April 28, 2011

At the Center

We know a tree by it’s branches
its leaves.  The roots keep the center
upright.  Even the bark defines, but

the center, the core, who knows?
After all it is the rings we count, not
that blank dot at the center.

In a wheel, the hub is a hole, the spokes
branching to the rim where work is done.
Everything happens on the edge:

the Left Wing, the Right Wing more
exciting than the center where all
are drawn but nothing happens.

The storm advances, high winds up front
the rain trailing behind, but the center
is empty, a moment of calm or

indecision, like when I sit, breathing
in, breathing out, my eyes closed above
my legs growing numb, my hands curved
in a mudra, my center quiet, empty.

Poets Speak Loud!, April 25

A dozen or so poets & listeners gathered in McGeary's back room for this series that started at the now burned out Lark Tavern. Mary Panza was the Mother-Host.

Some of us got there early for dinner (recommended) so I signed up first for a change & read 2 poems about breath & reading poetry, "Book Store Reading" (about the Half Moon Bookstore readings in Kingston) & the response to a prompt, "How to Read a Poem." One of 2 redheads in the room, Carolee Sherwood read a sestina for a school assignment, "Drought" (ironically full of rain, husbands & wine), then the chilling tale of natural terrorism, "Raccoon." Joe Krausman read a Spring poem about dating service mis-match, "Out of the Running," then a tale of an "old man" giving a young girl a boost "In the Parking Lot."

Our night's featured poet Jill Crammond's hair was perfect!  She began with a poem to her very young art students, "Arts Studio" (you don't think she sits around & writes poetry all day, do you?). "Sometimes Nothing at All Happens" had Jesus delivering milk, a wedding was the setting for "I Should Mention Love,"& in "Domestic Dispute" the wife strips all the Barbie dolls when the husband walks out. Jill also had a poem in a venerable form, a villanelle filled with peonies & azaleas, "A Short History of the Gardener’s Marriage and Eventual Uprooting," followed by "Buddha's Feast" after a visit to the divorce lawyer. Others on related themes included "The Year of the Divorce," the dark side of mothers in "From the Book of Moms" & "All the Pretty Mothers," & "Love's Lunchonette" (a dream poem). The prose poem "Slip Into this 40-year Old Turn-Key Charmer for a Song" is coming out in an anthology soon she tells us, then ends on the cosmic "What the Universe Makes of Ex-Wives." Sometimes I wish I was going through a divorce so I could write such funny/sardonic/bitter-sweet poems too.

Sylvia Barnard began the introduction to her poem while she was getting up from the table & continued on to the microphone, a poem encompassing scenes of children (including her own daughter) in her neighborhood over a period of years, each generation repeating & supplanting the previous one. The second of the night's redheads, Tess Lecuyer had birds in each of her poems, crows of course in "This Sound", then "Driving Poem" & "Summer Solstice 1999" from her series. Stacey Stump read a couple of older pieces, "A Winter's Lesson," about a childhood friend & memories of the beach, written in college, & what she said was one of the first poems she read at an open mic in Albany, "Goldenrod."

Usually held on the last Monday of the month, next month this open mic will be take place on May 23, 7:30 PM for sign-up, reading at 8:00PM at McGeary's on Clinton Sq., in Albany NY. Good food & beautiful waitresses.

April 24, 2011

Third Thursday Poetry Night, April 21

The house was packed for the featured poets, The Wreckless Rhymers, students of Daniel Nester's "English 218" class Poetry in Performance at the College of St. Rose. Parents, friends, & community poets for the open mic all turned out. Since it was Holy Thursday in the Roman Christian liturgy, I read both of William Blake's poems titled "Holy Thursday" to invoke the Muse, then on to the open mic.

Alan Catlin cited his 34 years as a bartender as a source for his poetry & read a just-written "No Exit No Return," another in his string of character portraits of bar patrons. Carolee Sherwood read her first sonnet, with rhyme even, "The Goldilocks Sonnet." Doug Holiday read a long piece by Carl Hancock Rux, a grim story told from a child's point of view, "Blue Candy." Bob Sharkey read a poem about the year 2001 & his introduction to the open mic poetry scene, "What Poetry Is." After asking me if I was in South Jersey in 1967 (I said he should ask his mother), Daniel Nester read a touching poem about his grandmother, a party held without her, saying this was the 10th anniversary of her death.

Joe Krausman told us a lot about Jesus in his humorous poem, "While Stuck In Traffic." Miriam Axel-Lute is behind in the poem-a-day project, having chosen the theme of "faulty assumptions of neo-classical economics," & read her poem titled "Posit: Maximum Efficiency is Always Best," much more amusing than the title, or theme. This was Grayson Edic's first time at this open mic & he read his poem "Urine Analysis," from what he called a series of bizarre love poems. Altranise Harris had read this past weekend at the WordFest & showed up tonight to read a revised version of a poem she had read then, "The Body Remembers," about therapeutic massage. Since not only was it Holy Thursday, but still Passover, I ended the open mic with my poem "What Passover Has Taught Me" (I mean, if Joe Krausman can tell us about Jesus, I can talk about Passover).

Tonight's featured poets titled themselves collectively, The Wretched Rhymers, but within that, there were 6 separate groups of 2 - 3 poets performing together, each group having it's own title. Sort of like the United States. I'm posting here a group photo but individual photos of each performance group can be viewed at my Flickr! site.

First up was the group "SL2 Squared" (Samantha Morency, Lorin Schwartz & Lauren Robinson). Their first poem was an exquisite corpse, then a back-&-forth with "Father," ending with a tribute to Nester's audio blogs. The group "Screw Loose" (Tiffany Burnett, Nicole Melkun & Paige Nadeau) did a multi-voice rant about an ex-, entitled "Embarrassment." The "Untitled Blonde Group" (Amanda Moran, Brittany Burns & Monica Kaiser) was just that & performed "Roller Coaster Romance," an apt description of still another relationship going bad.

