Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Busy Week of Poetry

It's been a packed four days, beginning with my poetry reading on Wednesday. I was invited by the South Jersey Poets Collective, a group based around the Jersey shore, to be their featured reader, along with member Cole Eubanks. The Atlantic City venue, Dante Hall, is a beautifully renovated former church owned by Richard Stockton University, with a 214-seat theater. I rode down with poet friends Dave Worrell and Barb Daniels (and her husband Dave), both of whom read at the open mic. Needless to say, I didn't fill the place, but there was an appreciative audience of about 40 or so. I got to read for half an hour, a mix of old and newer stuff, including poems from my newest chapbook, of which I sold five copies. Thanks to Cole Eubanks, Aubrey Rahab Gerhart, and everyone else who organized and attended the event. Most of my performance is available on YouTube, too, if you care to watch it. (I felt I was "in the zone" that night, very at ease with my reading, although I think I should slow down my delivery a little.)

The other event was the annual Poets Forum in New York City, presented by the Academy of American Poets. This three-day event includes readings by the Academy chancellors (a who's-who of American Poetry), panel discussions, lectures, and award presentations. The Thursday night chancellors reading included Victor Hernandez Cruz, Toi Derricotte, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Juan Felipe Herrera, Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ron Padgett, Claudia Rankine, Arthur Sze, Anne Waldman, and C.D. Wright. Of course I made a point to say hello and chat with my favorite of that bunch, Jane Hirshfield, at the reception afterward.

Friday started with a walking tour of the West Village, former home of an astounding number of poets, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin, e.e. cummings, James Merrill, Stanley Kunitz, Emma Lazarus, and many more. The afternoon featured panel discussions and a keynote lecture by Carolyn Forché, on the topic of "Poetry of Witness". Ms. Forché, a poet and social activist for many years, compiled an anthology several years ago called Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, which contains international poetry by poets who experienced war, persecution, political imprisonment and/or torture, and wrote about those experiences. (She has a "sequel" coming out in January about poetry of witness in English, going back as far as the 1500's and Sir Thomas More.) Her lecture about the poet's mandate to document the injustices of the world, and her anecdotes about how poetry has literally helped to change the tide of history and international relations, was moving and inspiring. Saturday evening was the presentation of the Academy's annual awards to poets such as Ms. Forché, Philip Levine, Patricia Smith, and Walt Whitman Award winner (for outstanding first book of poetry) Chris Hosea. I got to speak to him afterward, and also briefly again with Jane. The evening also honored the winners of the student poet awards, five very talented high-school-age poets from different areas of the country.

Saturday was a day of panel discussions and a complimentary luncheon. The most interesting and entertaining panel was led by Juan Felipe Herrera and Naomi Shihab Nye on the topic of teaching poetry to young students. They offered many ideas on how to keep students engaged and interested in poetry, including helpful tips for materials and exercises. Mr. Herrera's activity which could be called "The Stroll", involves lining up two rows of students, standing face to face, and instructing them to start a conversation with the student directly across from them. Then, one by one, each student "strolls" slowly between two lines with a pad and pen jotting down snippets of conversation they hear. At the end, everyone gets together to make a poem from these notes. Though I'm not a teacher, I may find some use for these tips some day, either leading a workshop or -who knows? - teaching in my retirement years. Another interesting panel featured Jane Hirshfield, Arhtur Sze and C.D.Wright on the topic of "ecopoetics" - the poetic practice of making the audience aware of nature and the environment and our relation to it - a particularly pertinent topic in this day and age. I didn't stay for the evening closing event, but I still had a great time at the conference, as well as having the opportunity to spend some quality time with my two sons who live in New York (lunch and dinner at some trendy but reasonable places, "game night" on Saturday, and lots of walking around the city).

