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Charles Coe
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Poet, writer, art administrator
Interests: Cooking, sports, music
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On a mild late October evening, Boston’s Old South church was crammed with music and book lovers who’d come to see and hear a living treasure of the American music scene—the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. But there wasn’t a piano in sight. The evening was a conversation between Hancock and Roger Brown, president of Berklee College of Music, about the former’s newly released memoir Possibilities. It was the kick-off event for the 2014 Boston Book Festival, which in six short years has become one of the most important events on the local literary calendar. This wasn’t Hancock’s first foray into the world of letters. In March of this year he delivered six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz” as Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. (The Norton selection process interprets "poetry" in the broadest sense, including all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.) The music fan might not know much about Hancock’s interest in writing, but his stature as a musician is anything but secret. In a playing career that stretches back to the early ‘60s he’s won fourteen Grammy Awards. His musical curiosity has taken him from bebop to hip-hop, with forays into funk, fusion and electronic music. During the conversation at Old South, he and Brown talked about the musical journey that’s included work with a “Who’s Who” of international musicians including Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and many more. During the Q & A a gaggle of young people hopped up to stand in the aisle for a chance at the microphone. Each was a musician with a serious, detailed question about the craft or business of music. (How do you promote your career? What was it like to record with a particular musician? How do you practice?) Hancock has spent most of his adult life as a Buddhist, and without being preachy or judgmental he gently suggested that a person’s inner life has just as much to do with building a satisfying musical career as marketing and technical expertise. “How do I practice? The way I talk to my mate at breakfast is part of my practice. How I deal with people on the street. My life is my practice.” “I know that’s not what you asked me.” (A polite way of saying, “I know that’s not what you wanted to hear.”) He smiled to soften the blow. “I could tell you what scales I play but I think the way you live your life is more important. If you don’t understand yourself and the world around you, you’re going to be very limited in what you can bring forth in your music.” Perhaps not entirely satisfying answers for ambitious, competitive young musicians who hungered for tips and trade secrets from the master--answers it might take some of them years of living to begin to understand. There's a story about the time one of Chopin’s patrons brought a young prodigy to his studio to play the piano. A virtuoso pianist... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s facing a tough battle for re-election; one poll has him trailing his Democratic challenger by up to 25 points. He’s had a particularly hard time attracting black voters, many of whom where outraged by his signing of a 2012 law, later overturned by a Pennsylvania judge’s ruling, that would have required voters to present a photo ID. Corbett’s campaign team recently released a photograph they hoped would suggest that things were just hunky dory between him and the black community. The photo shows a low-key, friendly Corbett. Casually dressed in denim shirt, no tie, top button unbuttoned, talking to a small group of supporters. Standing behind the governor is a middle-aged black woman, gazing at him in adoration. “See?” the photo implies. “Black people like Governor Corbett too! Because he understands the issues that are important to our African-American citizens.” Just one problem: The shot’s a fake; the woman’s image was Photoshopped from a stock photo. As an African American I am totally outraged. It’s a matter of job security. I happen to be a member in good standing of the National Union of Podium Negroes, and I am extremely concerned about the impact this might have on my profession. As you know, Podium Negroes are the black and brown faces you see in photographs of right-wing politicians at public events. Usually the politician’s at the podium with a group of supporters standing behind him—his wife and family, perhaps a veteran in uniform, a prominent athlete or entertainer and a Podium Negro or two (often the only brown faces in the room). And now the Corbett campaign’s threatening our livelihoods. If someone can just paste in fake photos of Podium Negroes, what happens to us? The real workers? And with computer-generated graphics, there’ll be nothing stopping them from pasting digitized Negroes into live events as well. Few people realize how difficult and demanding our profession can be. We spend hours listening to country music at rallies and conventions. We eat countless plates of tuna-noodle casserole and Jell-O with little marshmallows at receptions. We stand with smiles glued in place while listening to politicians who sometimes sound like they’ve been using their heads as doorstops. We work hard, and we deserve our country’s appreciation and respect. Our union is convening an emergency session of the management committee to address the challenge presented by Digital Podium Negroes. The Corbett campaign has fired the first shot; now we will respond. And I am confident we will enjoy the support of all fair-minded Americans who realize, as was so eloquently stated by a stalwart supporter of our profession, former President George W. Bush, “how hard it is to put food on your family.” Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the view from my front door. Nowadays the sewer drains, utilities, streets and sidewalks are being redone all over my neighborhood as part of a massive public works project. Most folks around here try to grin and bear it because it's important and necessary work. But the noise, dirt and disruption are incredible. I work days so fortunately I miss most of the fun; if I had to sit through this five days a week I’d probably staring at a kitchen shelf by now trying to decide between absinthe and hemlock. I live around the corner from Tory Row, named for seven historic mansions sprinkled along Brattle Street that were built by wealthy locals who remained loyal to the crown during that awkward spat between the colonies and King George. Many other equally regal homes have been built along that stretch over the years, and this is where you'll find some of the most expensive real estate in New England. These are the kinds of houses where you’ll see a half dozen Mexican landscape guys patrolling the lawn on hands and knees, trimming the grass with manicure scissors. I'm guessing that most of the owners have decamped to their second or third homes on Martha's Vineyard or St. Croix by now and left the housekeeper in Cambridge to make sure the tractor driver doesn’t plow down a fence. The beating and banging starts every morning at seven. Microphones are on the ground here and there that one of the construction guys said aren’t recording anything—they're just checking sound levels. Sure…like the NSA would pass up this good a chance to keep an ear on The People’s Republic of Cambridge. But it must be boring for the monitors, listening all day to people discussing their dogs’ bowel movements. So I figure to provide a little more interesting programming: 1. With “Super Freak” blasting in the background on a boombox, introduce the line-up of an imaginary NBA team (“And now, ladies and gentlemen… your 2014 Freedonia Landsharks! At one forward, Duplicitous Manatee! At the other forward, La’ Shonn Pantoum! At center, Buns Alfresco!”