"Bumpin' Uglies" (Taylor Merrihew, Nicole DuBois & Juliet Barney) contained the only guy in the class, the center of "Bitch Please," on the history of feminism & the nature of gender roles. The duo of "Bonk 'n' Brown" (Taylor Brown & Katelyn Bonk) did "Teacher Tell Off" about the bad habits of (some) professors, then a romp through a Thesaurus with "Synonyms." The final group, "Tijuana A" (Sunshine Osella, Liz Corey & Samantha Scully) (originally called "Tijuana Arousal") did an exquisite corpse, then what they called a semi-found poem, "How-To Guide," & ended with a lesson on remembering our "Manners."

The entire class came up for a brief finale poem, using some fragments from their earlier pieces. A great night of multi-voice group collaboration & performance. The students at the College of St. Rose are fortunate to have a professor such as Daniel Nester who will drag them off "the hill" & into town & we in town are fortunate as well to be able to experience such energy & just plain fun.

& we do this every third Thursday, sign-up at 7:00 PM, open mic starts at 7:30 PM, with a featured poet, at the Social Justice Center, 33 Central Ave., Albany, NY.

April 22, 2011

Poetry Reading at Arbor Hill Branch Library, April 20

This event was an "experiment" by the Friends of the Albany Public Library, the group that sponsors, among other events, the weekly Tuesday Noon-Time Book Reviews at the Albany Public Library Main Branch. This event was held at the wonderful new Arbor Hill Branch on Henry Johnson Boulevard, in Albany, NY. Gene Damm & Wille Mae Spencer shared the hosting, with a room full of folks to listen & some to read poetry.

Gene Damm started off with 2 poems of his own, "Shoes" & "Zoo Story." As the program progressed, some poets read before & after the featured poet, Nate Leslie.
So Jacqui Williams read Nikki Giovanni's poetic essay/manifesto "The Story-Teller's Silence," then later made us laugh with a "manifesto" of her own about all the parts of a man she likes, besides the penis. Penny Meachem first brought up an unfortunate (& brave) fellow from the audience to be the focus of her poem "Love Letter to an Angry Black Man;" later she did 2 more poems, one about "a chicken wing moment" with neighbor, the other titled "Jazz Blues." Mary Walters read a recently written piece, "Forgiveness," then later a poem by Maya Angelou.

Nate Leslie has a new book of poetry out, Small Cathedrals (WordTech Communications), a book of sonnets, from which he read "Wunderkind" (about his "exceptional" nephew), "A Cappella" (to his wife) & the tender "Violets" about picking flowers for his mother. He also read the grim "Elegy for Schultz" from his 2004 collection Egress, & one of the poem/letters from the 2007 Emma Saves Her Life (both from WordTech Communications). Nate teaches in the English Department at Siena College, & while his poems are decidedly well-crafted, they are certainly not "academic" & he fit right in with the open mic poets.

After Nate's reading, Ms. Spencer brought up her pastor to "bless the event," upon which the blessings of poetry had already fallen, as far as I was concerned. Kenneth Love had been Penny Meachem's foil earlier, but did a piece of his own, "Face Reality." I followed with my imagining of an alternative existence, "Oklahoma Sunday." It was at this point that the earlier poets came up to do their second pieces.

Described by Gene Damm as an "experiment" this event, in my opinion, was a fine success & I hope the Friends of the Albany Public Library will continue with more such community poetry readings in this, & maybe other, branch libraries.

April 19, 2011

Smith's Tavern 2011 Poet Laureate Contest, April 17

A fitting end to a poetry weekend to crown a poet's head with laurel. This is the second year of this event, organized by the Sunday 4 Poetry Open Mic gang: Dennis Sullivan, Mike Burke & Edie Abrams, & with the backing of Jon McClelland & John Mellen of Smith's Tavern in Voorheesville, NY.

A well-organized event with criteria, line limits & judges (Paul Amidon, Barbara Vink - the reigning 2010 poet laureate, Tim Verhaegen, & Suzanne Fisher), the competition is limited to 20 contestants, who must provide copies of their poems to the judges, with the final scores tabulated independently by Georgia Gray. Today there were 15 actual contestants; 19 had signed up & 4 were unable to attend. The readings were in 3 rounds with the order of the poets different for each round. There was even a special placemat with a contest to identify quotes by famous poets.

I was pleased & surprised to run into a couple poets from the past who were contestants. I knew Michael Rutherford when we were students at SUNY Albany, & he actually read "For Patricia" from his chapbook Meat is my Business (The Conspiracy Press, 1973). & I shared a pizza & wings with Scott Knox whose work is in Open Mic: the Albany Anthology (Hudson Valley Writers Guild, 1994); his poems today had some interesting uses of rhyme & rhythm. I recognized a couple poems that poets had tried out yesterday at WordFest, notably Stephen Leslie's "Ornamental Cherry Tree" & his "Omega Retreat" haibun, & Therese Broderick's "Ivory" -- a good idea to do a public practice before the big event.

In fact, 7 of the poets competing today read at WordFest yesterday. One of those was Danielle Charlestin (D. Colin), with her poem "Inauguration" with love in political terms. Among other things Frank Robinson gave us the history of mankind in his poem "We." Carolee Sherwood's poems included the urban "Apiary" & others to be found on her Blog. Bob Sharkey 's poems also were nothing like he did at WordFest, comfortable I guess in the variety of his work. I had missed Howard Kogan at WordFest, but here he kept us laughing & thinking with his relaxed style.

Tom Corrado included selections from his "A History of the World in 4-Line Feeds," among other pieces. Rachael Ikins's poems were about encounters in airports & Farm stands. Susan Oringel ranged from humor to memoir to Garcia Lorca. Melinda Perrin started with a poem in dialect & ended with the tear-raising "Arlington." Marilyn Paarlberg worked on memorizing her poems, & survived a judges' mix-up of the order of her poems. & Mark O'Brien had a selection of the fine poems we've heard at the monthly gathering at the Old Songs Community Center.

So when the dust had settled, the beers quaffed, the food consumed, the poems digested & scored, the new Smith's Tavern Poet Laureate for 2011 Howard Kogan was crowned with laurel by last year's winner, Barbara Vink, & honors bestowed upon the first runner up, Marilyn Paarlberg & the honorable mention of Mark O'Brien. Long Live Pizza & the Poet Laureate!!!

