Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Music of 2015

I post at least one list of favorite songs and/or albums about this time each year, and this year is no exception. However, I must admit I have been a bit underwhelmed by the year in music. Maybe it's because my listening habits have changed - I don't seem to be listening to as much new music these days, but most of what I've heard just hasn't bowled me over. That said, there are still some worthwhile albums to list in a top 10 for the year:

1. Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color: Brittany Howard is a force of nature - what a voice! Their sophomore album is just as impressive as their debut, with several great bluesy, soulful songs like  the title track, "Don't Wanna Fight", and "Gimme All Your Love".

2. Kurt Vile - b'lieve i'm goin' down: A favorite native son (Philly) and former War on Drugs member is carving an impressive solo career, and this year's album has a lot of catchy, quirky pop-rock, especially the propulsive "Pretty Pimpin'", quite possibly the best song of the year.

3. Richard Thompson - Still: He's become the elder statesman of British folk-rock, and still writes some of the best, albeit dark, lyrics in music. He also can still play a mean guitar. You can always rely on a quality release from Mr. Thompson, and this is no exception. Highlights: "Beatnik Walk", "All Buttoned Up", and "Guitar Heroes" (in which he imitated the styles of several of his guitar influences). (Get the deluxe edition with an extra CD of five songs.)

4. Los Lobos  - Gates of Gold: It was great to see this venerable East LA roots-rock band nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. They didn't get in, but they can still grind out some dynamite rock and are not afraid to take chances creatively,.while remaining true to their roots. Highlight: "Made to Break Your Heart"

5. Adele - 25: I listen to precious little mainstream pop, but this Brit impresses me every time. This album is a bit more mellow and darker than her previous smash, 21, but there's a maturity in her voice and writing that really pulls you in. "Hello" is shaping up to be the Song of the Year.

6. Decemberists - What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World - Another dependable band whose new work I always eagerly await. Colin Meloy's bookish lyrics are intriguing and the music is impressive, as usual, and even if this may not rank among their very best albums, it still has some satisfying tunes, like "Make You Better" and "The Wrong Year". Also, look for their EP from this year, Florasongs.

7. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race for Space: The first of two rather unique albums on my list - this UK electro-rock band has taken recorded material from the US/USSR space race from the 1950's and 1960's and created a captivating soundtrack around it. It's a brilliant concept with striking results. from the peppy "Go!" to the haunting "Fire in the Cockpit" (about the tragic fire in Apollo 1).

8. Africa Express - Terry Riley in C Mali: In C was the seminal work of American minimalist music, and here it gets a unique treatment, featuring Brian Eno and others with a troupe of African musicians. The piece, written 50 years ago, was always a rhythmic masterpiece, but with new instrumental and vocal interpretations, it's practically re-invented. The best world music I've heard this year.

9. Viet Cong - Viet Cong: Dark, menacing hard rock doesn't usually appeal to me, but this Canadian band does it brilliantly.  The murky sonics enhance the effect of pulling you down and in. Ironically, I don't find this album depressing at all, but exhiliarting.

10. Wilco - Star Wars: Count on Wilco to produce an entertaining and challenging collection of songs, and this one was even offered as a free MP3 album earlier in the year. Some favorites: "Random Name Generator", "You Satellite".

Honorable Mentions:
The Arcs - Yours, Dreamily
Gary Clark Jr. - The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
Tame Impala - Currents
James Taylor - Before This World
Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell
Bjork - Vulnicura
Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - It's a Holiday Soul Party
Bob Dylan - The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12
Drive-by Truckers - It's Great to Be Alive!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stee-phen! Stee-phen! Stee-phen!

Three months is too long even for an occasional blog.  I've been in a major creative drought for months now, but I still have some poetry news to report:
1. My new chapbook, Hits and Sacrifices, will have a full first printing.  Thanks to everyone who supported me by buying a preorder copy (or two or more!). The publisher's timeline is behind, and I haven't got the galleys yet, so the original publication date of January 8 looks increasingly unlikely.  I hope to see the first copies go out sometimes by late January or early February - at least that's my guess.
2. I mentioned in my prior blog post that I was entering a contest sponsored by the Hickory (NC) Museum of Art, inviting poets to write poetry inspired by any of the works in their museum. I wrote three short poems about three photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry from his temporary exhibit there, and the curators picked all three to be featured in their upcoming quarterly Art of Poetry presentation, which is a walking tour of the museum and reading of the poems. They will also be posted next to the photos. I won't be able to attend the reading (which is actually today, Dec. 12) but I'm very honored. If the poems are posted on their website I'll share them.

