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Charles Coe
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Poet, writer, art administrator
Interests: Cooking, sports, music
Recent Activity
Yesterday while I sat at my computer writing I could hear through the floor, in the basement, two giant gladiator robots pummeling each other with sledgehammers. Actually, what I heard was a couple of plumbers replacing my landlords' ferkatka water heater. The noise wasn’t constant but every once in awhile so loud I felt vibrations through my feet. I could have de-camped—taken a laptop to the library or a coffee shop—but the beating and banging didn’t actually bother me that much. Some writers are hyper sensitive to extraneous noise; they flinch when dust motes hit a shag carpet. But I was cool with the robots. What I can’t tolerate when I’m trying to write is people talking. I know a writer who listens to National Public Radio while she works, and that would distract me to the point of madness. It’s always interesting to find out what writers and poets consider the ideal work environment. Some of us need complete isolation in a room quiet as a church. Others can put up with—or even prefer—noise and activity around them. Western novelist Louis L’Amour once said, “I’m not picky when I write. I could be happy at a desk in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard at noon.” Maya Angelou couldn’t write in a fancy, well-appointed space. She preferred ratty hotel rooms. Eighteenth-century German poet Friedrich Schiller found inspiration from the smell of rotting apples in his desk drawer. Whenever the wife tossed his current crop he'd grab a new batch from someone’s trash. Some writers require absolute silence; others need music to set a mood. I have one friend (who might be reading this) who listens to Chopin piano etudes; he never listens to anything else when he’s writing and he never listens to them any other time. He’s a husband and father with a full-time teaching gig, so when he manages to carve out an hour or two to write he can't mess around checking email or watching cute emu videos or googling vacations spots in Costa Rica. He’s setting up a Pavlovian response; when his brain hears Chopin it says, “Okay, time to get to work.” Since retiring from my full-time job I love writing at home in my cozy, messy office off the kitchen. And I need music, but I’m picky; it needs to be instrumental and melodic: early Miles Davis, Mozart, Erik Satie solo piano, classical guitar, Ben Webster sax…a pretty long list, but nothing loud and frenetic. (I save the head-banging rock and funk for when I’m doing housework.) But it can’t be TOO mellow: no “soft jazz” or goopy New Age California hot tub music. According to Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own” is the writer’s most important tool. We all need that sacred space—whether it’s a desk in the living room or a “lucky cubicle” in a quiet corner of the library. We might have very different needs for our work environment, but the one thing we all have in common is that... Continue reading
Posted 7 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Richard, I think you're right. What goes around...
Justin, great quote!
Nowadays just turning on TV news or glancing at a newspaper headline is enough to make you want to hide in the broom closet or go work on a ferret ranch in Montenegro. The people need a new distraction. Something beyond rhinos in helmets and cleats and hourly updates on the Kardashians. So I think it’s time to bring back the mullet, that "Business in front, party in the back" classic. Mike D of the Beastie Boys is generally credited with coining the term in his song “Mullet Head,” in which he described the haircut and the fashion-forward pioneers who wore it.(Apparently there was some French fashion dude in the early seventies called "Mollet" who invented it.) Back in the day, celebrities like Billy Ray Cyrus, Hulk Hogan, Rod Stewart, and Patrick Swayze all rocked awesome mullets. And maybe the King of Mullets was pop crooner Michael Bolton, whose combination boy perm/mullet set a standard for the ages. But it wasn’t just guys. At one time Lady Mulleteers Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Barr and even Ellen Degeneres all sported the look. Sadly, the mullet has all but disappeared from the urban scene. But beyond the sidewalks, especially below the Mason/Dixon line, it lives on. As William Faulkner once said about the south in another context, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Down there