April 18, 2011

Psycho ClusterFuck, April 16

The 10th annual occurrence of this celebration of local talent, spoken words & music & whatever else pops up, named after the first such event at the very first WordFest when that's what it was. It's basically a term of affection, trust me.

But I had been here at The Linda on Central Ave. since 7AM, with a few breaks. It was more than 12 hours later & my head was spinning.

The first performer was Avery, barefoot, with a string of spoken word pieces enhanced by his energetic cavorting, first in performer black, then in martial arts white, twirling a didgeridoo (which he unfortunately didn't play). "Driven by the Crunch" set up the ironic contrast of shouting about yoga asanas. "Floating" came from a performance/installation at EMPAC at RPI.

Olivia Quillos provided a musical interlude, with her singer-songwriter pieces performed on a tenor ukelele (I think that's what it was). It's great to see performers whom I've seen at area open mics (specifically, I'd seen her at Professor Java's Wide Open Mic) finding a place on bigger stage.

A WordFest tradition is to showcase the winner's of Metroland's Readers' Pick for Best Poet. KC Orcutt  read first, explaining, "This is a social experiment" & read a series of mostly short jottings, musings, poems, sounding a lot like a collection of Tweets, where you can often find her, when not Blogging. She is new on the "scene" & it was her first appearance on Metroland's annual list.

RM Engelhardt is a perennial figure on the Readers' Pick list, having been on the scene & hosting open mics in a variety of venues over the years. He read "some new ones & some old ones from the greatest hits collection" of his self-published chapbooks. His usual theme of the poet against the world & the sanctity of poetry was the thread through each of the pieces.  Couldn't quite tell which were new & which were old, all written basically in the same style & sentiment.

Mary Panza has been on the poetry open mic scene even longer than Rob & has also been on the Metroland Best Poets list a number of times. She had been here all day, doing most of the MCing & was beginning to look frazzled, but taking the stage brought all her attitude & energy back. She also did a series of "greatest hits", particularly the trashing of Shel Silverstein in "Fuck the Giving Tree" & a poem that could've come from a prompt, even it it didn't, "This is Not An Angry Poem." As she said, the best poetry prompts are from living your life.

As the band Mother Judge was setting up to play, my day began to crash around me in the form of a fatigue headache & I realized I could no longer make it through the night so my report ends here too, as did my day. Sorry I missed the other performers, but as Groucho Marx once said, "I love my cigar too, but sometimes I take it out of my mouth." There's more poetry readings somewhere.

Albany WordFest 2011, April 16

What words to describe the experience of the 10th anniversary edition of WordFest (2011), 12 hours of poetry open mic, 7AM to 7PM -- variety, energy, creativity, friends, exhaustion -- & just plain fun. I was there for most of the day, & opened the show at 7AM with "Poeming the Prompt." But I had to eat once in a while, had to pee, once in a while, & so had some hard choices to make about when to cut out & who to miss, & it was never a perfect time, too many good poets. So I apologize to all my poet friends who I missed.

The early morning shift, after me, included early Bird Alan Casline with a just written poem, "happy morning" Therese Broderick with the first of the Fukushima poems, Anthony Bernini who had just walked in, also with a poem on the disaster in Japan, & Tim Keegan recently returned to the Albany area from elsewhere. & then there was Tess, who would read later, but came early to bring scones, delicious.

Mary Panza, who was doing introductions, kept us up-dated early on with the FaceBook posts from Don Levy on his progress in getting here, waking up, in the shower, out the door, etc.

There were newcomers, or at least, infrequent readers, such as Steve King with a poem on love & bananas, Stephen Leslie's funny fracking poem,
Jacky Kirkpatrick who read at last year's WordFest, Joe Hesch with a tsunami poem (& one of the handful of poets reading from an iPad or other electronic device), Jonathan Gradess' political rant, Glen Feulner on sadness, & the youngest reader, the rhyming Liam McKenna.

Of course there was plenty of sex & love. Stacey Stump delayed reading until her husband got there, then read poems about former lovers. Joan Pavlinsky drove over from Connecticut with a poem "not about fucking," she said. Shannon Shoemaker had her usual combination of sex & love, & Tanisha read about her pussy & Luis Pabon continued the theme later in hip-hop rhythms. Fitting in with relationship poems, Carolee Sherwood also continued the poem-a-day/prompt theme begun earlier.

At some point I remarked to Mary Panza that this was like the old Readings Against the End of the World, with it's feet firmly on the political ground. In addition to some of the topics already mentioned, there were poems about nuclear power & bombs from Frank S. Robinson on the contradictions of technology, to David Wolcott's memoir on working on shutting down Chernobyl, & Cecele Kraus as a "bystander to history" growing up near the nuclear test site. Kelly de la Rocha had a poem about doing relief work in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, & Jan Tramontano included her moving poem about a suicide bomber. David Kime had a rant about the building of the mosque near the World Trade Center site, & tucked a flag over his crotch.

I hosted an hour program on behalf of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild. Cecele Kraus read briefly again, while Leslie Neustadt did her slot here rather than in the program later, & included an incantation to her bone marrow. Henry Tedeschi returned to read again this year at WordFest, & Sylvia Barnard, delayed on the bus, got there to read poems of returning to her childhood home. Late fill-in Graydon Blye had a creepy story of Russian roulette at a teddy bear tea party, & Jill Crammond's relationship poems had June Cleaver using a meat cleaver on her husband, delicious. Then she introduced me to read, at her request, "The Bra Poem," changing forever how some folks will view bras in the future.

Following immediately this performance, Tess Lecuyer, who also read a sonnet & a villanelle, introduced her new form, the "bra-ku," in a 2-beat line (of course).

Judith Prest had a poem about herding poems, & Carol Graser read poems by students in her workshop, including a group collaboration & Altranise Harris' strong delivery of street poems. Glenn Werner read from his "dream abbreviations" & there was Mojavi making the spoken-word flesh. It wasn't all "poetry" (it's hard to tell where the line-breaks are when someone reads), but Harvey Havel was one who boldly declared he was reading prose, some short fiction.