Music: The results are in for WXPN's "885 Best Songs of the New Millennium" (2001 to present). Here are the top 20:

Rolling In The Deep
Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros
The Lumineers
Ho Hey
The White Stripes
Seven Nation Army
Bruce Springsteen
The Rising
Gnarls Barkley
Amy Winehouse
Impossible Germany
The Avett Brothers
I And Love And You
When My Time Comes
Johnny Cash
Ray Lamontagne
A Little Bit Of Everything
The Black Keys
Lonley Boy
Mumford & Sons
Little Lion Man
Someone Like You
Fix You
Chasing Pavements
The Black Keys
Gold On The Ceiling

If you are interested, you can find the whole list at Comparing my list to theirs, I only had 5 of my top 10 make the whole list of 885, and only 8 or my top 20. (I did have "Rolling in the Deep" for #1 though.) Still, about 57 of my top 100 made the list, which isn't too bad.

Poem: Continuing with my series of "greatest hits", here's the first of my two Pushcart Prize nominations. It appeared as the closing poem in an issue of Schuylkill Valley Journal (whose editor nominated me), as well as the closing poem of at least two of my chapbooks, and my reading last Wednesday night. It's got a lot of mileage.

Last Frame

When I go out
let it be as a bowling ball:
sixteen-pound, resin-polished,
black as a January night.

Lob me down
that smooth varnished lane,
hardwood rumble,
a graceful arc –

scattering ten pins with
cacophonous clatter,
valedictory strike,
X in the box, a perfect frame.

Don’t wait for me
at the ball return.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

You Can't Shut Down Poetry!

So on Day 14 of working for no pay, I could go on another tirade about the three-ring circus in Washington, but I won’t – I got most of it off my chest last time.  All I will say is that you know your government has gone off the rails when the liberal commentators on MSNBC wax nostalgic for the days of Ronald Reagan.

On to poetry: I have been largely unproductive lately, but I did participate in a fun annual event – The Collingswood Book Festival.  Held in early October, this well-attended, daylong street fair in Collingswood, NJ celebrates the printed and spoken word.  There are nationally and regionally well-known authors as well as local and self-published ones, small press publishers and journals, new and used booksellers, and a poetry tent with events throughout the day, as well as a variety of activities for kids including live music.  I was involved with the poetry events (of course), co-hosting a haiku workshop with my poet friend BJ Swartz, and co-hosting an open mic with another friend, Dave Worrell. My friends Anna Evans (who also judged a children’s poetry contest for the festival) and BJ Ward were also featured readers there – both were excellent, as usual. Also featured was Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden.  He is a former anti-war activist and a well-respected and loved man in the area, with an Irish brogue you can cut with a knife.  You could hear a pin drop as he read his often moving and lyrical poetry.  There were other featured poets too, like spoken-word favorite Lamont Dixon.  Though the weather was a little too warm for early October, it was a near-perfect day under the poetry tent.  Thanks to Tammy Paolino, Walt Howat, and all the organizers for another fine festival.

The other event I will be attending is the Poets Forum in New York City later this month.  It’s an annual three-day symposium sponsored by the Academy of America Poets, with an A-list lineup of poets, including one of my favorites, Jane Hirshfield.  The all-events pass was a birthday present courtesy of my two sons who live in NYC. Also, the day before the Poets Forum (Wed. October 23) I have a featured reading with the South Jersey Poets at Dante Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.

As I said, however, my creative output has been minimal lately.  I guess it’s just a phase, and I’m trying to work through it by being more active with poetry events and trying to get back into submitting.  I did recently submit to an online haiku journal called Tiny Words, and I’m still waiting for the results of the narrative poetry contest from Naugutuck River Review.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot!  I was recently nominated for a Best of the Net award by Chantarelle’s Notebook for my poem, “Mercurochrome Summer”.  Thanks to the editors, Kendall and Christinia Bell, for your continuing support of my work.

Poem of the Blog: Since I’m not coming up with much new stuff lately, I thought I’d start posting some “greatest hits” – poems that have had some significance in my current writing career.  Some may have appeared on my prior blogs, so please pardon any repetition. The logical place to start would be the poem for which this whole blog is named.  It was also my first journal publication in this iteration of my poetic life, appearing in the online journal Stirring: A Literary Collection in April 2000. It also became a bit of a “signature piece” and an audience favorite at readings.