one can still spot the occasional mullet at a duck hunt or tractor pull without too much trouble. So like I was saying, I need something new to distract me from the world condition. The mullet seems like just the ticket, and I know exactly who should spearhead the campaign: today’s generation of young hipster dudes. Here’s why: 1. Hipster dudes are into retro. Their Victorian beards and moustaches, topknots, skinny ties, pegged pants and so forth all harken back to days of yore. For these guys this kind of trip in the Tonsorial Wayback Machine would be a natural. Of course, we’d have to train and sedate (not sure of the proper order) a new generation of barbers to master the nuances of the style. 2. Hipster dudes are into irony. And what could be more ironic than reviving the mullet—the most entertainingly awful fashion felony of the twentieth century? It would only take a few strategically placed photos on Instagram of prominent hipster style-setters (whoever the heck they are) out for a night on the town while sporting mullets. In no time, dudes across the land would be getting buzz cuts or bangs in front and letting the back run wild like hipster versions of the Chia pet. And when the plan reaches full flower a grateful nation will enjoy hordes of fashion-forward young gentlemen in mullets, staring at iPhones and sucking on eCigs and eggplant-raddichio lattes, marching across the land like hairy locusts in flannel shirts and Doc Martins, letting their freak flags fly and providing the unhip masses with much-need diversion. I can’t wait. The National Council of Hipster Dudes needs to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
The guy ordering his sandwich was swaying back and forth and slurring his words like a punch-drunk boxer, while the two young women behind the counter exchanged a “wish-we-were-anywhere-but-here” look. At first glance he seemed to be in his forties, but then I decided he was much younger and just hard used. There were scratches on his face and a big red bruise under one eye like a souvenir from a recent fight. His clothes were shabby but clean. He got his sandwich, plopped down at the table next to mine and leaned over to ask what I was reading. I was irritated for a moment but rebooted my brain and held up the book. “A mystery by Michael Connelly,” I answered. “First thing by him I’ve read. Great story.” “Yeah,” he said. “Guy who wrote The Lincoln Lawyer. Good stuff. Here’s what I’m reading.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a beat-up copy of Gone With the Wind. So then we’re comparing English and American mystery novels and Louis L’Amour and Rex Brand westerns. Just two guys in a sandwich shop talking about books. And ignoring the curious glances of people at nearby tables. He told me he's homeless and usually finds a place to crash outside, though he’ll sometimes sleep in a shelter depending on who’s there that night. “You gotta be careful where you crash,” he said. “You can run into some really messed up people in shelters.” “Yeah, life on the streets ain’t no joke. I got jumped by a couple of assholes just last week” he said, pointing to the bruise on his cheek. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence his voice would trail off, he’d mumble incoherently and his chin would drop to his chest. Drugs? Narcolepsy? Brain injury? I wasn’t going to ask. But if I quietly said something related to the conversation, he’d rouse himself and apologize for nodding off. When he got up to dump his trash and mine I slipped out my wallet, took out a ten and folded it in my hand. When he came back to sit I slid it across the table and said, “I hope you’re not offended. From one bookworm to another.” He glanced around and stuffed the bill in his shirt. “Thanks man. I’ll walk out with you.” When we got outside he said, “You know maybe we could get together once in a while, talk about books.” I thought it over for a split second and said, “Well you know I hardly ever make it downtown.” If he realized I was politely brushing him off he didn’t show it. “Hey man, that’s cool. Thanks for the conversation.” He patted his pocket. “And the help.” We try to remember that everybody’s a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and consideration, but we have to set limits. I didn''t think it would be a good idea to give him my phone number. But I don’t fault him for trying;... Continue reading
Posted Oct 26, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Mister Hoffman, yes I'm aware that you already worship His Holy Pastiferousness. true, so true.