And then there were the Albany poems. Ken Salzmann included a poem about Albany jazz from an old issue of the poetry journal Talus & Scree that includes one of my poems. Bob Sharkey read sections from his work-in-progress sci-fi poem, "Sustenance." Alan Catlin included riding-the-bus & bar-tending poems. Bless took requests from the audience for such hits as "Complacency" & "White Tees." Cheryl A. Rice combined her Albany poems with Angels & roses. & Don Levy, when not updating his FaceBook status, read from his marvelous poetic memoirs of the QE2 poetry days.

The readings flowed like Time itself, with contractions & expansions, even gaps, breaks for smokers & snacks. There were the expected gaps in the AM but it seemed a surprising number of no-shows later on, & a few who balked at the $10 ticket (for 12 hours of poetry, plus the Psycho ClusterFuck afterwards, pretty cheap if you stuck around). There were those who read & ran & those who hung out, came & went throughout the day, the audience size waxing & waning throughout the long day. & where was Gary Murrow anyways?

There is a full gallery of photos at my Flickr! site.  Stay tuned for the Psycho ClusterFuck!

April 15, 2011

The Greyfriar Living Literature Series, April 14

This occasional series takes place at Siena College in Loundonville, NY & the reader tonight was Gary Soto.

Naton Leslie from the English Department did the brief, biographical introduction to a room filled mostly with students & faculty of Siena College, with a handful of community poets.

Soto read a selection of his poems, many dealing with his experiences in school, such as "Stars," "Starching Clothes" (attending a concert for music appreciation class), & "Seventh Grade Shoes." His poems are often humorous, or as he described them, tongue-in-cheek, & the narratives are laid out in colloquial language spiced with bright metaphors.  Even his animal poems (such as "Dime-Store Parakeet" & a poem about a dog in a car eating an apple) avoided the sentimental & stuck to vivid (& therefore memorable) images.

 But a couple times he censored himself & decided to not read or truncate poems because of the audience. This was particularly ironic in his reading of "Our Five Senses" which was about going to junior college, learning about Aristotle & then (apparently, since he cut these parts out) having sex with a girl in a car, the irony being that the experiences he was describing in the poem took place when he was about the age of most of the people in the audience. Did he think that kids today don't get laid? Or that the older folks in the audience would be offended? Another poem he started to introduce, then decided not to read. Too bad, it probably would've been a crowd pleaser. He also interrupted his reading twice to elicit questions from the audience, which were quite good & led to interesting discussions of his writing technique & habits.

Other poems included among others the much-anthologized "Oranges," "Copper" & the early "Field Poem." I particularly liked "Pompeii & the Uses of the Imagination" with its humor & incongruous images. He said this was his first time traveling to this part of New York State. Too bad he couldn't stick around for the Albany WordFest this weekend.

April 14, 2011

The Story of Albany with Paul Grondahl, April 14

The Colonie Library (otherwise known as the William K. Sanford Town Library) offers a Noon Book Talk on Thursdays at 12:15. Today the speaker was Paul Grondahl, writer for the Albany Times-Union, & also the biographer of former Albany mayor Erastus Corning.

Paul spoke today about the Times-Union project The Story of Albany, both as a book & a presence on the T-U website (more about that below), in which the people of Albany were asked to submit their memories of living & growing up in Albany, memoirs of the sights, sounds, personalities, whatever. I have an entry in the book, a story & photo about poetry readings in Albany & Tom Nattell.

After reading the introduction, Paul read a selection of pieces on election night bonfires in the South End, about growing up on State St., & on Elm St., on Depression-era sights & sounds. He paused after each selection to ask the audience about their recollections & at the end responded to a variety of questions about newspaper work, his training as a reporter, the state of the newspaper industry today, & his writing. Paul is a relaxed speaker with a warm, friendly manner & I've always enjoyed his talks about his books, just as I always read stories in the T-U with his by-line.

The sale of the book The Story of Albany ($25.00) is used to benefit the Times Union Hope Fund which pays for disadvantaged youth to attend after-school programs and summer camps. However, anytime I've tried to find the website listed in the book & on print publicity, timesunion.com/storyofalbany, I get a "site not found" message. The webmaster has written to me that they are looking into it.  I'll post an update when I hear from them.

Live from the Living Room, April 13

Don Levy hosts this poetry reading, with an open mic, on the second Wednesday at Albany's Pride Center. This month was the re-scheduled (due to Winter's earlier wrath) reading of the local poet & Blogster (is that a word yet?) Carolee Sherwood.

Carolee, in addition to the web work she does for the HVWG, is also one of the principles behind Big Tent Poetry & her poems are posted daily on her Blog. She has been doing the "poem-a-day" thing for National Poetry Month so she read a cluster of these poems. "Brothel Early Morning" verged on narrative, with feathers & a stiletto. Others included "Raccoon" & "You Don't Feel Like Yourself When Dead," & "Backwards Morning" also prompted by prompts.  In "Comic Book Hero" she played off the prompt about having superpowers & "Next Time Tahiti" was prompted by to write "a never-again poem."  But my favorite in the group was "Nearly Barely" where she plays on changing letters of words to make them into something else (isn't this what poets do all the time?). Her last quartet of poems weren't from the monthly prompts, included the found-poem, "I Think I'll Go Make a Video about Ivan the Terrible" (based on Twitter postings), & the "FaceBook poem" about thinking she sees the poet Dorianne Laux, "Dining Along: Why I Smiled to Myself." With WordFest this weekend, she read a poem about last year's event, then ended with "To Girls Who Smiled as a Way to Survive in the World." A relaxed, sometimes humorous reading, well put together.

This is always an intimate gathering, poets reading from their comfy chairs, often engaging in conversation after poems or between poets. Sylvia Barnard talked about a friend who died recently that she had met at Cambridge, England many years ago, & the poem Sylvia read was as much about Cambridge & the past as about her friend. Tess Lecuyer read from a series of poems she has written about working for the fading bookstore chain, Borders, first a sonnet, "Shaking the Chai," then a poem from 1996, "Fall Equinox: Norman, Oklahoma" (which engendered talk about Oklahoma).

Don Levy described the next poet, Jill Crammond, as "the Robin to Carolee's Batman," then a discussion ensued as to which was which. Her first poem she described as "a schmaltzy love poem" "Lovers as an Abstract Art" then she read "I Am the Magician's Assistant" (isn't that sort of like Robin?). Back to the topic of Oklahoma, I read my recent poem "Oklahoma Sunday" then a poem actually written to a prompt recently on Big Tent Poetry "How to Read a Poem."

