Wednesday, December 24, 2014

So this is Christmas.

So, this is Christmas.  The season of sentimentality.  I’ve been fumbling and stumbling for too long now, day-to-day, under a fog of sadness…exhausted (2014 has been a rough year.)  But then, reading in my favorite chair next to the Christmas tree with Vince Guaraldi on the stereo playing “Christmas Time is Here” (how much more cliché could I get), I felt the welling up, the lump in my throat and the fog began to lift.  I began to jot notes for poems in the back of the book I was reading.  I began to hear words in the music, music in the words. 

A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. – Robert Frost

I say, let the schmaltz run free!  And what better time than at Christmas with so much emotion tied to memories, happiness and sadness, love that is with us and love that is gone.  So many ways to wrench our hearts…to break them wide open.

And I believe for we writers (artists of any ilk actually), we cannot be afraid of the sentimentality within us, cannot be afraid to remember, cannot be afraid to feel.  All of our stories are born out of memory.

There are periods when work stress and the demands of day to day living can numb the poetry out of my brain, can put me into that fog of sadness.  So when pictures of Christmas past or some sappy romantic Christmas movie bring a tear to my eye, I know I can still feel.  And that is the time to write, when the crack has been made in the hard shell of life.  Take advantage of the moment, seize those powerful emotions because even if they were provoked, aroused, teased by romanticism or manipulated by formulaic theatre…those are still real emotions triggered by the part in us that has no connection to rationality.

The skill is in being able to craft and shape away the cliché and the trite.  That is the making of art. Without the emotion there is no art.
Poetry is best when it is something you just gotta get off your chest…I personally only write when I absolutely have to – when it gets so it hurts too much if I don’t. – Kenneth Rexroth
So Merry Christmas, drink it in to the last sweet and sappy drop, and when you can’t take it anymore, write!

I offer you a poem, hope you enjoy it.

My Only Christmas Poem

Here’s to the Christmas tree that fell
breaking our tiny glass heart ornaments
dangerous shiny slivers stuck in the carpet nap,

to the evergreen needles
swept into a pile, to the roasted potatoes
burnt and stuck to the bottom of the pan,

to your father’s last Christmas
when he made shy Courtney sing.
Here’s to the last bottle of wine.

Here’s to blown fuses, to stale cookies,
to all the gifts that were wrong,
to Dexter Gordon’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Here’s to Italy’s Seven Fishes
and to a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Here’s to Linus and Scrooge.

Here’s to building sailing ships at 2 a.m.
Here’s to the year we almost missed.
Here’s to our 12-year-old son who tells us

dancing in front of the tree
is way too corny.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Confessions Old and New

     For those who’ve travelled down any road of literary discovery, I don’t think it is surprising for me to say that I recently began following a path of study that led me to insights I was surprised to find.  Not so much surprised at the findings, but surprised at myself for what I had missed. 
     Last summer as I came to the last day of a creative writing class I was teaching at The Clearing Folk School (Door County, Wisc.), I asked the class what they would like to have me add next year.  I got a resounding “more women writers.”  Even though the class was an introduction for burgeoning writers, how could I have skipped Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Virginia Wolf…just to name some of the superstars.  There are so many great woman writers.  But I focused on fundamentals with Basho, Hemingway, Neruda, Kerouac, Ginsberg…yes, some of my own personal influences (all males).  But where was Anne Sexton…I was disappointed and embarrassed in myself for neglecting her work.

     When I was an undergrad studying English and writing poetry (most of it bad I must admit), I was living within the aftershock of Anne Sexton’s 1974 suicide.  While a student, I read every one of her books and absorbed her powerful sense of simile and metaphor, as well as her courage to use physical/body imagery in starkly vivid ways. What I missed about Sexton was the size of the huge door that she opened in poetry.

     Anne with her contemporaries (and friends) Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell was categorized, along with others, as “Confessional.”  Unfortunately, this category became pejorative.  I realized this critical attitude, but in my own naïve un-academic pursuits of poetic knowledge and enjoyment, I assumed most contemporary poetry was confessional in some manner…even if the first person was not speaking autobiographically.  The Beat writers had their own category (too Bohemian for the literary establishment to take them seriously as it did with their Confessional contemporaries), but they too were breaking down the taboos of what personal experience was acceptable to write in poetry.  I have always believed in the Hemingway mantra to write what you know, to write “one true sentence,” that if the writing doesn’t come from true experience the reader will know it.

     So I began a study to shape a class that would explore “how much confession is too much confession” with a focus on de-bunking the criticism of confessional poetry.  The answer to that original question was fairly easy to determine: too much confession is self-absorption, narcissism, and shock for the sake of shock.  What I found (to my surprise) was how I had never formalized in my own mind the importance of Sexton and Plath in breaking the ground for women to write about what is true female experience…forget the confessional categorization.  

