None of the dreams included a well-organized kitchen, or being able to cook, clean and write with time to spare for relationships, relaxation or adventure. It does seem that, according to the biographies of many successful authors, their personal lives were as messy as their work was polished. Was this the price of brilliance?

The older I get (and I’ll be fifty-six in February), I lean more and more towards the peaceful home over the chaotic creative space. It is a daily juggle to get even a few words down. I think about the various projects I have in the works all the time. I contend that writers are writers even without a pen or keyboard at hand, that a part of the brain that operates subconsciously at sorting through words, phrases, linking concepts, shaping themes without our knowledge. But the older I get, the more important that peaceful nest becomes to me. I’m not willing to ignore my Beloved night after night, or take a month-long retreat to get a novel started, even if the alternative is a night in front of the TV watching YouTube.

And none of this is to say that poetry isn’t an important part of my life. I can’t imagine life without it, the readings, the people, or the work. It all goes back to that circle my brain spins in, alternately believing that it all matters, and that nothing matters, and that it all matters because nothing is more important than anything else. Dust in the wind, but stardust, baby. Beautiful stardust. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

**Poem: Donald at Boughton Place**

 Donald at Boughton Place

A small dog darts out in the highway,
but not a dog, a red fox,
drags a grey-furred mass off to the side,
glances back at me when he's safe,
ears, tail pointed black.

Black geese, down for the night,
cluster in twos and threes
don't pay attention as the fox
drags his prey past them.
It's not clear what he's got,
but if it's goose, they don’t care,
engaged as they are in discussions
of weather, direction.

At the reading, on a circular stage
layered like a wooden wedding cake,
Donald Lev is the feature.
He reads love poems for Enid,
ever regretting his choice to leave
the hospital that night and who
knew it would be her last?

Donald, eyes of snow, four separate seasons,
reads Enid's own lament for Sari,
lost biblical sister moved to suburbia,
remembering her desert commune.
Donald won’t be mistaken for a fox,
this lazy-haired poet alone
in a cottage of lemon balm and books.

Thunder rattles the theater.
Donald is undisturbed.
Red wine trembles in our glasses,
and already Donald has tried
to wipe a spill from his large, white heart.
Too late, it's already stained through.

CAR  7/31/09

Monday, January 15, 2018

Fundraiser for Donald Lev- Go!

Donald Lev has been a mainstay of Hudson Valley poetry for the last several decades. He was born in New York City in 1936, and since then has been, in my opinion, one of its most heartfelt and honest bards. As a youth, he worked in the mailroom of both the Daily News and the New York Times. He also drove a taxi for twenty years, on and off.  

His first venture into publishing was HYN, a literary magazine born in 1969. Perhaps in an effort to surreptitiously advertise, “HYN” was also the name of the poem he recited that same year as a bit player in the legendary underground film, Putney Swope. Along with his late wife, Enid Dame, he founded the now-online, and for many years actual paper tabloid, Home Planet News in 1979. The pair split their time between Brooklyn and High Falls, NY and for the last few years of her life, Enid taught at Rutgers and NJIT. She died in 2003.

After her death, Donald continued to put out Home Planet News until passing the torch to Frank Murphy a couple of years ago. You can find HPN in its latest incarnation at

Donald and Enid scared the hell out of me. Obviously both far more accomplished than I, here were two real life CITY poets, slumming at the readings I attended. I was dumbstruck, which is ridiculous to me now. They were and are two extremely approachable people. Their poetry and activism, closely intertwined in the most logical way, comes from a tradition deeply rooted in faith and friends and New York. The literary world of the ‘60s and ‘70s that they occupied was a dream I was too late to jump into. 

I will regret always the years I shied away from Enid. I finally had the chance to participate in a small workshop with her just a year or so before she died, and keep my notes close at hand. Donald’s wry humor has been the spice of HPN editorials and readings alike. He continues to publish, and his latest chapbook, Focus, came out in the spring of 2017.

Now a full-time resident of High Falls, Donald recently had some renovations done to his home to allow him to live on one floor. A bathroom has been installed, and hand railings have increased his safety. The cost of such work is significant, and a fundraiser is being held to offset the costs of making life more comfortable for Donald. 

The benefit is scheduled for Sunday, January 21, 2018, and will be held at the newly renovated Colony in Woodstock. Performers will include Mikhail Horowitz and Giles Malkine, The Marc Black Trio, and the Cosmic Legends backing Andy Clausen and Pamela Twining. Food and drinks are always available. The show starts at 8:00pm, and doors open at 7:00pm. There is a suggested donation of $20 per person. 

For more information, see the Facebook page:, or Philip Levine’s info on the Woodstock Poetry Society page: Philip is responsible for most of the work, and will be doing the finishing work once funds are available. 

Especially now, artists need to pull together, and help ourselves in the best way we can, by helping each other as best we can.