The youngest performer was Nina (here with her Grandma Sue Cerniglia, who had forgotten her own poem). Nina went into a short introductory rant about being hit with a ball while playing sports in school then read from her smart-phone a funny poem "Being Sick." Don Levy brought up the rear with another of his QE2-era memories, this about a reading at the Boulevard Bookstore, "Tom Gogola Naked" (note correct spelling of Tom's name).

Every 2nd Wednesday at the Pride Center of the Capital Region, Hudson Ave., Albany, between Lark & Dove. Comfy & straight-friendly.

April 13, 2011

Neither Memory nor Magic: Miklós Radnóti, April 12

This stunning film was screened at the Opalka Gallery, on the Albany campus of the Sage Colleges, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Arts. The director of this documentary film is Hugo Perez. If you follow this link  it will tell you all about the film & something about the poetry of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti.

When I saw the film, I had to wipe away tears at the end. Editions of Radnóti's work are hard to find here, but there are five or six of his most stunning poems in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché. If you don't know this anthology, I can only describe it as my "prison" or "desert-island" book, essential for any poet daring to write in the 21st Century.

There is important work being done by the Center for Documentary Arts at the Sage Colleges, under the directorship of Timothy Cahill, & I, for one, am glad it is here where I live. Bookmark their Blog.

April 11, 2011

A Guide to Writing from Prompts

There's a good reason that "April is the cruelest month" & it's Poetry. The general level of worry & angst among poets is rising now that we are in National Poetry Month, or as some call it, Write a Bad Poem Every Day from Prompts Month (NaWriPoPromMon).

It used to be that poets would wander the streets at night, or hike the woods, or take drugs, or fall in love in order to find things to write about. Now the internet makes it possible for poets to be bombarded by prompts for writing poems without getting mugged, or eaten by a bear, becoming a drug addict or getting your heart broken (again). Many sites list topics, phrases, words or other suggestions/assignments for writing a poem every day of April. A couple notable sites are NaPoWriMo.net, & Big Tent Poetry (which the rest of the year provides weekly prompts); just search "poetry prompts" on the internet & see what you get.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with providing ideas for people to write about to hone their literary skills, to keep the practice of writing alive. But you know how some folks can be, those raised in school systems (or religions, or households) that train you to do what you are told, to work hard everyday! It's actually an extension of our toilet training: "Mommy come here, look what I just did in the toilet." Prompts are like the laxative of writing for those that can't poop, I mean poem.

Having done this myself on occasion (I mean, writing from prompts, I have no trouble pooping), I've learned a few tricks to ease the anxiety of meeting the prompt deadline. I've actually used each of these at one time or another & nobody was the wiser, until now.

DWx's Top Tips for Anxiety-Free Writing from Prompts

  • Write really long poems, you can put lots of stuff in them; just look at "Song of Myself" or "Howl," how many prompts each of them could fulfill.
  • Look for the prompts in famous poems, then steal them. The work is already done for you, you just have to read.
  • Take a series of prompts & string them together & call it a "Found Poem."
  • Take any old poem of your own & change a word or line just enough to fulfill the prompt.
  • Add a line that fulfills the prompt to the poem you write, whether it makes sense or not, claim that you are imitating John Ashbery.
  • Write anything you want, then when you post it claim that it's fulfilling this or that prompt; those who read it won't care, they will just think they don't get it.

So, poets of the World, relax! Enjoy April, watch the flowers' shoots coming up, rake the lawn &  get poeming.

April 8, 2011

Caffè Lena Open Mic, April 6

The house was packed but I found a seat at a table with a lovely couple, Josh McIntyre & Beatriz Loyola. Our host Carol Graser began with a poem by Sharon Olds, then on to the open mic.

Gordon Haymon brought us out of Winter to the flotsam "On Shore," even finding a boat with a crew.

Beth Kenyon, the first of the night's many virgins & the first of the mother-&-daughter teams, read a poem about Charlie Sheen, "Psychic Cosmic Warrior." Barbara Garro had "Roses" for our graves, & a creepy poem about a 4 year old being beaten. Hamiliton showed up dressed like Donovan (remember him?) & did a couple of short unrequited-love poems. Caffe Lena's own Sarah Craig read a seasonal poem, "Slow Thaw" then what she described as "a Mom poem." G.G. (or was it Gigi?) Devins read a rambling poem in loping rhymes about being up at night, "A Midnight Tangent." Carole Kenyon completed the other half of the first mother-&-daughter team with a poem about Jupiter's ocean moon, "Europa."

The featured poet was David Kaczynski whose book, A Dream Named You, came out in 2010 from Troy Book Makers. I had heard David read a number of years ago & have admired his larger work for social justice, particularly working to abolish the death penalty. He talked about how he came to write poetry after the trial of his brother Ted, the so-called "Unabomber." He read from his book, beginning with poems to his brother, "Woodsman" & "Lost," the themes expanding from the personal to relationships & even politics. "Rosillos Mountain" is in West Texas, where he once lived & is pictured on the cover of his book. His poems are mostly short, often aphoristic, as in "Balance," often slipping into abstraction. He was best when he focused on images, as in the dream poem "Excavation." He also talked about his writing group, some of whom were in the audience, how he wouldn't be writing without the group. He ended with a love poem, "Diaphanous Beauty Pearl."

After the break, Carol Graser brought us back to the open mic with a poem about an ice-skating collision, "Public Skate." Kate McNery's poem "The Mess" was a spider in her therapist's office. Therese Broderick read the latest poem, "The Art Salesman," from her new series about her father & the history of Watervliet. W.D. Clarke's "The Ballad of Robert Brill" was a tasty, rhyming snack. Josh McIntyre did 2 short poems, the story of partying a bit too much, "Wedding Memories," & "Perspective."