Yeah, yeah…I know. European colonialism resulted in the exploitation of virtually every indigenous population on the planet. Rape, pillage, appropriation of resources, elimination of local culture, customs and religions…yadda yadda yadda. And saying Christopher Columbus discovered America is like saying I broke into your apartment at three in the morning and “discovered” your hi-def television. But I think it’s high time we people of color got over it and moved on. Columbus and his posse won fair and square. Game over. On the other hand, turnabout is fair play. Which is why I got some like- minded red, yellow, black, and brown folks together to organize a little territorial expansion of our own. Over the Colonial Conquest Day weekend we bought three decommissioned Greyhound buses, dubbed them The Ella Fitzgerald, The Buffy St. Marie and The Aretha Franklin, and hit the road to reclaim the so-called “United States of America” for The People. But rather than motoring straight to Washington, we thought it best to start small and work our way up. So our first conquest was a country club outside Cleveland. We drove our buses onto the golf course and one of our members hopped out with a megaphone to make the following announcement: “We hereby claim dominion over this country club, including the golf course, swimming pool and cabanas and the parking lot in the name of ‘The Republic of Indigenous Peoples’. You are hereby ordered to surrender your car keys and sign over deeds to your houses and the contents of 401-Ks and savings and checking accounts, etc. etc. We also assume full control of your sons and daughters” Next we’re going to torch their churches; our new subjects will all be taught to worship The Flying Spaghetti Monster, the deity in whose name we have undertaken our sacred quest to establish dominion over these territories. The children will study Pastafarian theology every morning. Then we'll march them into the woods to play in drum circles and study Hip Hop. And there are always unexpected benefits when you conquer and subjugate another culture. I've heard the country club dining room throws down a serious Sunday brunch buffet. And I just got a great recipe for potato chip-crusted tuna noodle surprise from the little old blue-eyed slave lady who cleans our buses… 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 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 is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He... Continue reading
Posted Oct 12, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Not everyone’s happy with the Supreme Court decision that same-sex marriage is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Enraged Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was overheard in a Madison restaurant saying that he’d like to “challenge the male justices who voted in favor to a fist fight.” When they heard about his comments the justices demurred. “I’m about thirty years too old to accommodate the Governor,” Justice Breyer said. “And besides, my sciatica’s been acting up pretty bad lately.” Nor was Justice Kennedy interested. “Never been one for fisticuffs,” he said. “If Governor Walker wants to settle the matter over a chess board he can name the time and place." But the five justices who voted in favor of the measure decided the honor of the Court must be defended, so they chose the toughest among them to pick up Walker’s gauntlet: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made a personal call to the Governor. “Yeah, I’ll fight you,” she said. “But boxing’s for wimps. We’re going to throw down Mixed Martial Arts style. In the steel cage. One walks out; the other's carried...” We take you now to Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, for the play-by-play: “Ladies and Gentleman, there’s the bell! Walker charges across the ring and launches a flying kick at Justice Ginsburg’s head, but she dodges it and slams an elbow into his kidney. Now they’re circling each other cautiously…they’re in the center of the ring. The Governor tags Justice Ginsburg with a solid right to the chin and she’s down! He tries to stomp her and the crowd boos, but she rolls away and gets back to her feet. Justice Ginsburg throws a right cross and the Governor puts an arm up to block…but the right was a feint! She steps inside and shoots a stiff left jab and he retreats, shaking his head. Now they’re standing in the middle of the ring, trading punches. Walker throws a left hook that misses; Ginsburg ducks under it with a spin move and launches a roundhouse kick that catches the Governor flush on the temple! He’s down! Governor Walker is down! Justice Ginsburg drops to pin him and the referee slaps the canvas! It's over! Now she's dancing around, thumping her chest…someone shoved a rainbow flag through a gap in the cage and she’s waving it as the crowd goes wild…” After the match Justice Ginsburg, wrapped in the flag, was asked by the ringside interviewer, “Do you have any message for people like Governor Walker who are upset with the Court’s decision?” “Yes,” she replied. “Get over it. Find something better to worry about than what your neighbors do in the dark.” 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 Jul 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
