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Charles Coe
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Poet, writer, art administrator
Interests: Cooking, sports, music
Recent Activity
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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
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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
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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
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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 her...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
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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