Laura Whalen made a rare appearance at an open mike (here to support David Kaczynski) with a poem inspired by her niece, "What the White-tail Deer Meant to a Young Girl." Sue Jefts read a poem filed with the moon & leaves & sounds of the winter solstice, then read "This Breath," hands & words building poems. Deborah Homan read for the first time ever & her poem "Empty Promises" blasted her ex. Alan Catlin's poem "Listening to the Radio at 1:35 AM" combined bleak music & Scotch, while "Self-Portrait: Andy Warhol's Old Sparky in the Background" was actually about a sketch of Robert Lewis Stevenson. "The Old Zen Swordsman," Charles Watt's poem, also included a geisha. Tracey Oatfield (his first time reading, too) recited poems whose source I missed, but filled with "Thou" & "Thy."

Still another poetry virgin, Dylan, was a bit more modern with urban rhymes in the poem "Blind" while "The Rebel" told a story of revolt. I think it's been a couple years since Rachael read at the open mic; first an untitled piece, looking for a place to be, then "Peace" urging us to learn from our mistakes. I read my brand-new poem, "Oklahoma Sunday." The night ended with the second of the mother-&-daughter teams, first the daughter Angelina Grund with a poem of lost love, "The Space Between." Then her mother, Lorraine Grund with a poem to Angelina, "Just Face It Kid," then a poem built on a line from a mariachi song, "Sing & Don't Cry" -- a good note to end on.

The first Wednesday of every month, historic Caffè Lena, Phila St., Saratoga Springs, NY, $3.00 donation.

April 6, 2011

Albany Poets Presents!, April 5

Poets hanging out at a bar, drinking beer -- what could be better? Maybe if we added some poems! Stacey Stump had shown up to write about the open mic for an online journal, so when "Screamer" showed up, we had our minyan (or at least the poets-at-Valentines version), with Thom el Presidente Francis doing the heavy lifting as MC.

It seemed to be the "P" poems tonight for the poets that, briefly, read. "Screamer" (Amy Fortin) read a very sexy lust poem, "Pillowhead." I ran through my new piece, "The Pussy Pantoum."

Then Stacey Stump read an untitled piece that said she was not pregnant, not going to be a mother.

There was the usual generous dose of gossip, so if you weren't there, know that it's possible we talked about you; also, a cameo appearance by Mary Panza, confessions, trash talk & trading of poems at the bar via smart-phones. Like every 1st Tuesday at Valentines on New Scotland Ave., Albany, NY, 8PM -- take a chance next month.

April 5, 2011

Last Day: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, April 2

The power of words continued today, & I opted for first reading in the North Lounge (oh the tyranny of choices). Nathan Brown was up first with selections from his prose memoir of his friend & fellow poet Jim Chastain, Letters to a One-Armed Poet: A Memoir of Friendship, Loss, and Butternut Squash. The pieces are set in the form of letters to his late friend, stories of poetry buddies on the road. The section he read about eating his way through Jim's poem "The Last Supper" (or was it lost supper), was funny, poetic, & touching. Again, great prose from the pen (fingers) of a poet.

James Brubaker read from a longer prose piece set up like an interview with a fictional band member being interviewed about the experimental jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, but without the questions. Ayler died in 1970, presumably a suicide, while the character interviewed claims, "God killed Albert Ayler."

Sarah Webb took us on a different turn, with poetry of a decidedly Buddhist bent, or as she said, "something sparkly at the base of the mind." While she included a poem based on a Zen story, "Will It Go Too," other poems dealt with more everyday (if there can be such a thing in poetry) events, like driving on the highway between Texas & Oklahoma. A particularly ironic, & ultimately tender, piece, "Sundays" was about her daughter becoming a Baptist & having to drive her to church each week.

The second morning session I attended was also in the North Lounge & this time the choice was made for me. Patrick Ocampo was the first reader, another of the festival's readers who had live in NY, in Schenectady no less! He expressed an uncertainty about doing political poems (I make no such apology), but his poem "Sounds of the State" (in the anthology Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me) is fine example of how to do it. His final poem was "Last Poem Kills Audience," but fortunately that didn't happen.

Tara Hembrough read an excerpt from her novel, Cold Sunshine, this chapter about young love & breaking a Christmas horse.

I was the third reader in this cluster, & like I said, I make no apologies for reading "political" poems so jumped right in with "Richard Nixon Must Die" & included "Baghdad/Albany" at the end. In between, the Coyote poems, "Physics" (for Japan), even some love poems. Oh my, so many great poets in the audience!

A quick lunch with Larry Thomas, Elizabeth Raby & her husband Jim, & Alan Barecka, then back for more poetry, this time in the Estep Auditorium.

Dean Rader read from his book, Work & Days (just like, sort of, Hesiod). He read a number of what he called his version of love poems, such as "A Genealogy of Love Poems" in 4 parts each a different genre of poetry with blanks, like Mad Libs. Also a love poem about Frog & Toad in a Petrarchean sonnet, "Frog Seeks Help With Anger Management". He read a couple of Oklahoma poems, including the dust-bowl "Hesiod & Oklahoma 1934" & ended with "The Poem You Ordered." Clever work with lots of wry humor.

I had met Ron Wallace last year at the kick-off poetry reading for the Oklahoma LaborFest & he was instrumental in setting up 3 Guys from Albany in Albany, Oklahoma.  He began by describing how he came to write the "Oklahoma Cantos," pictures of Oklahoma landscape in quatrains (a selection appears in the anthology). The poem, "Learning to Speak Choctaw" was a memoir of his father who was a police officer & a veteran in the town. He ended with some "places & dates poems:" one about Mickey Mantle & a couple about his mother.

Fortunately, I had saved my seat in the front row (to take pictures) during the break because the house filled up for the festival finale, the reading by Billie Letts, author of the novel Where the Heart Is.

But first Mark Walling made the presentation of awards to high school students who were winners for the short fiction part of The Darryl Fisher High School Creative Writing Contest. He was followed by Joshua Grasso who presented the awards for poetry.  A full list of winners is here.

Billie Letts, a former school teacher, published her first novel at age 54, but had written screenplays & short before that. She had the audience in stitches telling us about when she was on the Oprah Winfrey show & Oprah mistook her for a Wal-mart employee where the segment was being taped. She read a section from Where the Heart Is, then more hilarious stories. She also gave out copies of her books that she had mis-inscribed at book signings, if that was your name or you knew someone with that name, e.g., "Cheryll."  A thoroughly delightful way to end a thoroughly marvelous festival. I was so proud & thrilled to be part of it.