On a recent trip to New York City I was cruising down a side street off Times Square and stumbled on a sign in front of a Japanese restaurant advertising “Body Sushi.” The deal is that you get to eat sushi and sashimi off the body of a naked woman lying on a table. Maybe you’re thinking, “This sounds like something cooked up by a restaurant marketing guy after martini number six.” That's an excellent guess. But it's wrong; “Nyotaimori” (serving food on the naked body) is a Japanese tradition dating back to Samurai times, where after victory in battle warriors would dine off the body of a naked geisha. The practice continues in modern Japan, where strict rules of etiquette apply. The woman has to lie perfectly still for hours. She takes a bath with fragrance-free soap and gets splashed with cold water afterwards to keep her skin temperature down. She’s not allowed to speak, and it’s considered poor form for guests to speak to her. I don’t know if the restaurant I passed followed the same rules. It would be interesting to see how much decorum a bunch of young American insurance salesmen show after an hour or two of pounding saki. One can imagine some interesting scenes: One night, Richie decides to show some buddies a good time. He rents a stretch limo, makes a reservation for Naked Sushi, and the boys cruise in from Jersey City for a little fun. When they check in, the hostess calls for the manager. “Guys,” a little change of plans,” he says with a greasy smile. “You booked Darlene for tonight, but she had to take her cat to the vet. But I set you up with Rosanne, and she’s great. And I’ll give you ten percent off, just to make it up to you.” Richie looks at the guys, and they all seem okay, so he shrugs. So they follow the manager into a back room, where stretched out on a long table, on her back, covered with sushi from stem to stern… …lies Rosanne Barr. 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. His novella, "Spin Cycles," was published in November, 2014 by Gemma Media. 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 is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I stayed recently on Vermont’s Grand Isle, in the middle of Lake Champlain, a beautiful spot where spring had yet to show its face: cloudy, gray and button-your-overcoat cold, with patches of blue ice clinging still to rock faces lining the highway on the ride up. In the yard of the cabin where I stayed, rabbits rooted in piles of dried leaves for a snack, noses twitching, keeping sharp eyes for coyotes. The cabin belongs to the generous neighbor of my friends Ken and Rebecca, a neighbor who let me crash there while he was away. I’d come to the island for a weekend celebration of Ken’s mother Shirley’s 95th birthday. Shirley’s one of a kind: hysterically funny, independent (still gardens and hauls wood for her fireplace), fiercely opinionated, and smarter than a room full of calculus majors. The unquestioned matriarch of a huge extended family, a few dozen of had gathered along with friends from Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, D.C. and elsewhere to hang out, laugh continuously, share family stories (some of which might have actually been true) and eat too much. (One night, a vat of Ken’s killer New Orleans gumbo. Another, a mass assault on a local restaurant.) I’ve been going to Ken and Rebecca’s seder near Boston for a long time and met Shirley, who comes up from Atlanta every year for the holiday, at my first. There’s a Jewish tradition of adults giving children gelt at Chanukah: chocolate coins or actual cash. For Shirley, Seder’s close enough, so she was handing out ten-dollar bills to the kids in attendance. Then to my surprise she handed ME a bill…it felt a little like being adopted. I folded the bill and tucked it in a remote corner of my wallet, thinking it would be good to have in case of emergency, and forgot about it. Some months later I stumbled across it while hunting for something else. I'd had a rough day, but seeing that bill lifted my spirits. I realized then the REAL emergencies Shirley’s gift was meant to see me through were those times when we almost forget that in spite of all the cruelty and ignorance, this world is filled with moments of unexpected kindness, and generosity, and grace. 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 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 is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public... Continue reading
Posted May 13, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I have a confession to make. I just ended a long-time relationship. I changed the voice in my GPS. For years, Ms. Cupstacker was the ghost in my machine. Ms. Cupstacker is the high school history teacher who always catches you passing notes, even when you think she’s looking the other way. She’s the bureaucrat who won’t accept those papers you HAVE TO FILE TODAY. "It's 5:02," she says with smug satisfaction. "The office closes at 5:00." She’d tell me to “turn right” or “turn left,” but didn’t really seem to care where I wound up; sometimes I got the feeling she would have been just as happy to send me over a cliff. When I missed a turn or chose a slightly different route than the one’s she’d laid out, there'd be an awkward pause, then her “Recalculating” would fairly drip with contempt. But I put up with her attitude because I thought I needed her to get where I was going. I was riding with a friend recently, and when we reached our destination (under Ms. Cupstacker’s stern direction). I shut of the engine. My friend glared at the GPS. “I hate that voice,” she said, “I don’t know how you stand it.” “Hey, chill out,” I whispered. “I don’t want to get detention.” I got a look of pity. “The thing’s off. She can’t hear you. There’s probably another voice in there. Let's check it out.” So we fished through the menu and sure enough, I saw I could replace Ms. Cupstacker with someone who spoke in a British accent. And that’s how I met “Enid.” Enid has changed my life. She’s cultured, gentle, good natured and supportive—everything Ms. C. wasn’t. When she tells me to “turn left” it sounds like “ton” left. Delightful. And when I miss a turn or choose a slightly different route, her “Recalculating” is patient and non-judgemental. She accepts me as I am, with all my faults. She's not just giving directions to some office park; it seems like she’s guiding me to some little thatched-roof cottage nestled in the woods under a canopy of green. I park by an ancient oak, give a few taps on the lions head knocker and she opens the door. Enid isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense, and perhaps one beguiled by fashion models would pass her by without a second look. But I’m captivated by her smile, her gentle spirit, and the wicked twinkle in her eye. There’s a small fire blazing in the hearth, just enough to take off the chill, and I breathe in the aroma of fresh-baked scones. We sit to tea and Scrabble and as I scowl at my sad little collection of tiles, wishing I could convert consonants to vowels by sheer force of will, I realize Enid has yet to lay down a new word. I glance up, our eyes meet, and her expression makes it clear that one game is ending whilst another begins. She removes her... Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Religious holidays were a big deal when I was a parochial school kid in Indiana back in the early sixties. On Christmas Eve the church was packed for Midnight Mass, lit only with candles and filled with the spicy scent that trailed behind when the priest walked up the aisle swinging the incense holder. On Good Friday when we filed in for morning mass, as we did every weekday before school, all twelve Stations of the Cross—and all the other statues in church—were shrouded in spooky purple satin. (On Easter Sunday the shrouds were removed to celebrate the return of the savior.) Yet for the first- and second-generation Irish nuns and priests who had dominion over our school (where all the students were African-American) the most important holiday by far was St. Patrick’s Day. You never saw so much green in your life. There must have been a basement room somewhere in the school building filled with nothing but St. Patrick’s Day bling. Banners, streamers, posters, shamrocks, leprechauns…and hand-made signs the students spent most of the previous week crafting during study period. I wish I had a videotape of us little black kids singing "Oh the Sound of the Kerry Dancers" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smilin." Our keepers celebrated the birth and resurrection of the Son of God, but let’s face it; Jesus wasn’t Irish. The nuns never explained why St. Pat was such a big deal (something to do with snakes?) But then again they never explained much of anything. If you had a question about religion, you just looked up the correct answer in the catechism. The early sixties were something of a Golden Age for the Irish in this country. After decades of prejudice and repression they’d made amazing progress weaving themselves into the fabric of American life. And there was a son of Ireland in the White House! One who’d successfully challenged immigration policies that blatantly favored northern Europeans over Irish. And to many of these immigrants, sports were just as important as politics. The priests at St. Bridgets idolized from afar the Boston Celtics--winners of eight straight NBA titles starting in 1959. And they were out of their minds in 1966 when Notre Dame was rated number one by one sportswriters college football poll and second to Michigan State in the other. These Goliaths were meeting to settle the matter once and for all, and the Friday before the epic contest (that ended in a tie) our pastor Father Ryan made his usual Friday morning visit to the school. Here was the exchange as he stood smiling like a visiting dignitary at the front of our classroom: Father Ryan: “Is everyone studying hard?” Class: “Yes, Father Ryan.” Father Ryan: “Is everyone saying their prayers at night?” Class: “Yes, Father Ryan.” Father Ryan: “Good. Well, say an extra prayer tonight. Notre Dame plays Michigan State tomorrow for the National Championship...” Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I was clearing out my desk at home and stumbled over an old cassette tape—a dance mix that my friend and former housemate Lawrence Fine and I put together for our annual Halloween party. Had no idea what was on the tape but I dug out an old boombox that plays cassettes and popped it in. Here’s what we were shaking our moneymakers to on Halloween night of ‘89, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came crashing down... Chaka Khan – “Signed, Sealed Delivered” Greg Kihn Band – “Our Love’s in Jeopardy” Marvin Gaye – “Heard it through the Grapevine” Katrina and the Waves – “I’m Walking through Sunshine” Edgar Winter’s Band – “Give it Everything You Got” The Fixx – “One Thing Leads to Another” Power Station (with Robert Palmer) – “Some Like it Hot” Yes – “Owner of a Lonely Heart” The Kinks – “You Really Got Me” Wang Chung – “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight” Herbie Hancock – “Rockit” Michael Jackson – “Thriller” If you want a dance mix now, you get on your iPhone, pluck some tunes from your list and you’re all set. Takes fifteen, twenty minutes. Back in the day you had to grab an album, put the needle on the blank spot and turn on the cassette deck. And if the record skipped fifteen seconds before the end of the cut you cussed, backed up the tape and recorded something else over it. Lawrence and I spent a week making that thing. But it was worth it; our annual Halloween party was circled in red on our friends’ social calendars. The hangout, eat and drink area was on the first floor; the basement dance room was tricked out with lights and a killer sound system. And we had themes: one year it was the Wizard of Oz. I rented a scruffy Cowardly Lion outfit, but Lawrence wouldn’t settle for no steenkin’ rental. A master craftsman, he bought a roll of roofing tin and spent a month before the party making an incredible Tin Man outfit with articulated joints. He could have won any costume contest in Boston with that thing, but he was perfectly happy to wear it at our party, collect his rightful share of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs”, and hang it on the wall afterwards. One year I went as Tammy Faye Baker (big blonde wig, lavender gown, fake eyelashes and hyperbolic makeup.) Another time, in a nod to my Catholic schoolboy roots, I bought a nun’s outfit at a costume shop and wandered the party as “Nun of the Above.” Someone asked, “Tell me sister, which of the snacks your friends have provided does the Lord like most?” I calmly replied, “All snacks are created equal in the eyes of God.” Good times… 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... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Tony, thanks a lot. I appreciate that.