….) 2. Sing an a cappella Tom Jones medly. I’m leaning toward “What’s New Pussycat,” “It’s Not Unusual” and “She’s a Lady.” 3. Deliver Henry V’s speech at Agincourt in Bugs Bunny’s voice: (“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”) 4. Read twenty minutes of Rodney Dangerfield jokes. We’re only six months into a three-year construction project so I’m going to need a lot more material. I’m open to suggestions…. Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship... Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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As a kid, I was an incurable library rat. Raise your hand if you were one too. (Yep…thought so.) From the time I was nine or ten, old enough to wander around on my own, if I wasn’t at the local movie house for the creature double feature you’d find me at the library. I could stroll in for free, spend the day with nose buried in books, and then wobble to the desk with an armful to take home. Then I’d bring that pile back a couple of weeks later and do it all over again. I never understood why there weren’t lines around the block. For the most part I was an ordinary kid. I played basketball and softball. I watched a lot of TV. I rode my bike. I looked for creative ways to annoy my big sister (an important part of a little brother’s job description). But then as now, the big draw for me was reading. I caught the bug from my parents, who constantly had their faces stuck in books. With Dad it was westerns and mysteries, while Mom devoured historical novels and the kinds of hospital romances that later gave way to TV soap operas. There was no better place to scratch that itch than the public library. I could wander the place and check out anything that caught my eye. There were no parents, no teachers to say, “No, I think that’s probably for when you’re a little older.” Sometimes I’d sit at the table with a book and put it back in just a few minutes. But then there were times like the day I stumbled over the wonderfully terrifying work of H.P. Lovecraft. Another time I grabbed at random a book by Pearl Buck. (I thought she had an interesting name.) It was “The Good Earth,” the quietly profound, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that showed China’s transition from ancient to modern times through the lens of one farm family’s life. I read the whole book sitting in a chair at in the library, mesmerized. I checked it out, took it home, and read it again. It was after reading that novel I realized that someday, somehow, I wanted to be a story teller. It’s more important than ever that those of us who love libraries do what we can to help them survive and thrive. In many towns the local mall’s replaced the town square and sometimes the library’s the only democratic, accessible public space left for people to gather. We have to tell our elected officials clearly and forcefully that as voters we support our libraries. If our local systems have “friends of the library” associations we need to look for ways to get involved. We all know that the role of the library is changing rapidly. Libraries are learning to adapt, with their banks of computers and increased focus on offering readings and other community events. Even so, with the Internet and the emergence of eBooks some people consider... Continue reading
Posted Sep 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Ms. God finally lost her patience as she watched her husband repeatedly jab a listless spoon in his bran flakes. "Are you going to eat that or just push it around for the rest of the millenium?" God shrugged and let out a long sigh. “Look," she said "Why don't you go grab some fresh air? And quit moping around the house? You're giving me shpilkes." God shook his head. "Naw...don't feel like it. Too hot outside. Or too cold. Whatever." Ms. God picked up a frying pan from the shelf she'd been dusting and fixed him with a prison yard stare. "It wasn't a suggestion," she said in a tone any husband--immortal or otherwise--knows only too well. "Hmmm...guess I should go check up on my creations," he said with a weak grin, hauling himself out of the chair and shuffling outside to sit on a cloud. He had to admit his wife had a point. He'd been an awful bore lately, and for reasons that were frankly pretty embarrassing. He'd never thought of himself as vain before; a few million years ago when he'd starting going gray and getting thick around the middle he'd just shrugged it off. But he'd alway been proud of his voice. And for the last hundred years he'd carved out a pretty good living in the advertising industry; lots of clients wanted "The Voice of God" to lend their campaigns a touch of class. For a while he'd had more gigs than he could handle, until a new guy hit the scene. So now when someone selling doggie treats or plumbing supplies wanted to spruce up their ads it was, "Get me Morgan Freeman." A choir of ten thousand angels sensing their Lord's mood, flew over to cheer him with gladsome hosannas. But he waved them away. "Sorry," he said. "Not in the mood to be worshipped at the moment. Check back later." The Holy Hosts flew off disappointed, but he was too distracted to notice. Maybe it was time to switch agents. He fished an iPhone from his robe and speed-dialed a familiar number. "Yo Stan, God here. We need to pow-wow. My voice-over career's at the bottom of the pond, face down in the mud. And I don't see any bubbles. I know you've been doing your best, but I've been thinking maybe it's time to make some changes." "Look, I know we've been going through a rough patch," Stan said. "It happens. Remember, Travolta was out of work for ten years before Pulp Fiction." God frowned. "Yeah, yeah. But that dweeb at Mountain Dew all but promised us the gig and then texted they were going with Freeman. That's the tenth job in a row he's aced us out of. I don't know how much more of this I can take." "Well, here's some good news," Stan said. "Denny's is breaking out a new line of nutria burgers, and they want you as the voice of the campaign. We got a... Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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During a recent drive along the Maine coast, I saw a strange-looking building that looked like a giant blue bowl turned upside down. I got closer to see white lettering on the side that announced “Wild Blueberry Land.” It had been a long drive and it seemed like a good time for a break. And I find local kitsch amusing, so I pulled on the lot. Inside was exactly as I suspected, everything blueberry you could possibly imagine: jellies and jams, cookbooks, T-shirts, mugs, can openers…on and on. After a few minutes of poking around I’d had my fill and was just about to leave when I noticed a blue door in back, almost hidden by a shelf of clothing, with a sign above it that said, in letters too small to read from more than a few feet away, “Wild Blueberry Floor Show. Every hour on the hour. Twenty Dollars. ADULTS ONLY. No refunds.” A middle-aged man with a tragic comb-over in a loud, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt sat by the door in a white plastic lawn chair, flipping through a copy of “The Racing Form.” When I walked over he gave me a bored glance. “Floor show?” I said with a smile. “Sounds like pretty spicy stuff.” He didn’t return my smile, just scratched a hairy chest and inspected his fingernails. “I can tell you’re a guy knows all about blueberries,” he said in a sarcastic tone that raised my hackles. “Well yes,” I said. “I’m not completely ignorant on the subject.” He gave me a seen-it-all grin. “Sure,” he said, nodding. “Bet you’re a real expert. Blueberries on granola…maybe some pancakes. And you read that book about the kid picking blueberries with his mom, right?” I was starting to find his manner quite annoying. “Yes. Blueberries for Sal," I replied. "Of course I know that book.” He leaned back in his ratty little chair, folded his arms and nodded. “Yeah...a real expert. But if you wanna learn a little something about real wild Maine blueberries, give the floor show a shot. Or you could just go buy a pot holder and call it a day.” We all have moments we wish we could replay…turn back the clock a few days, or even a few seconds, and make a different choice. I could have just walked away. Instead I took out my wallet and angrily plucked a twenty-dollar bill. He snatched it, put it in a cigar box sitting on the floor by his chair and waved at the blue door with a grand gesture. I turned the knob and stepped through to enter a dark, short hallway, at the end of which was a beaded curtain. I pushed through to find myself in the quintessential low-rent strip club—the kind of place you’d never, ever want to see under bright light. There was a little bar with a half dozen stools, and off to the side a small stage. The stool I sat on wiggled and squeaked under my... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I am bald. Well, not completely bald. More accurately, I have “male-pattern baldness,” which means I still have goo gobs of hair on the sides and in back, but the front reflects so much light I’d have to advise you to wear sunglasses if you want a close look. I started losing my hair in my mid-twenties. A bit early I guess, but I don’t remember being terribly upset about it; the State of my Pate has never been high on my list of concerns. But if it’s high on yours, you can join your fellow Bald Americans who spend one billion dollars a year in the Follicle Wars. Some of your options: TOUPEES: The classic solution. But once you start wearing one you’re committed. (Can’t just leave it home on Casual Friday.) A well-done hairpiece can be extremely convincing. A bad one can look like a squirrel fell out of a tall tree and landed on your head. IMPLANTS: Your own hair is plucked from where it is and planted where it isn’t. A good implant job can cost as much as twenty grand. A bad one can look like you’re trying to grow a crop of barley. ROGAINE: After centuries of con artists selling snake oil they claimed would regrow hair, somebody found a snake with oil that sort of works; Rogaine regrows hair for slightly more than half of those who try it. Problem is, if you stop using it the hair you grew falls out. That means YOU HAVE TO USE IT THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Crack dealers and Rogaine distributors should trade high fives when they pass each other on the street. And finally, we have “The Nuclear Option”… THE COMBOVER: A man committed to this path has sent his remaining hairs on a perilous journey from east to west. (One must say “hairs” not “hair” because the latter implies abundance.) Marching in tight parallel formation, they’ve been deployed to cover their host’s vast expanse of gleaming flesh. Perhaps they’re embarrassed to be pressed (literally) into this particular service. But they’re glad they’ve been spared, at least so far, their companions' fate—down the drain and banished via sewer to some distant ocean, or plucked angrily from a brush. And their host…what can we ever know of him? Does he truly believe this stratagem will inspire passing strangers to think, “Ah, yes…that fellow has a fine head of hair?” Or does he realize the battle’s already lost, yet resolutely charges forward, exhorting the remains of his decimated army to follow him into the teeth of the enemy guns? Some mysteries of the human heart defy understanding…. Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from... Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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In Sharon, Vermont, a quiet little spot off I-89, about an hour shy of Montpelier, sits the Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had time to stop so I decided to take look, winding my way through the woods to the parking lot. The Memorial was dedicated in 1982, but by the mid ‘90s the site had fallen into disrepair and was in danger of being closed. An outpouring of community support convinced the governor to keep the site open, and Vermont legislators decided not only to rescue and restore the site, but to make it the center of a “green” rest area, with state-of-the-art renewable energy systems. Inside the reception center the walls were covered with the history of the Green Mountain State’s involvement in the war, where the young men came from, and how many lost their lives. And there were black-and-white photos taken in 'Nam of sons of Vermont—mostly shots of them in the mundane business of fixing a jeep or eating C-rations from a can. I walked outside to the monument itself, crossed a short footbridge decorated with American flags, and came to a stone marker where 138 names were carved, the names of 138 young men who traveled across the seas to a land most hadn’t even heard of, and who never came back. Behind the monument a simple white disk lay in the grass, imbedded with the words: “MIA: We Shall Never Forget.” It was late on a weekday afternoon, and I was the only person there. I sat on a bench for a long while listening to the birds, and the breeze through the trees, then walked across the little footbridge and back through the reception center. I walked past the photographs of the soldiers and a hot anger gripped my chest at the thought of the cynical empire builders who tossed those young lives away like poker chips. Richard Nixon, whose “Peace with Honor” blather was little more than an attempt to placate his party's hawkish right wing. Robert MacNamara, who went to his grave without expressing any genuine remorse. And Henry Kissinger, who's made a fortune as a pundit and advisor to right-wing governments; to him the fact that the war cost 58,000 young American lives seems like an afterthought. Maybe as you're reading this his wife's flicking a piece of lint off his tuxedo on the way to yet another Manhattan plutocrat cocktail party. I doubt if any of those men ever saw, or would have cared to see, the words spoken by “Gold Star Mother” Louise Ransom at the memorial’s dedication ceremony in 1982: TO GRIEVE We will remember how they looked the last time we saw them. We will also remember the weddings never attended, the houses never built, the children never born, the fields never plowed, books never written and the songs never sung. Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Ringo Starr—born Richard Starkey—celebrates his 74th birthday on July 7th. (Fellow Baby Boomers, don’t freak out…just lean over, put your heads between your knees…breathe deeply…) Everybody okay? Good. Ringo replaced the famously fired Pete Best as the Beatles' drummer in 1962. One reason for the move was that the rest of the boys thought he was limited as a musician, but it’s also said his personality just didn’t fit with the others—not as “fun loving.” So Ringo got his shot. Things can be tough at first for a young rock band. Gigs in skanky venues with dodgy sound systems. Crashing on friends' sofas. Riding around in a van that's on life support. Club owners who try to shortchange you. Belligerent drunk guys, pissed because their girlfriends are are making cow eyes at you. It’s you against the world, and you tend to stick together. But once you succeed other agendas emerge, which is why so many bands implode when they hit the big time. If you want a long run at the top there’s a delicate ecology to maintain. For a while the Beatles pulled it off. They had two alpha dogs who worked well together and wrote most of their songs—John the politically and socially conscious one and Paul the tunesmith with the brilliant sense of melody. And George, the spiritual center of the band whose ego could handle John and Paul’s creative control and who made sure everybody played in tune. Then there was Ringo. Some casual music fans never rated him very high as a musician because he wasn’t a “viruoso.” But he enjoys much respect among his peers; he was an absolute metronome—a fantastic timekeeper. And listen to any Beatles song while concentrating just on Ringo. I’ll bet my lunch money you won’t hear a single cut where you think, “That’s a cool song, but I wish there’d been a different drummer.” His drum parts were always just right. And Ringo had the perfect personality for this particular band. They needed a joker. Or more accurately, a wise fool. If things started dragging in the studio during a long session, or John and Paul started getting on each other’s nerves he’s crack a joke to lighten the mood. But not even Ringo could smooth over the tensions that flared once Yoko hit the scene. John committed an unforgivable sin recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in a band; he brought an outsider to recording sessions and let her make critical comments about the music. Although it's unfair to blame her for breaking up the band; she was just the catalyst. John's attention was already elsewhere. Ringo tried to play the peacemaker, but it was clearly time to move on. Ringo had a great ride with his lads from Liverpool. He's comfortably settled in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's a mega-millionaire. He's on the road now with "Ringo Starr's All-Stars" because he enjoys it, not because he needs the cash. Not bad for a... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I've discovered that when you can’t figure out how your fancy new Internet-based office phone works, you create more problems than you solve by jabbing buttons at random. And tempted as I might be, I suspect that striking said phone repeatedly with a three-hole punch until it’s reduced to a pile of plastic shards would do little to improve the situation. The tech guy at my office recently carried off the analog beast I’d used without incident for fifteen years and left a sleek gunmetal gray uberphone covered with buttons sitting on my desk. I stared at it for a while, then finally said, “Let’s make sure we understand each other. All I want from you is a dial tone. Just let me dial a number, talk to somebody, hang up when I’m done, and get on with my life. Sound fair to you?” I thought it was a pretty good heart-to-heart chat. But I was doing all the talking, and probably should have recognized this as a bad omen. With my new phone I can do a hostile takeover of Microsoft, reconfigure the orbits of communications satellites, and adjust the thermostat of every house in North America. I can do everything but make a telephone call. It has an instruction manual longer than a Stephen King novel. But a Stepen King novel's written in English; at least twice a week I have to ask the office manager to come over and help me decode the thing. I think it’s time to reconsider proven technologies like talking drums, smoke signals, and tin cans connected by a string. I’m trying to organize a committee at my office to explore those possibilities, but so far no go. Guess I’ve just reached an age where I can no longer pretend I’m “cutting edge” in any way. I used to dash up a set of stairs, but now I trudge resolutely, briefcase banging against my knee, staying to the right so the youngsters can vault by me two steps at a time. And I often shake my head when I see things on television that would have once had police pounding on the studio door. But don’t take me wrong; I’m not a curmudgeon. I enjoy and appreciate the wonders of this young century. It’s just that I wish I could slow things down sometimes…just a little. I was perfectly happy with my old office phone, but someone else decided it was time for a change. So if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to go dig up a phone book (remember those?) and see if I can scare up a deal on some carrier pigeons. Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry... Continue reading
Posted Jun 23, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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A few days ago I was walking down the street on the kind of sunny day that puts smiles on the faces of normally cranky Bostonians. A young guy with a blond buzz cut in a jeep with the top down was at a stoplight with Jet Airliner--one of my favorite Steve Miller tunes--blaring on his radio. I mouthed the words and looked up when I heard a honk. It was the guy in the Jeep, giving me a big grin and a thumbs up as the light changed and he roared off down Massachusetts Avenue. My mind wandered, as it often does, and I started thinking about that song’s interesting history. It was written in 1973 by Paul Pena, a blind American blues singer of Cape Verdean descent, who recorded it that same year for what he hoped was going to be his commercial breakthrough album. But because of hassles with his label it wasn’t released until 2000. When a former member of Steve Miller's band who'd produced Pena's album played it for him, Miller decided to cover Jet Airliner for his '77 “Book of Dreams” LP. As the first single it climbed to number eight on the Billboard chart. Pena was besieged by personal and health problems, and his album’s shelving left his career in tatters. His wife became terribly ill and he gave up performing to care for her, and when she died of kidney failure he basically withdrew from the world, distracting himself by fiddling for hours with a shortwave radio. His passion for music was rekindled when he stumbled over a new and amazing sound, singers who could somehow produce two or even three tones at once. The broadcasts were in Russian, so he had no idea what he was listening to. He spent eight years trying to track down the source, and finally found someone who could explain that what he’d heard was “throat singing”—a tradition born in Tuva, a remote region of Mongolia. He bought some recordings and spent three years teaching himself the technique, and when The Throat Singers of Tuva came to San Francisco he went to the concert and met with the group afterward to sing for them. This story, and the amazing events that followed, were captured in Genghis Blues, a film that won a 1999 Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a 2000 Oscar for Best Documentary. His blues career got something of a bump from the film, but sadly he didn’t have much time to enjoy it; his health worsened and he died in 2005 of complications from diabetes and pancreatitis. This incarnation didn’t work out so well for Paul Pena. It’s bittersweet to watch Genghis Blues now, with this sad, gentle, brilliant, grumpy, droll, rumpled shaggy dog of a man who just couldn't seem to catch a break, except for one moment of triumph that would have been too preposterous for a fictional film. The kind of moment that can... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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In my younger days I worked as a house painter. When I told the general contractor I was done with a job, he’d walk around the site with the client to make a list of odds and ends I’d missed: A window with trim that needed another coat. A few drops of paint spilled in the kitchen pantry. On a construction site that little document's called a “punch list,” because it makes you want to punch the person who wrote it. It’s very annoying to work hard on something and think you’re finished just to have someone tell you, “Nope. Not quite yet.” Now that I’m a writer it’s no less annoying; when I hand my work over I don’t want to hear, “I think there are some things we need to fix.” I want my editor to say, “I couldn’t wait for email; I had to call to tell you this is the most remarkable piece of writing I’ve seen in thirty years in the business. It’s going straight to the printer.” Fortunately that’s never happened; I doubt I'd survive the shock. Revising one’s work is an unavoidable part of the game. Every writer knows this—from the award-winning novelist to someone in a first poetry workshop at the local adult education center. Some people who’ve never tried to practice the craft think that writers…well…just sit down and write. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are manuscript museums with drafts from literary giants like Mark Twain, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and many others. Some of the texts are virtually covered with ink—scribbles, crossed-out words, circles around sentences and paragraphs that get moved, semi-legible notes scrawled in the margins and so on. The challenge is to revise and rewrite long after the original excitement over the piece has faded, and to create a finished product that—in spite of all the tinkering—evokes that same sense of excitement and discovery in the reader. To accomplish this magic feat takes determination that borders on the pathological, like some guy in Moose Udder, Maine who builds a fifty-foot Elvis sculpture with empty Red Bull cans. If you’re holed up in your room, staring at your computer screen, resolutely building an Elvis of your own, I salute you. If you've ever gotten so sick of working on a particular project you couldn’t bear to even look at it for a week, or a month or a year, but one day you sighed, cracked your knuckles and hauled yourself off the sofa to start that fourth draft, I salute you. Years ago when writers started asking for my advice, I always gave pep talks. I don’t do that anymore. Now if someone sings the blues to me about how hard it is to write, or makes excuses for why they don’t have time, I just nod. “I hear you,” I say. “Writing is really difficult. It’s so difficult that if you can live without it you probably should.” The late, great Gore Vidal... Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Whenever I start to worry that the human race is becoming too intelligent, I take a day off from work to camp out on the sofa and check out some daytime television. I especially enjoy the “Jerry Springer Show,” and its various clones that make it obvious there are some people who'll do anything for their fifteen minutes. Who can resist a hairy, three-hundred-pound guy in a tutu shaking his moneymaker? Or a couple of skanky-looking women fighting over some kuckle dragger who looks like he'd have a hard time scoring a dishwashing gig at Denny’s? One Springer clone recently featured the topic (and I swear I’m not making this up) “My Mom Thinks My Baby’s Too Dark to Be My Fiancée’s.” Fair enough. But I’m looking forward to the follow-up: “My Baby Thinks My Mom’s too Stupid to Be His Grandmother”... BABY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We welcome our studio audience and viewers at home to “Are You too Stupid to Be My Grandmother?” Is our contestant ready to begin? CONTESTANT: Yes. BABY: Excellent. Your first question: “What religion is the president of the United States? CONTESTANT: Muslim! (Buzzer sounds) BABY: Sorry, that is incorrect. The president is Christian. Next question: “Please name a planet in our solar system other than Earth.” CONTESTANT: Umm…the Moon? (Buzzer sounds) BABY: Incorrect. The Moon is a satellite, not a planet. Next question: “Is a thespian allowed by law to serve in the Congress of the United States?” CONTESTANT: Absolutely not! (Buzzer sounds) BABY: That is incorrect. Appearing in a dinner theater production of “Cats” does not preclude holding national public office, although some might argue it should. Are you ready for your final question? CONTESTANT: I guess… BABY: Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? CONTESTANT: …Uhhhh… (Buzzer sounds) BABY: Sorry, your time is up. We have now ascertained that you are, indeed, “Too Stupid to Be My Grandmother.” But thank you for playing. We hope you enjoy your parting gifts: a case of Bacon Ranch Pringles and the complete boxed set of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Please exit through the door on your right…no…the other right... Daytime television reassures the aliens who’ve been monitoring our transmissions for the last hundred and fifty years that Earthlings pose no threat to the Galactic Federation. At some point soon, after checking out the show with the guy whose ex-girlfriend won’t give back his prosthetic leg, or the man who married his horse, the aliens will breathe a collective sigh of relief, grab some Chinese takeout, and head for home. Continue reading
Posted May 13, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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There’s a certain book I cannot wait to read. It’s the story of a woman who stared down one of the most powerful political lobbies in America, and whose resolve and courage saved countless thousands of American families from heartbreak. I’d like to curl up in my favorite chair with a hot cup of joe, toss the phone in a bucket of water, kick off my shoes and spend a rainy evening with my face stuck in the pages. But there’s one little thing keeping me from reading this book: it doesn’t exist. In 1960 Frances Oldham Kelsey was a young physician hired by the Federal Food and Drug Administration to review new drugs. One of her first assignments was to assess Thalidomide, a drug commonly being prescribed in Europe and Australia to treat pregnant women with morning sickness. Kelsey didn’t think the research results provided by the manufacturer were adequate, and refused to approve the drug for widespread distribution in the United States until more information was available. In spite of intense lobbying from Richard Merrill, the manufacturer, Kelsey held firm. And she was vindicated when reports came in from Europe that Thalidomide had been linked to serious birth defects; some babies were born with stumps for arms and legs. Others blind or deaf. As the news spread, Kelsey was universally hailed as a hero; JFK awarded her the President’s Award for Distinguished Civil Service. She even had an