Thank you Ken Hada & others at East Central University for all the good work you are doing. Keep at it.

You can check out an extensive selection of photos from the festival on my Flickr! site & other photos & information about the festival on the Scissortail Blog.

April 4, 2011

Oklahoma Sunday

Driving this straight Oklahoma highway
I wonder if in another life, or
if this one had taken another turn
I’d be on this highway on a Sunday again
in a pickup truck, a Sliverado or Ford 150
wearing a cowboy hat, or ECU baseball cap
driving to Christ Church or the Highway Tabernacle
or This or That Baptist Church
over Little River, or Big Creek
or the dried bed of the Canadian River
up & down the roll of the hills
past grazing cattle
the tree-lined creek beds
through one Indian Nation, then another
the red dirt like a plow rusting in the field
playing Country music on the radio
while some outlander passes me
wearing a beret, in a rented Nissan
playing classical music on the radio.

Day 2, Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, April 1, Featured Poet: Larry Thomas

I had met Larry Thomas on Wednesday evening in the lobby of the motel. He was meeting up with Ken Hada & a cluster of other poets, heading out for drinks, so I tagged along. The others in the entourage were Alan Barecka, Jim Hunter & Steven Schroeder. Alan grew up north of Utica, NY & Steven was from Chicago & knows my “3 Guys” buddy Charlie Rossiter.  We're all connected.

Larry is a big, gregarious guy from West Texas who characterizes himself as a “Buffalo” & was the Poet Laureate of Texas in 2008. He loves words & writes his ass off. He reads in a rich, slow, West Texas drawl, savoring each syllable, with dramatic pauses & ends his poems with slow emphasis, clearly enjoying his reading. His poems are mostly short, grounded in his place, such as the requested “The Red Raging Waters” with its religious images, “Amazing Grace,” & “Out of the Blue” (a childhood memory of his mother). He read from his book The Skin of Light, portraits & descriptions. Because his poems are short he can read a lot of them. He ended with reading the last section of his book A Murder of Crows, 16 poems of blackness, death (& the mockery of death), & writing.

During the interesting questions & answers he described his hard work of writing, but said he does it because he loves the sheer joy of playing with words. That one can tell.

(Ken Hada & Larry Thomas with the "Scissortail plate" given to the Featured Poets.)

April 3, 2011

Day 2, Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, April 1 (the day sessions)

Day 2, & already so great that if I had gone home last night the trip would have been worth it -- but there is much more to come. But 2 concurrent sessions in the morning & 2 concurrent sessions in the afternoon are more than a single person can attend (some folks who are here as a couple actually split it up). I opted for the morning sessions in the Estep Auditorium, the first MC’ed by English professor Mindie Dieu (who was also helping out at the book table, where I first encountered her).

Dorothy Alexander read first. I had heard Dorothy read last year at a poetry reading that was part of the Oklahoma Labor Fest. Throughout the Scissortail Festival she wore a large silver peace symbol on a chain around her neck. She read 2 moving segments from a memoir about her son dying of AIDS, beautifully written as only a poet used to dealing in images could do.

The second author, Bayard Godsave, from Cameron University, also read a prose piece, this a grim science-fiction piece set in Paris after a global nuclear war, full of sickness & death.

The next reading session, introduced by ECU professor & novelist Jim Hunter, was less grim.

Carol Coffee Reposa, from San Antonio, Texas, read a series of poems that had “reading” in common. “One Night in a Cheap Hotel” referenced Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” even the title, while “How to Stop War” proposed using classical music (sounds good to me!), & “Song for New Orleans” was a “Katrina poem” that found Walt Whitman walking around the city.

Paul Austin was another of the New Yorkers I found at this festival; he is married to Rilla Askew & they spend part of their time in OK & part in the Catskills of New York State. He read poems set in Houston (“Rothko Chapel”), Boston (“Chet Baker’s Return”) & NYC (“A Not Famous Actor”). Perhaps because he is an actor himself, he gave one of the more spirited performances of the festival so far.

There was a schedule change for the mid-day featured reading when the scheduled writer had to cancel at the last minute, so Ken adroitly moved up a couple of the afternoon readers.

Melissa Morphew read mostly from her new collection Bluster, which she described as different from other work, this based on her life. “Mea Culpa” is about grade-school cruelty; “My Own Private Tennessee” (where she grew up) was an anaphoric compilation of her memories, each line beginning “Because…”

Joey Brown began with some poems from a new collection, mostly narrative, descriptive works, but “The Cleaning House List” was a funny piece about making lists, with every item “#1”. She also read from Oklahomagraphy, with a number of poems about driving, including “Ass-Kicking Red-Neck Bitch,” & the mix of poetry & flash fiction describing a small town moment in time, “July.”

After lunch at La Fiesta Mexican restaurant, 7 poets all talking at once, good food & cheap beer, back for the afternoon readings in the North Lounge.

The first reader was Elizabeth Raby. I had met Elizabeth & her husband Jim early on & we had just had lunch together. She was another of the transplanted New Yorkers, having gone to Vassar College. They now live in Sante Fe. There was a great variety to her poems, beginning with a “found poem” that she had overheard on a bus. There was a touching poem to her husband about how she didn’t want him to die first, while “January 25, 2011” celebrated her 70th birthday & the Egyptian revolution, while birds entered her poems on occasion.

Jason Roberts read a prose piece, “Donovan,” that he said was inspired by a song by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils; the story told by a young boy who catches his mother banging the title character.

High school teacher Jordan Jacobs poems, which he said were “mostly new,” were filled with longing & love, but with an often grim view, as in “I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Women: Barefoot & Pregnant,” or “A Thing Better” about a crush on a bartender. He’s young, he’ll get over it (or not), & hopefully continue to write poems.

Jim Hunter was doing the intros for the next session, also in the North Lounge. He is a novelist who I first met last year hanging out in a bar in Ada, also had lived in NYC (& New Jersey) & now teaches at ECU. He was also in the group that I ran into in the lobby of the hotel that ended up over beers & pizza at Papa Gjorjo’s (more on that later). Unfortunately, I missed his reading -- choices, choices.