It was only a glove. A single child’s glove lying in the middle of the sidewalk. But it sent me rocketing more than fifty years into the past, to a winter in the early 60's and my family’s kitchen. Mother was stirring a pot of soup when I walked in to confess that I’d lost yet another glove—the second of the winter. I was an absent-minded kid (not much has changed), constantly losing track of gloves, glasses, hats, you name it. (Everything but books. I could tell you exactly where any of the two or three books I was reading at the moment happened to be.) Money was tight in our family; buying another pair of gloves wasn’t going to keep food off the table, but still it was another thing item for a struggling family’s budget. Mother put down the soup spoon . “Maybe we should get you some mitten clips.” But I shook my head. “I’m not wearing mitten clips. Mitten clips are for babies.” I was a very well-behaved as a child. Never got in fights, played hooky, or talked back to my parents. But here I was, committing an act of mutiny. I usually stayed under the radar of the jerkier kids, but I knew that if I showed up at school with mitten clips I might as well have written “Tease Me” on my forehead with a laundry marker. So I took my stand: No Mitten Clips. I think she might have seen some of this in my face. She just sighed and turned back to her pot of soup. “When your father gets home he’ll take you out to pick up a new pair.” Some people have a hard time dealing with the pressures of parenthood; it doesn’t take much to bring them to a boil and turn a child into collateral damage in their lonely war with the world. I once saw a woman in a mall food court screaming at a kid whose great sin had been to knock over a cup of soda. The child just sat with head down as the woman ranted and angrily swabbed the table with a fistful of paper napkins. My mother had her own share of personal demons and I was never sure when one would come up for air, but this time things worked out okay. I hope the parent of the kid who dropped that glove on the sidewalk can shrug it off as well. Ruffle the kid’s hair, maybe make a little joke that ends with a hug. After all, it was only a glove. Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I have a friend who wants me to get a cat. Actually, she wants me to get two cats. “That way they won’t get lonely when you’re away,” she says. “They can keep each other company.” I try to tell her I’ll get two cats the same day Kim Kardashian gets invited to join Mensa, but she ignores me. “Can't you see them chasing each other around, batting a ball of yarn? They’d be so cute.” “You should bring a couple of kittens next time you come over,” I say. “They can ride little bicycles, juggle peanuts and sing show tunes. Now that would be cute. And when they're done you can pack them up and take them away.” She just shakes her head and sighs. “Absolutely hopeless. You don’t know what you’re missing.” She's wrong; I know exactly what I’m missing. Hair balls yakked up on the carpet during dinner parties. Furniture clawed to shreds. A cat sitting on my head at oh-dark hundred to let me know it’s time for breakfast. Cats work at acting cute and cuddly, but they’re really just a bunch of furry scam artists. Sometimes you’ll catch one checking you out with a look that says, “I’d have licked your bones clean years ago if only I could work that damn can opener.” I’ll concede one advantage cats have over dogs; you don’t have to walk them. You have to walk a dog twice a day—blizzards or monsoons, whether it’s raining broken toaster ovens or shards of broken glass. Now what's that you’re saying? A dog is a great friend? Yeah, but I already have friends. And I don’t have to walk behind them picking up their poop with a plastic bag. (But if you do that for your friends I won’t judge.) With a dog you always have to plan your time away. Say you're thinking of skipping town for the weekend. If you have a cat you can just leave out some food and water. Maybe ask a friend or neighbor to peek in once in awhile. But leave a dog alone for a whole weekend and you'll come home to a hazmat site. You could leave Brutus in a kennel for a few days but you never know what he’ll pick up there. The day after you bail him out you get home from work and he’s sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette, a bottle of Bud, and Rush Limbaugh on the radio. He looks up, blows a smoke ring and says, “You know, this guy makes a lot of sense if you’d just listen with an open mind.” Your dog used to like running in the park. But now he’s all about gun shows and tractor pulls. If you’re getting the impression I don’t like animals, you’re mistaken. I’d just rather be an uncle than a parent. It’s like with babies; I enjoy making funny faces and tickling their chubby little tummies, but when they start to leak... Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Carolyn, many thanks!