I just got back from a great mini-vacation in New York, where we visited our two sons who live there, as well as doing a little Christmas shopping and decoration-gazing. We admired the Rockefeller Center tree and the gorgeous baroque-angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took in views of the city from the Empire State Building and our nice timeshare unit on the 25th floor of a midtown resort hotel.  But the highlight of this trip was getting to be an audience member on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
I was lucky enough to snag two tickets online about a week or so before we went, but that was no guarantee of admission because they always overbook to make sure all the seats are filled. So we had to get in line early to be sure to get in. We arrived a little after noon and ended up ninth and tenth in line. At two o'clock a production assistant came out to check our tickets and ID, then gave us numbers, stamped our hands, and told us to come back around 3:45 to get back in line to go into the theater. Our numbers got us front-row center seats.

There was a warmup comedian, Paul Mercurio, who was very funny, pulling folks out of the audience and asking them questions, and pumping up the audience to get them to cheer and laugh as loudly as possible once Stephen arrived. (The Ed Sullivan Theater actually seats less than 300 people, so I guess they want us to sound like a crowd twice as big.) Stephen himself came on shortly before taping for a brief Q&A session with the audience - he seems like a pretty nice guy. Then the house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, started to crank it up. Oh man, can they cook!  They just might be the best house band on the planet. (Sorry, Roots.) They really got the audience psyched up with their exuberant New Orleans-style jazz - you only get to see a small portion of their performances on TV.  Then Stephen came on, and of course the crowd went wild.

The show, taped and broadcast on Tuesday, December 8, featured French actress Marion Cotillard, author George Saunders, and singer-songwriter-harpist Joanna Newsom.  Stephen also did a funny bit involving defending a Turkish doctor who was arrested for physically comparing his president on social media to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Stephen (who is a huge Tolkeinophile) presented his defense of the doctor in the guise of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Later, he went on a rant about the misshapen Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Christmas Trees, but then shifted gears and complained about a single light bulb that burned out on his marquee outside, so he feigned going outside to change it. (That bit was cut from the Tuesday show and shown on Wednesday instead.)

We slightly regretted that we didn't try to get tickets instead for the Wednesday show, which featured cast members from Downton Abbey (we are both big fans), but the guests for Tuesday were good. Marion Cotillard looked a bit uncomfortable and hemmed and hawed during the early part of the interview (part of which was edited out), but she warmed up to Stephen by the end, and they did a cute bit about how even the most mundane things in English sound so romantic in French.  George Saunders (with whose work I wasn't familiar) was very engaging, talking about the writing process and singing an amusing song he wrote, accompanying himself on guitar. (He had one of the funniest lines of the night, saying that playing his guitar in front of Stephen's band was "like having sex in front of porn stars".) Joanna Newsom was interesting - she is a good harpist and songwriter, and she had a good band, but I have a hard time with her quirky, affected voice. And at the end, George Saunders, who recently released a children's book,  read a bedtime story to Stephen, who was all tucked into bed with a nightcap (the hat, that is) and a teddy bear.  

The taping was efficient and well-rehearsed, and took only about an hour and a half for the one-hour show.  (Most of the few short delays were for costume changes, waiting for the guests, and conferences with the production staff.) I noticed, watching the broadcast later, that there is some minor editing of the interviews and other show banter, but the only major edit was the bit I mentioned before that they saved for the following night. They did censor a conversation between Marion and Stephen about why the French say  "merde" ("shit") for good luck before a theater performance - they not only deleted the word in both languages but also whited out their mouths.  In any event, it was a great way to spend an evening and part of our vacation.

Poem: How about a silly verse about a recent seasonal "controversy"?