Abigail Keegan is another poet I had met in Oklahoma last year, at the Coffey’s Café reading to kick off the Oklahoma Labor Fest; she also has poems in the anthology. She read from her new book just out Depending Upon the Weather. When we think of “Nature poems” we think of birds, of trees, but for Keegan “Nature” is big: as in “Oklahoma Salt Plains,” “The Mesa,” & the rugged geography of Scotland in “Immortality.”

Al Turner (also in the big anthology) combined memoir, poems & a (mock) sermon for a spirited, at times hilarious performance. His memoir was about being “The World’s Worst Paperboy.” His poems included a series of short, 4 - 6 line poems including one where he argues with poet Ron Wallace. But his “Brother Al’s Sermon” brought down the house. When he read his poems it was in his “Presbyterian” voice, but Brother Al spoke with a rich Okie accent, an unlearned, frontier preacher, preaching from “blind inspiration” (i. e., ignorance) on the text of Acts 2:40.

Phil Estes, a younger poet, was more edgy, with modern poems filled with free association, & he was loud. He included a series of short prose poems based on movie titles, but not necessarily about the movies themselves. His “Oklahoma poems” included one about a pit-bull tied outside a house in his neighborhood, & an attempt at a real nature poem, a pond near his home, “Oklahoma Larks, Phoenixes, Albatrosses.”

& then it was time for a break -- lots of words to process, a long table of books to peruse, & time for a beer.

April 1, 2011

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, March 31

Day 1, at East Central University, Ada, Oklahoma.

I'm just a newby here at this 6th Annual gathering, but damn am I having a great time! It's not just the readings, but the "hang-time" with anyone you want to meet, & a poetry table that will keep you busy for the next year.

The first reading was in the Estep Auditorium at the campus center, with Ken Hada doing the intros (Ken is the head-waters of this festival, the god-father, the shaman, the head honcho, i.e., he makes it happen). The first poet up was Shirley Hall reading from her book, Listen, with direct, social action poems inspired by news stories that she includes as citations before & after each poem, on issues like the death penalty ("Judicial Homiside"), the homeless & their right to vote, & missionaries who give out Bibles instead of food to starving people. What a great way to start!

George McCormick read a prose narrative, "The Mexican," in the voice of a young boy, loading ice into boxcars, then the lying version of the tale the boy tells his children.

Ken Hada gave a relaxed reading of his poems with images drawn from the natural world around him, birds & fish, but also the human observer, & with a touch of humor. "Leveling" is a fine poem
(that can be found in the anthology Ain't Nobody that Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010), edited by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish) about the mixing of everybody at a blues festival in Bricktown in Oklahoma City. He also included a poem that is a favorite of Larry Thomas, the Poet Laureate of Texas, (about whom more later) "Hands."

After a break, the next session was introduced by Joshua Grasso, a professor of 19th century literature, who regretted that his field did not give him the luxury of inviting Jane Austen to read at such literary festivals as this. He introduced Alan Berecka who grew up north of Utica, NY, but now lives in Corpus Christi, TX. Alan was just the first of former/part-time New Yorkers I was surprised to meet here in the middle of the country. He read from his book, Remembering the Body. His poems often used humor, often about religion (like “McDemption” & the title poem), with some touching poems about his relationship with his father, & with his children. He paid tribute to the Texas Poet Laureate, Larry Thomas (again), with "The Texas Poet’s Lariat.”

Another partial New York, but native Oklahoman, novelist Rilla Askew read the first chapter of novel-in-progress, untitled so far, set in the recent past, told from the viewpoint of a 10 year-old boy, visiting his Grandpa in jail for smuggling Mexicans.

I had met Jim Spurr last year when I was last in Oklahoma & found out that he also runs an open mic on the Third Thursday of the month, in Shawnee, OK. He read poems about growing up in both halves of the 1940’s, the war part & the peace part. His poems are mostly working class narratives, tinged with humor. I particularly enjoyed “Curmudgeons Always Win” (about telling friend he was a published poet). He ended with ironic poem on the end of World War II, “The New Life,” a powerful anti-war poem.

After lunch we had the unfortunate prospect of choosing between competing sessions, either in the Estep Auditorium or the North Lounge. I stayed at the Auditorium to hear a young poet I met last year who read powerful, moving & graphic poems about serving in Iraq in 2003 in the early days of the invasion. Jason Poudrier read from his chapbook, In the Rubble at Our Feet, which has a blurb from me on the back cover, from my comments on his reading last year. He also included poems of his from the anthology, Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me, as well as others from a forthcoming book; I particularly liked “Iraqis” with it’s image of children on the streets as soldiers drive by with guns sticking out the window.

J. Don Cook is a journalist & photographer who read an essay about his experience in covering the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, as well as a couple poems.

Ben Myers read poems from his book, Elegy for Trains, about memory & the past, such as the humorous “Poets with Happy Childhoods,” as well as poems about his home state, “Bury Me in Oklahoma” & “The City Dump.”

I chose to attend the second afternoon reading that included 3 poets from the anthology (& got them to sign my copy). Jane Vincent Taylor read one of her “sonnets from childhood” other poems about teaching, about superstitions (“Everyday Beliefs”), about her writing friends, & a dream about her union-member father.

Jeanne Dunbar-Green read a short story, “Since It’s You and All” that I had just read the night before in the anthology. Nice to hear it in her country accent.

Arn Henderson read in a slow, careful, undramatic manner that didn’t detract from his vivid poems, such as the one about a woman who made a quilt from her dead husband’s clothes, and actually worked quite well with his spare descriptions of Oklahoma places in “Base Line & Meridian,” based on surveys that form the grid that is Oklahoma.

The long-range planning that such a festival entails is fraught with changes. The featured reader for this first night was a late fill-in when the writer originally scheduled had to back out. Susan Parabo was an excellent choice nonetheless, reading “Treasure,” a short story she wrote 5 or 6 years ago, but appearing now in a new collection of her short stories. It is a tale of high-school/teenage love, that she read well. And the question & answer period after included some insightful questions on her method & writing habits.

The festival was off to a fantastic start & I was already glad I made the trip.