asteroid named after her. The Thalidomide incident moved Congress to pass The Kefauver-Harris Amendment in 1962, which required manufacturers to provide much more research and documentation for new drugs, and to report adverse reactions to the FDA. Kelsey was instrumental in helping to frame the language of the new law and played a key role in monitoring drug company compliance. How is it possible that no one’s written a book about this woman? About this wife, mother of two daughters, and physician whose courage prevented an untold number of horrible birth defects? You can imagine the kind of pressure she was under, and all the horrible things said about her (and probably to her), with the huge profits at stake. I’ve suggested to a couple of writer colleagues that they tell this story, but no go. One said I should write it myself, but I’m not a biographer. But someone needs to take this on. I’m giving the idea away for free; I just want a little love in the foreword and a signed copy. And frankly, I’m not sure how much longer I want to live on a planet where you can buy a biography of Snooki but can’t find a book about one of the greatest heroes in the history of medicine. Dr. Kelsey retired from the FDA in 2005 at ninety, after forty-five years of service. But she’s still around, and she might be available for interviews. So will somebody please get on this? Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I’ve decided to stop handing out free advice; people just don’t appreciate it. For example I know someone who likes to travel; her home and office are infested with souvenir snow globes she picks up wherever she goes. I suggested she just find out what factory in China makes them all and buy a box filled with ones named after places she wants to visit over the next thirty years. That way she could get her beloved globes without the expense and hassle of actually leaving home. Was she grateful for this excellent suggestion? Au contraire—her response was frosty, to say the least. I foolishly made a comment about an acquaintence's new boyfriend. "That skull with the bleeding eye sockets on his bicep’s pretty good for prison ink," I mused. "But he should probably wear a long-sleeved shirt when he applies for that dishwashing job at Denny’s." She fixed me with an icy glare. "Your problem," she said, "is that you’re just a bitter, cynical troglodyte with no idea of what it means to be in love." Well! I suppose she told me. But I hold no grudges; when she gets home from work some day to find a bare spot on the floor with a few loose wires and dust bunnies where her TV and stereo used to live, nary an "I told you so" shall pass my lips. The group least receptive to neighborly advice seems to be parents whose children are acting up in public. One time on a city bus a young boy kept kicking the back of my seat, so I turned around and mentioned it to the man he was traveling with. Without looking up from his magazine, the gentleman muttered, "Stop kickin’ the seat." The little darling stopped but after a minute resumed kicking. I turned around again. "Traveling with a young child can be difficult," I said with a friendly smile. "Have you considered freeze drying him? You could store him in a Zip-Loc bag and when you reach your destination just slip him into a warm bathtub. Voila! Instant Tyke. " He just frowned. "What are you, some kinda (expletive deleted) wise guy? Why don’t you just turn the (expletive deleted) around and mind your own (expletive deleted) business.” Having thus resolved the matter, he returned his attention to Busty Milkmaids Quarterly while his spawn continued thumping the back of my seat. More good advice wasted. So take it from me; next time someone tells you, "I’m cashing in my pension to buy a ferret ranch in Tierra del Fuego, " or "I think a few drops of cod liver oil would really perk up these Margaritas," just nod and smile. Because nobody wants to hear what you really think. Of course, that’s just my opinion… Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Last week at work I got this email from someone who lives on my block: Hi neighbors, Just to let you know both our cars were rifled through last night. Neither was locked and I don't see any damage but the glove compartments were searched through and loose change taken …I've called the police to report it. I guess we'll start locking our cars now. I sent a sympathetic reply, resisting the impulse to add, “ARE YOU SERIOUS? YOU HAVEN’T BEEN LOCKING YOUR CARS?” That would have been rubbing salt in the wounds. We live on a one-block dead end with six houses, a twenty-minute walk from Harvard Square. With thirteen years in the ‘hood I’m a newbie; there are two couples in their seventies whose almost middle-aged children were born and raised here. I rent the first floor of a house, with my landlords on the second floor. Between our house and the one next door is a brick patio we call “Red Square” (this is the People’s Republic of Cambridge), where we have potluck cook-outs every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. I’m usually the grill man. All of which is to say that it’s a close-knit little street—as bucolic as you get in the city—but it’s not Mayberry or Pleasantville. Nonetheless there are enough people in this part of town who leave their cars unlocked that someone’s decided it’s worth their time to skulk around at oh-dark-hundred trying doors. I don't understand people who leave their cars unlocked. I always lock mine wherever I go. When I visit the country I sometimes get kidded for being a paranoid city boy. But my friends are welcome to their fun; be just my luck to leave my car unlocked the night some bear decided he needed a new GPS. So now my neighbors lock their cars. For a while they’ll probably feel mad and sad when they do, but sooner or later that’ll fade and it’ll become automatic. Just one of the countless adjustments we make because we realize not everyone’s honest and kind. No big deal, really. But for them, the world that’s our little street will never be quite the same. And though they might have been a little naïve I’m sorry for what they’ve lost—something a bit more than a fistful of quarters. Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. A novella, Spin Cycles, will be published by Gemma Media in September, 2014. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles... Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Like most poets, I obsess about finding the word that says exactly what I’m trying to say; close enough isn’t good enough. I might take all day deciding between “outraged” and “indignant,” then change my mind the next morning. It irritates me when someone calls his boss a “Nazi” because she wants him to show up to work on time. And I’m sure the toilet bowl cleaner in that TV commercial cleans toilets just swell. But “revolutionary?” Yet as nutty as I can be about word choices, there’s one area where I not only tolerate, but often enjoy hearing a word that’s not exactly “right”: when I’m listening to young people talk. An adolescent boy once walked up to me at a potluck dinner and asked, “Did you make the spinach salad?” When I pled guilty he gave me a big grin. “It was really awesome,” he said. The finger-wagging fusspot in me was miffed. “Awesome?” he huffed. “That word should be reserved for the Pyramids and Niagra Falls. Or to describe the sound of a dozen jet fighters screaming by a hundred feet over your head. These young people…harummmph....” Yeah yeah yeah…all true. But it was nice to