Alfred, I try. I think I get more from them than I give.
When you visit a prison you leave all your valuables, your connections to the outside world, at the desk. Next you go through a metal detector, after which you’re carefully searched. Then you stand in the “trap”— a short hallway with a heavy metal door at either end.There are a few uncomfortable seconds when the door behind you slams shut and the one to the inner facility is still closed; your civilized brain knows they’ll let you leave at the end of the day, but your lizard brain wants you to turn around and scream, “OPEN THE DOOR! LET ME OUT! But as always, the door to the yard opens and I walk out with the guard to my destination—the auditorium where I’ll read my poetry along with inmates and several other poets from the outside. I’ve been coming to this particular Massachusetts state prison for some years, and am greeted by a number of familiar faces. The first time you visit a prison to do volunteer work, the inmates are pleased to see you, and happy you took the time to visit. The second time it’s, “Hey man, you’re back! Good to see you again.” But by the third visit, there’s a subtle shift; the conversations start to get real. No one with a lick of common sense would on short acquaintance ask an inmate, “So…what are you in for?” But at some point, maybe after your fourth or fifth visit, occasionally someone will just suddenly start to talk about it. I once had an inmate calmly describe how his “victim’s” wealthy and politically connected family had told his lawyer they’d make sure he’d never be paroled. But the calm wasn’t callousness; in a way he wasn’t even talking about himself; he was talking about someone who no longer exists. As if he was saying, “For you to understand who I am now, you have to understand who I was.” Obviously, not everyone in prison has reached that kind of self awareness; I work with a particular population: those who want to take part in a poetry workshop. Whatever they might have been on the outside, at this point none are hard cases or discipline problems. And it’s clear how much it means to them to share their writing with the visitors, and with each other. Poem after poem speaks of loss and regret, and hard-won knowledge, and hopes for a future—the hope to keep it together until THAT DAY comes. The one with the big red circle around it on the calendars they carry in their heads. For the men who don’t have that release date to look forward to, the ones in for life…I can’t imagine how they manage to cope. Some inmates whose fathers were never really part of their lives are now fathers themselves. They often write about the sadness and frustration of not being there for their children, of not being able to teach the lessons they had to get locked up to learn.... Continue reading
Posted Dec 22, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I don’t think the attitude of a man like Darren Wilson—who insists he has “no regrets” and has offered no apology to Michael Brown’s family—is typical of most law enforcement officers, most of whom take their responsibility to protect the public seriously and try to get to know the people in their community. Many of them are taking night school classes toward college degrees, and don’t get their kicks by abusing and humilitaing ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, there’s another kind of street cop. The kind who was a “tough guy” in high school, probably played sports and bought into the culture of machismo. The kind of guy who’d hang out on the weekend with his buddies getting wasted on beer somebody’s older brother bought them. He was a bit on the wild side but never got into any serious trouble; he was just smart enough to realize it was better to be on the side of the bars where you got to go home at night. Now he's carrying a badge and a gun. Telling nigger jokes when no black officers are around. Strutting through our community like a centurion in an army of occupation. He lacks the wisdom and maturity to defuse the situation when a young black man gives him attitude; he takes it as a personal challenge. The Darren Wilsons of the world wouldn’t act as they do unless they knew their leaders would tolerate it. And their leaders wouldn’t tolerate it unless they knew they wouldn’t be held accountable. But all this is just part of a much bigger issue—society at large has decided that young black men are a disposable, surplus commodity. No one in the power structure would ever admit this aloud, but the decision has been made to contain and control black men by policing them and cramming them into (very profitable) prisons rather than making any real attempt to create meaningful educational and economic opportunities that would help them enter the mainstream. ("Sorry...just no room.") Sometime soon you’ll pick up your morning paper and read about yet another young black man gunned down in suspicious circumstances. Another white officer will claim he acted in self defense. Another mostly white grand jury will decide there isn’t enough evidence for a trial. And the will sun rise on the smoking ruins of another inner-city neighborhood. 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 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 is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a... Continue reading
Posted Nov 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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
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
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