Seeing Red

Red cup, red cup, what have you wrought?
You're a scandal each time Starbucks coffee is bought!
Some say you're proof holiday spirit is listless,
just another example of the "War on Christmas".
No snowflakes or snowmen or reindeer so nimble,
in fact not one single darned holiday symbol!
There's talk of a boycott by no less than Trump,
that billionaire candidate and Grinchy-faced grump.
You've divided our nation with this heathen display
that houses the tall chestnut praline latte!
A Starbucks green logo with plain red field behind -
wait, green on red? Good enough - never mind....

Saturday, September 19, 2015

New Book News, and Hanging with Southern Writers

First things first: The pre-order period for my new chapbook, Hits and Sacrifices, has begun!  From now till Nov. 13 you can pre-order my book from Finishing Line Press for $12.49 plus shipping.  Every copy pre-ordered helps me get closer to the pre-sale goal of 55 copies, which will assure a full first printing. Please help support your favorite poet! (Okay, maybe I'm your second or third or 10th favorite poet, but please support my book anyway.) Click here to order from the publisher's website.

Second, I just wrapped up a wonderful weekend in Hickory, NC, attending the Fall Face-to-Face in the Foothills, as mentioned in my previous post. It was ostensibly a gathering of poets active on Robert Brewer's Poetic Asides blog, organized by two of the group's members, Nancy Posey and Jane Shlensky. (There were six of us members attending altogether.) It was a small conference of about 20 attendees, but the two days were packed with guest speakers giving seminars and workshops, including Robert himself, and three current and former Poets Laureate of North Carolina. It was a unique experience meeting and working with almost exclusively Southern writers.  (We did have attendees from Colorado and Alberta, Canada.) Hickory is a large town with lots of culture going on, including a beautiful art museum which was the venue for the conference. They currently have an impressive exhibit of photography by Steve McCurry (the National Geographic photographer who took that iconic photograph of the Afghan girl in the 1980's). Poets are invited to write about an art work that inspires them and submit their poetry, and if the directors like the poem, it is displayed next to the work and read aloud (by the poet, if possible) at a special quarterly art walk presentation. I plan to send them at least three poems inspired by the McCurry photos. We also had an open mic reading at Taste Full Beans, a great coffee house in town that has music, art and poetry regularly and is owned by a local poet, Scott Owens. (They provided us with coffee and lunch, too.) It was a 9-hour drive to get to Hickory, but it was worth every mile. Oh yeah, and I wrote four poems and cold eight of my previous chapbooks. Thanks to Nancy, Jane, Robert, Scott, The Hickory Museum of Art, and everyone else involved in making the conference a big success.

Poem: Here is one I just wrote about a very scary experience on the way to the conference, on the interstate in Baltimore.  This was for the weekly Poetic Asides prompt to write a "hesitation" poem.

He Who Hesitates is Lost 

I am minding my own business on the interstate,
doing 65 in the middle lane, when out of nowhere,
or more specifically, the merging lane, a pickup truck
careens out of control right at me. Instinctively,
I swerve to the left lane on the sparsely-traveled highway
to avoid a certain terrible crash. He misses me
by no more than ten feet, then somehow
wrestles his truck back under control
and drives off as if nothing has happened. All I know
is if I froze, even for a second, this would have had
a much different outcome. I thank my reflexes,
still quick enough, I guess, or my guardian angel,
if there is such a thing, because otherwise
neither this poem nor I would exist.

Monday, August 10, 2015

I Heart New York

About time for some updates, I suppose. It's been a busy summer, and one of the big highlights was my retirement from the Federal government in early July. I got a nice send-off in the form of a luncheon at work, organized my work friends and my family, and I got my first pension check this month. This is not to say I've spent the summer in a hammock with a Corona Light in hand. I have gone back to work part-time for a local attorney, and I've been devoting more time to helping my wife take care of our 2-year-old granddaughter, who is growing up before our eyes.  (Lately she has been declaring things that she likes as "pretty awesome".)  There are still plenty of projects to tackle at home, but finding the time to do them is still not easy.  The end of August promises to be rather hectic, with our former international student returning from Korea and getting ready for college, our new international student arriving from China on the same day, and our youngest son shipping off for his sophomore year of college the following day.