     Plath with her anger and raging against the feminine roles she was forced to play.  Sexton with her honesty about mental illness and subjects of menstruation, sex from a woman’s perspective, adultery, masturbation, and motherhood.  Neither of these women would think of themselves as feminists (though the feminist movement of the ‘70s used Plath especially as a poster child), they thought of themselves as “woman poets.”   But this courage to be honest, not to hide what they were truly talking about behind euphemism or allegory, opened the door for all writers and you can easily see how they set the stage for the Slam poetry of today (as much as Ginsberg had).  

     I had always realized the place of the Confessional Poets in the American poetry pantheon.  But what is important to me is that now I can verbalize why literary confession is validating for readers.
Why?  Because we are all human and in the shaping and crafting of personal experience into the framework of a literary form, what we share as feeling human beings takes on a universality; it is shaped for us in a way that becomes less mysterious, less threatening, less scary.  We can see others and ourselves more clearly, more accessibly.  We gain an understanding that is not taught in school, or church, or even by our families.

     “Confession” also means affirmation and revelation.

     This is not confession, but insight.  This is writing the “true sentence.”  The best writing prompt I ever received was this: “write something that you don’t want read until after you are dead.”  How brave you can suddenly become.  If there is a story inside of you that won’t be silenced, then it is worth writing down because it is your own truth; whether it ever gets read, or not.

     This is from Anne Sexton’s poem “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further:”

                  I will hold my awkward bowl,
                  with all its cracked stars shining
                  like a complicated lie,
                  and fasten a new skin around it
                  as if I were dressing an orange
                  or a strange sun.
                  Not that it was beautiful,
                  but that I found some order there.
                  There ought to be something special
                  for someone

                  in this kind of hope…

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Fly in The Soup, on being a young writer in Chicago

     For the uninitiated, the main entry hall of Oak Park River Forest High School (Oak Park,  a suburb just adjacent to Chicago’s West Side) has a special and proud feature identified by students as the “wall of fame.”  It consists of neat rows of framed pictures of notable graduates of the school.  Some more recognizable than others, some are Hollywood types, others scientists or statesmen, and of course the school’s Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway.  (You’d think that with Hem’s literary stature and international fame the school could go a little bigger and with a better quality photo print, but I digress.)  Not very far from the photo of Hemingway is a photo of Charles Simic with the caption “poet.”   Taking a quick poll, I count five of my poet and English-major-type friends who actually know who Simic is.

     Not unlike Hemingway, Charles Simic left Oak Park shortly after graduating from high school.  Also like Hemingway, Simic left Oak Park determined to be a writer.  Also like Hemingway, Simic went on in 1990 to win a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry (having been a runner up in 1986 and 1987).  In 2007, Charles Simic was named the fifteenth Poet Laureate of the United States.   His other awards, including the Wallace Stevens Award, and publications of poetry, non-fiction, and translations are too many to list here (but easily found with an internet search, or at the library).
     And to think it all started at OPRF, in Chicago-land.  Well, almost.  Simic grew up in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), during World War II.  As refugees, the family moved to Paris (where Charles began studying English) and eventually to the U.S.  The Simics arrived in Chicago in 1955.  

     In his memoir a fly in the soup, Simic credits teachers at OPRF for encouraging his literary bent and his love for poetry.  During his high school years he began writing poetry in English, as well as becoming a painter.   “My school was no joke,” he writes in his memoir, “One had to study, do homework every night and be prepared to answer intelligently in class.  My classmates were mostly children of professional people and had the confidence and ability of well-brought-up young people…I think I was the only foreigner in the school, and so I was a curiosity.”
     But what is it about Chicago that makes writers?  And “tough” writers at that: Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Algren, Sandburg, Dreiser, Richard Wright, Royko, Norbert Blei, even Simic.  Certainly not just a suburban high school.  Maybe it was the midnight el rides coming home from work or college night classes.  Maybe it was the late-50s Chicago literati with whom Simic spent time, as all good 20-year-olds do, drinking, smoking, listening to jazz, and watching sunrises. 
     “In those days,” Simic describes, “much more so than today, radical intellectuals came from working-class backgrounds.  They worked with their hands, or they were union officials. Children of immigrants, they had plenty advice for a newcomer like me…you ought to be writing poems about old Polish ladies who sweep the downtown offices at night.”