How to Peel an Orange

Hold it loosely, like a yellow baseball.
Rub the leathery hide.

Punch a fingernail through the nippled top.
Push through to the hollow below.

Rip, pull out and down gently.
Watch the spray of oil in the air.
Inhale the pungent citrus.

Disregard the orange-white meat beneath your nails.
Disrobe this fruit completely.

Pick off the gangly strings of useless pulp.
Regard the naked segments, and with both thumbs,
separate the hemispheres.

Tear through the meridian.
See the droplets weep through the membranes.

Strip the translucent skin.
Reveal the clustered buds of juice like teardrops.

Peel off one tender crescent.
Bring it to your lover’s lips, so as to
suck it, nibble it, bite it

bursting the tiny juice pockets,
licking your fingertips.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pardon My Rant: The Government Shutdown

Well, as of this writing I have now been working eight days without pay.  Since the Government shutdown on Oct. 1, no more pay can be authorized to Federal employees, and over 800,000 workers were furloughed – sent home without pay - until this mess is resolved. There are still about three million “excepted” personnel (or “essential”, as the press calls them), who are required to stay on the job without pay. I am considered “essential” because my job involves taking claims to make sure people get their benefit checks to which they are entitled. The “non-essential” employees, as the press is calling them, got sent home, which led some conservative and anti-government wags to say, “Well, if they’re 'non-essential’, why do we even need them?” 

First, “non-essential” doesn’t mean “worthless”.  The folks who got furloughed are, as a rule, not responsible for the immediate health, safety, and security of the American people, but their jobs are still important in the long term, like FDA meat inspectors, and quality assurance staff in my own agency who review cases to catch people trying to scam the government for benefits they do not deserve. 

Second, try explaining to some average-pay Federal worker who may live paycheck-to-paycheck and not know how he or she will pay their mortgage next month, why they are not “essential”.  I’m tired of this stereotype of the Federal employee as an overpaid, underworked drone whose job is of no importance.   I defy anyone to do my job for just one day and then tell me I am overpaid.  One thing’s for sure: I’m certainly not being overpaid right now.  Thank goodness we have enough saved up to pay our mortgage at least for the next few months.  What really rankles me is that some Republican legislators have been saying, “Look at all the money the government is saving by not paying its workers.”  That’s like a CEO laying off a significant portion of his workers, refusing to pay the rest, then bragging about how much profit his company is making. (Of course, he still gets paid, and so do these senators and congressmen.)  This is no way to treat a dedicated, hard-working workforce, and refusing to pay 4 million people is bound to have an impact on the economy.  (Don’t even get me started about the debt ceiling.)

Who knows how long this mess will continue? I heard a report today that it could go to Thanksgiving! I put most of the blame on the Republicans for this impasse, especially their radical lunatic-fringe “Tea Party” members, who seem to be taking great glee in threatening to crash the entire economy all for a health care bill that they irrationally believe is the worst piece of legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act – yes, someone actually said that.*  It’s time for everyone to stop playing the blame game and hammer out a deal – Congress has reverted to acting like toddlers who won’t share their toys.  And yes, Mr. Obama, while I appreciate your standing by your principles, you may not be able to escape this without a few concessions.  The longer all this drags on, the more decent Americans are going to be hurt (and I’m not just talking about the Federal employees now), and I hope they remember this in November 2014.  When the dust clears, the first order of business for the Republican Party should be to cut out the Tea Party like the cancer that it is.

One final comment: In the past I’ve disagreed or have been angry with my President or my government for some decisions that they have made, like getting involved in wars and such.  But for the first time in my life, I have to honestly say I am ashamed with the way my government has been behaving these last few weeks.

*[By the way, here are some of the countries that have that “evil” and “socialist” national health insurance (of which “Obamacare” is an extremely limited, watered-down version):
United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Canada, Australia, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands,  Switzerland, Ghana, Colombia, Philippines, and to a more limited extent, Ireland, France and Germany.]

Next time: More poetry news - I promise!