Despite all that, the two of us managed to take a mini-vacation to the Hudson River Valley of New York for four days and three nights.  She's been there before, but this is my first trip, and I loved it. We crammed a lot into those four days, touring many of the local historic homes and sites. We spent the first two nights in the Hyde Park area and visited all three of the Roosevelt homes: Springwood (the family home), Val-Kill (Eleanor's home), and Top Cottage (FDR's retreat).  The homes and museums only reinforced our opinions of what exceptional people Franklin and Eleanor were. Their homes were all fascinating in their own way, but for over-the-top decadence, they were no match for their neighbors, the Vanderbilts, who owned a mansion up the road that cost $2.5 million to build - around 1900!  After Hyde Park, we spent two days at Tarrytown, where we visited Sunnyside, the Washington Irving home.  Irving, we learned, was quite the superstar in his day, and the first American writer to be accepted worldwide as a "man of letters". We also saw Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate (last inhabited by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller). The Rockefellers were known as philanthropists and patrons of the arts, and it shows both inside and outside the mansion. Nelson was a fan of ancient Chinese artifacts as well as modern art, and there are dozens of unique pieces to be seen, including a series of  tapestry reproductions of Picasso works that he commissioned from Picasso himself.  Finally, we visited the nearby Union Church, which boasts beautiful stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.  The weather for all four days was perfect, the views and scenery were beautiful, and our tour guides were, without exception, excellent. The only thing we regret is that we couldn't eat at the Culinary Institute of America, which is apparently closed in August.  If you're interested in some photos from the trip, you can find them on my Facebook page.

Time now for a few poetry updates:

1. I submitted my final manuscript draft for Hits and Sacrifices to Finishing Line Press.  The pre-order sales period will begin in September, so you will be hearing more about it soon.

2. I am the featured poet for the latest issue of Chantarelle's Notebook. You can read the issue, including my five poems, here.

3. My poem "Shelter" has been accepted by US 1 Worksheets for their next issue, due next spring.

4. My poem "Backbreaking Mountain" placed 2nd in the Poetic Asides Poetic Form Challenge. It's in a form called a "dodoitsu" - a Japanese poem of 4 lines with syllable counts of 7-7-7-5, usually on a theme of love or work. Blogmaster Robert Brewer says he may publish the top three winners in his column in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

5. The early results of this year's Poem-a-Day Challenge from Poetic Asides are out - only four days' results have been announced so far, but my poem "The Man Peeling Yams on Easter Morning" made the top 10 finalists for Day 5.  As with last year's contest, the final winner for each of the 30 days of April will be published in an upcoming anthology.  So, fingers crossed!

6. Speaking of Poetic Asides, a couple of the regular blog site members, Nancy Posey and Jane Shlensky,  are organizing a two-day poetry conference in Hickory, NC in September, called "Fall Face-to-Face in the Foothills".  It's a chance to meet with several fellow Poetic Asides participants (including blogmaster Robert Lee Brewer) and enjoy sharing poetic activities. Although it's a nine-hour drive for me, I plan to go and I look forward to meeting a number of online friends in person.

Baseball:  My Phillies had the worst first half in the history of the team, going into the All-Star break at 29-62, a truly dismal record. Since then, they have really turned things around, winning 15 of their last 20 games. Part of the credit has to go to interim manager Pete MacKanin, but also Ryan Howard's resurgence at the plate, and talented rookies like Mikael Franco and Aaron Nola, might have something to do with it too. They have a big hole to dig out of to even finish at .500 for the year, but right now they have become fun to watch again. We had to say goodbye to Cole Hamels, who is the only pitcher in MLB history to be traded just after pitching a no-hitter.  He's now a Texas Ranger, but he's a classy guy and a possible future Hall-of-Famer. I wish him a lot of luck.