see a kid excited about a salad. And my salad, which I have to admit was delicious: baby spinach, wild mushrooms, garlic croutons, roasted beets, thin-sliced red onions, and a world-class blue cheese dressing. Language mutates and evolves whether we like it or not, and all attempts to keep it preserved in amber are doomed. Just look at the comical efforts of L'Académie française—the guardians of the French language—to suppress “Franglish.” (“le week-end”…”je suis tired”). They might as well stand in the middle of a storm, collecting rain in teacups and throwing it back up to the clouds. Many of the shifts in language come from young people, in the form of slang, or when they use words like “awesome” or “diva” in ways that—for better or worse—become part of common usage. And sometimes when they make “mistakes” I think they’re actually improving on the originals. Like the preschooler who once told me, with great seriousness, that her grandfather has “Old Timer’s Disease.” Or the adolescent boy waiting behind me to cross at the light, complaining to his friend about a teacher: “So he said he didn’t like what we were doing and he was going to ‘nip it in the butt.’” “Actually, that’s not what he said.” “What do you mean? Dude, I was there.” “Nope. What he said was ‘nip it in the bud.’ When you don’t want a flower to grow, you pinch the top off. The bud. You nip it in the bud, not the ‘butt.’ (Long pause) “Oh…” Björk, the Icelandic pop singer, was once asked if she’d rather her countrymen write song lyrics in their native language instead of sometimes not-quite perfect English. She much preferred the latter. “We misunderstand English so beautifully,” she said… Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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There’s one typo in my first book of poetry, and for years it drove me nuts. The book was printed old-style, from offset plates rather than from a digital file, and making the correction would have meant producing new plates—hideously expensive and completely out of the question. I just had to learn to live with it. Thirteen years later I can (almost) laugh about how my editor and I went over and over the copy, but neither of us caught the glitch until we saw the book in print. I work hard to get every line right, to make sure every word says exactly what I’m trying to say; close enough isn’t good enough. I might take all day and night to decide between “outraged” and “indignant.” Then the next morning I’ll change my mind. Even when I’ve spent more time over the thing than any sane person could justify, and I watch the poem finally wobble off on it’s first solo bike ride to the publisher, I have a hard time letting go. I want to run after it shouting, “Wait, wait…I gotta fix that line break!” And for most poets the obsession doesn’t end when the work’s in print. A very careful reader might notice tiny differences between a particular poem as it originally appeared in a book or literary magazine and its anthologized version. A comma added or subtracted. A different line break. Changes usually invisible to anyone but the poet. This drive for perfection is firmly rooted in a certain aproach to the creative process, an approach not shared by every culture. In Japan, a country where an extraordinarily high level of skill exists in virtually every area of art and craft, there’s a tolerance for—in fact, an embrace of imperfection. A potter might intentionally leave a cup or a bowl for a tea ceremony a bit asymmetrical. An exquisitely crafted model boat might have a tiny spot where a joint is left a little rough. The imperfection is a place to “let the spirit out.” "Wabi Sabi" is the traditional Japanese world view that focuses on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. For a craftsperson or artist with this perspective, an object a bit worn from use, or solidly made but not quite “perfect” might be more esthetically satisfying than something absolutely perfect, shiny and new. Keeping all this in mind, maybe we poets can learn to treat ourselves with what the Buddhists call “ruthless compassion.” Let’s try as hard as we can to write poetry that's as clean and clear and strong as possible, to say what we have to say with a fierce commitment to honesty and craft. And then let's learn to set our poems free, knowing that everything we write is really a work in progres. (And yeah, that typo's a drag. But nobody's bleeding.) I’ve had a blast this week as guest blogger here and I hope we meet again, somewhere down the road. Until then, "Metaphors Be with You."... Continue reading
Posted Feb 14, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I was at a memorial service for a community activist recently, when a man stepped up to the microphone who was clearly not used to speaking in public. He fumbled a moment with a sheet of paper, then leaned forward and began to read. Tentatively at first, but with growing confidence as the words carried him along: The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half-submerged balls. I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again. I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out. The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real. I've heard this poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, many times over the years at funerals, fundraising events, retirement parties and the like. And it makes me wonder: why has it broken through the wall that often seperates the world of poetry from the lives of “ordinary people”? I asked Marge to reflect on her poem’s iconic status. Why do you think this poem is known and appreciated by so many people who aren’t usually interested in poetry? "From a structural standpoint, the poem has resonant imagery and strong cadences that make it easy to recite. It’s also easy to memorize." It’s also a poem that's easy to engage with. You don’t often hear poems that honor the efforts of ordinary people. "No, there isn’t a lot of poetry that praises ordinary work. Work of all kinds. 'To Be of Use' has been used in memorials to activists, radical lawyers, labor unionists and so on. People put it up on walls and refrigerators." It’s a very “accessible” poem. Some poets use that term like an insult. As if a poem can’t be “important” if ordinary people can engage with it. "My poetry is not for the poetry community only. One time I was a member of a Jewish wedding that used a couple of my poems. Afterwards someone asked me if that poem was part of the regular wedding ceremony,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 13, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I recently gave a poetry reading where I’d been paid no appearance fee and no one but the event organizer bought a copy of my book. (I don’t know whether she really liked it or was just embarrassed; I suspect a bit of both.) So I’d spent my entire Saturday afternoon to make $13.95. Actually less than that, since I buy copies from my publisher. Plus, it was a three-hour round trip; while grinding my teeth on the drive home I did some hard thinking about how presenters should approach poets to read at their events. 