     Charles Simic has been called an American poet with a Serbian accent, he describes the “Chicago effect” in a fly in the soup:
Chicago gave a better sense of what America was than some small town or New York would have.  Its mixture of being, at the same time, very modern and very provincial is a national characteristic.  Add to that the realization that so much of our national prosperity depends on cheap labor.  Immigrants and blacks kept Chicago humming. I like the anarchy of the city.  There were dives and strip joints a few blocks from the monumental Art Institute…Chicago was the garage sale of all the contradictions America could contain.  A rusty water tower on the top of an old warehouse would look as beautiful as some architectural wonder along the lakeshore.  Every notion of aesthetics one previously held had to be revised if one were to appreciate the city.  My greatest teachers, in both art and literature, were the streets I roamed. 
So, your Poet-At-Large roams the streets still.  You come too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Think Of It As Prayer

Considering our cozy 4 1/2 square miles, there are a lot of churches in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where I’ve spent the last 17 years.  No judgment intended, but there is quite a potpourri of paths to salvation right outside most of our doors.  Though I was raised Catholic, I enjoy Unity Temple these days. Always searching for some sort of gateway to my inner self, what my grammar school teachers might have called the Holy Spirit or the soul, I was curious about the latest: The Church of Beethoven.
No doctrine, no preaching, no holy books…the Church of Beethoven is a simple concept.  In an intimate (meaning smallish) setting let an audience (or “congregation” to extend the metaphor) experience the emotional/spiritual intent of a classical composer through a live small group or solo performance.  The musical selections are complimented with poetry readings.  The Church of Beethoven happens once a month on a Sunday at the Open Door Theatre.  It is the intimacy of the setting that makes the performance “more”…being able to see the musician’s hands and face, hear him/her breathe, see when a single note touches a nerve in the heart of the performer.
Ah, the wonder of a live performance.  For those impressed with attending concerts at large venues, Chicago’s Symphony Center for example, consider the small club or theatre, your local coffee house.  Sit close and listen without distraction…shut the cell phone off for 45 minutes.
"Mingus This Way" photo by Max DeGenova
On the same weekend that I attended the Church of Beethoven, I also enjoyed a very special jazz performance at Buzz After Hours (an occasional event at a small coffee house, The Buzz Café).  Sitting at a table not four feet from the quartet, I could hear the saxophone’s keys close; could hear the keyboardist hum his improvised line as he played it; see the eye contact between musicians cueing each other; see the smiles of mutual respect as solos found their climaxes; could hear the drummer take breaths on off beats.
I had invited one of my best friends, Larry Janowski, to join me at Buzz After Hours.  He is a poet and Franciscan friar.  A classical music lover with only a novice’s exposure to jazz performance, this is how Larry responded to the “magic” between the musicians and the music during that night of jazz:

The whole session was like a prayer for me.  What I mean by “a prayer” is not the “talking to God” idea, but I guess what I really mean is contemplation, or what we sometimes call the prayer of union.  It’s the deepest kind of spiritual experience in which there is no longer any separation between the person and God.  In such a moment there are no words.  There are no feelings.  There is only Being.  All is one. I got a glimpse of that kind of experience last night.

To me, this is to experience art.  Deeper, artistic inspiration is divine, however you might define divine.  In this sense, artists are messengers and prophets.  Stand close, listen deeply, watch every move…and if you’re lucky, you’ll be inspired yourself.

Of course, the magic doesn’t happen with every performance, but if you’re not there, you may miss a transcendent moment.  Go to local performances, small gallery openings, poetry readings.  Think of it as praying.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Finding The Moveable Feast

It is time again for A Moveable Feast.  This is my fourth time with Hemingway’s famous memoir about being a young and poor writer in Paris during the 1920s, but this time I am reading the new “restored” edition.  There are subtle changes to the text and “new” chapters culled from Hemingway’s papers, but the feast is no less enjoyable or romantic.  This reading, however, is enhanced by the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris which now adds a visual to my mind’s eye.
            Today a more mature writer myself and at a stage in my life where I am reviewing memories like scenes to my own movie, I find myself contemplating the title of this book.  Hemingway had never titled this posthumous book himself.  His notes suggest titles about learning to be a writer, but the published title is said to have come from a remark Hem made to a friend, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 
The Clearing Folk School in June, my moveable feast
            In the ecclesiastical sense, a moveable feast is a day that is not fixed by the calendar like Easter, Ramadan, or Passover.  More or less, it is a commemoration that can be appropriately celebrated in any season.  So too Hemingway’s moveable feast, it is a time or state of mind to which you can return in heart and mind to find happiness, love, energy, or creativity…wherever, whenever.
            But I understand now that your moveable feast is more than the “good old days,” not a period in time when life was without responsibility, when we laughed and partied, it’s not those frat house days.  A moveable feast is where we were our best selves, where we were our most honest selves, where we were able to find, as Hemingway called it, our “one true sentence.”
            As I read A Moveable Feast once again, living almost literally in the shadow of Hemingway’s boyhood home, there may be more than one. Hem had Paris, fishing on his boat in Key West, being part of the D-Day invasion.  I remember my too few years as a Chicago blues musician, writing and teaching at The Clearing in Door County, the short years when my children were babies at the center of my life.
       Being able to define and recognize our moveable feasts can be the healing balm for difficult days, or the well of creativity that we return to again and again.  To feel whole and alive within ourselves is survival. Through his writing, Hemingway went back to 1920s Paris in his last days when injury and illness plagued him, he found his best self and left us his moveable feast.  Where is yours?