Poem:  Here's the dodoitsu finalist that I mentioned above:

Backbreaking Mountain

Workaday world, I can't say
goodbye yet.  Like that cowboy
in that movie, I wish I
knew how to quit you.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Busy June and Publication News

June is turning out to be one busy month. It started on the 1st with the senior prom at my international student's school. She chose not to go, but her best friend did - with my youngest son, who gallantly escorted her. They made a cute couple and had a really good time. We got some nice pictures, some of which included my granddaughter. Here's a sample - you can find more on my Facebook page. (Note: the photo with the umbrella is courtesy of

Then right on the heels of prom was high school graduation - our student and her friend both graduated and are headed back home to Asia for the summer. (No photos because our student is notoriously camera-shy.) They'll both be back to attend college here in the fall - our student will be attending nearby Rutgers so we hope to still see her often.  In the three years she's been with us, she has really bonded with the family, and we will miss her as a member of the household.  Heck, that's an understatement - she's been like a daughter to us and we love her a lot.

My son will be returning to Boy Scout camp this summer for his second year as an adult counselor, teaching "adventure sports" like rock climbing and mountain biking - he's really in his element there.
Later this month we will have a family member recuperating at our home after surgery, and I am preparing for a big rite of passage: retirement!  As of this writing, I have 14 working days left. Like I said, this is a big month.

In poetry news, I just got word from Finishing Line Press that they have accepted my chapbook manuscript of baseball poems, tentatively titled "Hits and Sacrifices". I hope to have it out by the end of this year - more news as it becomes available. I've already started to solicit "blurbs" for the cover, including a famous poet I've worked with, but he politely declined.

How about a poem?  This is one I wrote in May, in response to one of Robert Brewer's weekly prompts on Poetic Asides. I decided to follow Jane Hirshfield's example from her new book, and title a series of poems entitled "My  _______," using the key word from each of Robert's prompts in May,

My Childhood
I won’t bore you with the details –
it was just a normal life.
Well, there was the time
I was abducted by aliens –
no, they didn’t probe me;
they just gave me ice cream.
I was in a war, too, and I took the hill
for our side. Yes, I died a few times,
but a minute later I’d jump up,
a marvelous resurrection.
And I’ll never forget the day
I walked on the moon.
You can still see my sneaker prints
in the undisturbed dust.
Then there was the Indy 500,
where I lapped the competition.
and the Kentucky Derby
which I won by a nose.
Oh yeah, and I almost forgot
that walk-off home run I hit
in the bottom of the ninth to win
the World Series for the Phillies.
Like I said, a normal childhood.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Baseball Poetry and the "Slush Pile"

A couple of quick notes:

I did my part and just finished wading through over 700 poems from one day of the Poetic Asides Poem-a-Day Challenge in April. It was a bit daunting, but I was able to eliminate at least 85% of the entries by the first read-through. That still left me with nearly 100 poems, which I had to pare down to a maximum of 60 to send to blogmeister Robert Brewer. He will, in turn, pick what he thinks are the 10 best and forward them to a guest judge, who will pick the winner for that day, to be published later this year in the anthology/craft book Poem Your Heart Out, from Words Dance Press.  I have some personal favorites from that batch that I will be rooting for, and of course I hope one of my poems from the other days will make it too.

Secondly, I just got my copy of the new issue of Spitball Magazine, which contains my poem "Randy Johnson Kills a Bird, March 24, 2001".  My Facebook friend Pat Myers (a.k.a. "The Empress", redoubtable leader of the Style Invitational weekly humor contest for the Washington Post), requested that I post the poem on Facebook, but instead I decided to post it here with a Facebook link:

Randy Johnson Kills a Bird,
March 24, 2001

Pity the unlucky dove that decided
to swoop down between home plate
and the mound, just as Johnson released
a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball.
Halfway between origin and destination
for both bird and ball, one could plot
the intersection of two curves,
 one graceful and inverted,
one flattened out by sheer speed,
and at that intersection,
an explosion of feathers. 