1. Mention money early in the conversation. I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, as if I’d asked if I could come read in my Donald Duck feetsie pajamas. If you have no budget, say that right up front; then I can factor that in when deciding whether to accept your invitation. BUT NEVER SIMPLY ASSUME AN ARTIST IS WILLING WORK FOR FREE. 2. If you can’t pay an appearance fee, find other ways to compensate the poet. If the reading’s a grassroots, volunteer-run affair, take up a collection. After all, the audience hasn’t paid admission; most people can afford to drop a few bucks into the hat. If the presenter’s a non-profit organization with a low (as opposed to no) budget, even a twenty-five or fifty-dollar honorarium—gas money and a meal–would be appreciated. Or board members and volunteers could solicit tax-deductible donations from local businesses (restaurant or bookstore gift certificates, fruit baskets, and so on.) in lieu of cash. “What about bookstores?” you might ask. “You don’t make any money there.” Well, that’s not exactly true; you make whatever royalty off each copy of your book the store sells. No that tiny bit of cash isn’t the motivation to read at bookstores. But the store will have the poet’s book propped up near the door, prominently displayed for a month or so, and that visibility is a form of compensation. And besides, people who run bookstores—especially independents—are heroes, and authors need to do everything we can to support them. Support what supports you. 3. Encourage book sales. In advertising the event, presenters should point out that the author will have signed copies of books available for sale. (It's amazing how often reading announcements don’t mention this.) Repeat this while introducing the poet. Tell people that buying art is the most tangible way to show your support for artists. Tell them that books don’t mess on the rug or ask if they can get tattoos when they turn six. Tell them books make great presents and encourage them to buy an extra copy. Heck, tell them they can buy a bunch and cross a half dozen people off their holiday shopping list. Don’t be shy. I... Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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ANSWER: Whoever was responsible for the Snowflake Malfunction. QUESTION: Who’s number one on the list of people I wouldn’t want to have been the morning after the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony? Let's drop in and take a little peek: After a sleepless night, Sasha Golikov, Chief Sochi Snowflake Engineer, is drinking strong black tea at the kitchen table of his tiny flat. Suddenly, there is the expected knock at the door; he opens it to two men who look like rhinos in black suits. One of them nods toward the street. Sasha grabs his coat and pads meekly down the hall behind them. Soon he’s in the back of a limo for a short ride, after which he is escorted by the rhinos to President Putin’s office. Not a word has been spoken. Sasha takes a seat. The president stares at him for a long moment, unblinking, then says, “The Fifth Snowflake. It did not become a ring.” The words are quiet and calm, but they strike like a punch in the gut. There were many factors outside Sasha's control, but he knows that even more than failure, Mr. Putin despises excuses. So he takes a deep breath and meets the lizard gaze. “I and I alone am responsible, Mr. President. I am filled with sadness and shame that I have disappointed you and the Russian people.” Putin continues to stare. Finally he says, “There is a certain small cabin in Northern Siberia, deep in the forest, many kilometres from the nearest village. It is a place where wolves are counted. Occasionally, a pack will pass. When you hear them it is best to stay inside.” He pauses. “Do you understand this?” Sasha swallows and nods. “When the wolves pass, you will write in your notebook: 'Today, a pack of wolves,' and you will note how many. Every two weeks a helicopter will drop water and food. There is much wood nearby for the stove, an axe and a sharpening stone. Do you understand this?” Again, Sasha nods. "Perhaps in a year you shall be done counting the wolves," Mr. Putin says. "Perhaps." Then he swivels his chair around to gaze out the window at the snow-covered mountains. A heavy hand settles on Sasha's shoulder... Vladimir Putin spent $50 billion on his Olympics, and although it’s been suggested that upwards of $30 billion went directly into his buddies’ pockets, you figure that $20 billion should at least buy a fellow five working snowflakes. So one supposes he has the right to be a little annoyed, and he is a man most Russians try extremely hard not to annoy. Mr. Putin’s Russia is a great place to live if you happen to be on his good side. But if you aren’t…not so much. In 1988 I spent a week and a half in Moscow, singing with a jazz band as part of a group of American artists touring the Soviet Union; we also performed in Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Baku,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Hello Poets and Lovers of Poetry: I'm very happy to be with you this week as guest blogger on the Best American Poetry website; many thanks to the trusting souls who invited me… I’d be remiss not to note here the recent death of Maxine Kumin at 88. Although her passing is a sad occasion, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate her extraordinary life. Ms. Kumin won virtually every important literary honor during her long career, and in 1981–1982 served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (a post which later became Poet Laureate of the United States). She began teaching at Tufts in 1948, after finishing her masters at Radcliffe. That year she was one of the first two women ever hired by the English department, but she and her colleague were limited to teaching freshman comp to physical education majors and dental technicians. That experience inspired a life-long, passionate advocacy on behalf of women in higher education and publishing. (In 1998 she gave up a seat on the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to call out the need to include more women and minorities in leadership positions.) Maxine Kumin was never interested in poetic fads and fashions. Her work was direct and spare, often informed by the beauty of her adopted New England, and she unapologetically described herself as “a story teller.” Next to poetry her great love was horses. She was an accomplished rider, and for years she and her husband Victor bred Arabian and quarter horses on their New Hampshire farm. But one day in 1998 while in Vermont training for a riding exhibition, she was thrown from her carriage, which the spooked horse then dragged over her. She suffered massive internal injuries, many broken bones and a broken neck, and spent nearly a year in a "halo," a metal cage that immobilized her head and neck. None of her doctors expected her to live, and assumed that if she did survive she'd spend the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. But she staged a remarkable comeback, and like an alchemist—transforming suffering into beauty—wrote about the experience in a compelling journal: Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery. In Spring of 2005 I had the great honor of interviewing this giant of twentieth-century letters for Colloquy, the magazine of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. We talked about all the above, as well as many other aspects of her personal and professional journey. During our conversation she offered, with generosity and humor, a glimpse into her restless, inquisitive mind. You can read that interview here. (It starts on page six.) Many thanks, Ms. Kumin... and safe passage. Charles Coe Continue reading
Posted Feb 10, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Charles Coe is now following The Typepad Team
Feb 6, 2014