People laugh at the video today
but I'm sure Johnson was shaken up
when the bewildered ump called "no pitch".
What else was there to do but clean up
the mess and continue the game?
The odds against such a meeting
were astronomical, but the universe
is a cruel and funny thing.
We plot our own parabolas every day
not really knowing what will intersect them -
drunk driver, aneurysm, asteroid.
All we can do is move along
and avoid fastballs when we can,
as we try to complete the arc.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Five Poems from April

My friend Shana Ritter (whom I met at Marge Piercy's workshop on Cape Cod a few summers ago) responded to my open Facebook challenge to pick your five favorite poems that you wrote in April.  She posted them together on her blog last week - they are all really good, and you should check them out here.  I thought that was a good idea, so I'm taking a cue from her and posting my five favorites on today's blog post.  This way, dear reader, you won't have to scroll through thirty days of blog posts to find what I think were my best of the month. Of course, feel free to explore, because you may think there are up to five others that you like better. (And if you wrote five or more poems in April and have a blog, you can do the same as Shana and I.) Anyway, here they are. Not coincidentally, I guess, they all are in some form or other - a terzanelle, a "fourteener", an abecedarian, and two Shakespearean sonnets.

April 16:
Science Fair Volcano

As a teacher, I've seen them many times
the peaks of conical and homemade plaster
backed up by the obligatory signs.

It doesn't take a lot of skill to master
this impressive demonstration - inside
the peaks of conical and homemade plaster,

a vinegar-and-baking-soda bromide
two strong conflicting forces that react -
an impressive demonstration inside

the gym.  Fourth-grader Tyler did, in fact
make a project like this. Under pressure,
two strong conflicting forces did react,

exploding from his model house.  He'd measure
all the damage done, but didn't keep a chart.
He made a science project under pressure

of a home about to blow itself apart.
The damage done, nobody kept a chart.
As a teacher, I've seen it many times,
backed up by the obligatory signs.

April 3:

Deus Ex Machina

I want the gods descending on a crane to bear me up
like in Greek tragedies, just when it seemed that all was lost
and certain death, or worse, dishonor, reared their ugly masks.

I want majestic eagles to swoop down and lift me up
securely in their talons, just like those in Middle Earth
who rescued Sam and Frodo from the red slopes of Mt. Doom.

I want a billionaire someday to knock upon my door 
and say, “My friend, there’s way too much for me to spend myself,
So take this cash to fix your roof and send your kids to school.”

I want to hit the lottery, an unknown aunt to die
and leave me in her will. I want my dream job falling
in my lap, a fast machine to take me out of here

and land me in a tropic paradise, a margarita 
in my hand. I want a happy ending to my story
no one would expect, that I didn’t even have to earn.

April 14:

Last Bouquet

Love's promise in cellophane lace
Or dead giveaway?
                - Nick Lowe, "Stoplight Roses"

My dear, come see these flowers that I brought
for you - I thought you'd like a special treat.

I have no love for roses that you bought
from homeless guys who sell them on the street.

How can I gain your trust, how to preserve
the spark of passion both of us could share?

You can't, because I've nothing in reserve;
that spark was snuffed before your last affair.

Will you have  feelings if I go away?

Just  for the flowers, strangely, I feel sorrow.
We'll live to curse and fight another day,
but like our marriage,  they'll be dead tomorrow.

I always thought our love could be much more.

Just leave - and take those roses to your whore.

April 6:
Robin's Aubade

The sun, that warm alarm, has caught me waking -
I see your sleeping form curled in our bed.
The view from here at daybreak is breathtaking -
the budding trees, the pink clouds overhead.
I hear the neighbors too, their music drifting
in on chilly air. So rise, my lovely mate -
I'll sing a morning song, something uplifting.
I'll take you out for breakfast - don't be late! -
a place whose owner puts out quite a spread.
I've got an early flight, and true to form,
I'm all decked out, as usual, in red,
and you've our unborn children to keep warm.
I will return with worms, and straw and string -
I'll spread my wings, but you're my everything.

April 10:
How a Toddler Learns the Alphabet

Carried around,
Druidic runes on
Each page,
Fascinates her.
Grandpa reads, she
Hears words.
In time,
Just a little
Knowledge starts to
Loosen the code:
Mmmm goes the M,
Nothing is rounder than
Picking them out,
Quick study,
Reading's not far away:
Snaky S goes ssss,
Tongue-staccato T.
Under the influence of
Vocabulary, growing
Wiser every day.
X marks the spot where a
Young mind consumes with