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Alan Ziegler
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Sacha Baron Cohen can currently be seen as Borat in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America..." and as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, so I am rerunning my encounter with Baron Cohen (in his Ali G guise) and my visit with Abbie Hoffman (shortly after Chicago, before the trial). MY WORKSHOP WITH ALI G Prologue (December 2002) Feet-fatigued in Paris Christmas week, Erin and I decide to take our rest in a movie theater. Our choices are the new James Bond and something called Ali G Indahouse. We are told that Ali G is a character who does put-on interviews with unsuspecting celebrities for BBC and is hilarious. Unfortunately, the showing is sold-out, so we see Bond. I sleep blissfully through the special effects. The Seduction (January 2004) I get a voicemail from Jenny Hunter, who says she is with “a British-based television company called Somerford Brooke, working on a series called The Making of Modern America.” For a segment on creative writing they are looking for a “distinguished teacher in his fifties” (the first clue), and she has heard, “You are the man!” I may not be the man, but I do indeed fit that bill: I am in my fifties, chair of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program, and author of books on creative writing that have sold fairly well. I call back and say I’ll do it. Weaving the Web (February 2004) The idea is for me to teach a mock workshop in a Writing Program classroom. I am to recruit an “older” (second clue) student, who will join the production company’s “presenter” (British for host), whom Jenny describes as “a young, hip-hop kind of guy” (third clue). When I mention that I love British television, Jenny grills me a bit aggressively on which shows I watch. She seems relieved when I mention Monty Python and Benny Hill—shows that people in their fifties tend to watch (fourth clue). On a subsequent call, Jenny asks for biographical details about the student I have selected, and I mention that she has worked in the film business and will not be fazed by the cameras. A couple of days later Jenny emails to say, “I hate to do this, but I think we’ll be better off to do a one-on-one session with just you and our presenter. I'm a bit concerned that we'll run long if we include another person. Sorry for the change of heart. I just think it makes more sense to keep the setting as intimate as possible” (fifth clue). Next, we discuss the curriculum. “I've heard of some beginner exercises like ‘describe the room.’ Do you happen to have any exercises like this one that you use, and if so, could you describe them for me?” The first couple of exercises I propose are too complicated; Jenny prefers something “very simple, as basic as possible.” We settle on one of my favorites, “Who Would March In Your Parade”: Visualize looking out your window and seeing... Continue reading
Posted Oct 22, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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445: The following document was unearthed during the Great Pandemic Dig of 2020, which is still taking place in millions of closets, attics, basements, and garages. In 1983—seven years before the first web browser and 23 years before Facebook—I submitted this proposal to Teachers & Writers Collaborative. The development person responded with good questions and comments: “what would be required of the schools and others hooking up with us—in terms of extra equipment, training, expertise, etc.?”; “to take this on would be a quantum leap”; “look at…whatever’s the closest model to this around, if there is anything”; “What is unpredictable about this project? What could come up that we haven’t considered yet?” Alas, I was out there all alone: Steve Jobs was in California developing the first Mac, Bill Gates in Washington envisioning Windows, and Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be born for another year. I put the proposal in a box along with unfinished poems I hoped to return to, someday. Continue reading
Posted Aug 14, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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Plunging through my closeted archives, I came across copies of The Poetry Project Newsletter. A piece by Michael Lally on Terrence Winch caught my attention. A few hours later in real time (but 43 years in literary time) I came across Winch selecting Lally At David Lehman's request, here's the Poetry Project piece: Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Yes, that was the month!--each revelation makes it more seminal. I'm sending the PDF by email if you want to post. --az
Wonderful poem! All the more special because this afternoon I came across--and reread--Michael Lally's terrific piece on Terence Winch in the June 1977 issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter (edited by Ted Greenwald). (I could make a PDF if anyone is interested).--Alan
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423: In the early 60s, protesters march to “ban the bomb”; the bomb is banned (partially) with the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. Protesters march, sit-in, and are beaten in pursuit of equal rights; discrimination is banned (partially) with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These are baby steps, but we're two-for-two. The antiwar (Vietnam) movement is taking shape as I enter college in 1965; the (partial) winning streak is about to end. 424: My freshman year at Union College, I attend an International Relations Club conference in Washington. I meet campus liberals and campus conservatives; the liberals are more fun. In the hotel lobby a long-haired kid sits at an unattended piano and improvises melodically; I ask if he's with the conference and he says no he's in a rock group called The Left Banke. I hang out with a kid from Afghanistan; he is proud that his country’s flag hangs first outside the State Department. We get a background-only briefing from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who says we have no plans to stay in Vietnam after we win. I ask him, “What’s to stop the Viet Cong from restarting the war as soon as you declare victory and leave?” The Secretary replies, “We can get back there faster than they can.” 425: Rich Balagur and I start an anti-war coalition at school, beginning with the lowest common belief: end the bombing of North Vietnam; 10% of the college community signs our petition. President Johnson increases the bombing in response to the "Nervous Nellies"; escalation enters the antiwar argot. People may be dying because of the movement. I search for a silver lining in this cloud of horror, and find it when a local television station tapes an interview with me, which I watch in a dorm lounge. The me on the couch listens to the me on the screen say that even if the Vietnam War has too much momentum for us to end it, the antiwar movement will succeed in the long run: "If it starts happening again, people will say no before it is too late." The student sitting next to the me on the couch says to the me on the screen, “Good point.” I will turn out to be utterly wrong. 426: Our movement grows as we march, cajole, educate, and organize. The Committee Against Bombing becomes the Campus Action Committee, with an expanded portfolio including racism and economic oppression. And always I am doing the two-finger typewriter dance (Dylan may have gone electric, but we are still in the era of acoustic typewriters) for the college newspaper. (For more about my piece that was called "a slander of the whole College community," see: dangerous words.) My outlet is doubled when Rich Balagur and I concoct the Paper Highway, along with poet Carl Rosenstock and music critic Cliff Safane. 427: I receive hate mail in the form of marked-up newspaper clippings addressed to Allen Viegler. The first one (not available) is from the Daily... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
You got the better of the deal. The only good moment of Son of Sam was when the News (or Post) ran the first police sketch on the front page, and a stand-up comedian opened his act by holding up the newspaper next to his remarkably similar face. And just stood there. Your trip sounds exquisite, and I've reread your comment many times, savoring each vicarious pleasure. Did you stop at Amboise? It was the first place we had real French chèvre--the waiter was skeptical when we ordered it, saying it might not be for our American taste. I quoted Hunter Thompson: "We're not like the others."
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Any survey of the Top Parties of the 20th Century is bound to include Truman Capote's Black & White Ball ('66), Rothschild's Surrealist Ball ('72), Bianca Jagger's 30th Birthday at Studio 54 ('77), and Malcolm Forbes's 70th Birthday in Morocco ('89). But there was another event, on June 15, 1977, that would clearly have been in this company if not for the absence of one key celebrant. (Like any clickbait list, you will need to scroll to the end to reveal the key absentee.) As you've no doubt guessed by now, I am referring to: Founded in 1972 by Harry Greenberg, Binnie Klein, Larry Zirlin, and me, Some magazine/Release Press published 10 issues of the magazine, 15 books, and numerous postcards and broadsides, until 1983, when we decided to follow the dictum quit while you're breaking even. Although the media were barred from our 5th Anniversary party in 1977, several amateurish bootleg images have been making their way through the Shady Web (slightly easier to get to than the Dark Web). Best American Poetry has acquired exclusive rights to these blurry glimpses at literary history. (Best-faith effort has been made to identify subjects; please let me know of any errors.) Pre-book Eileen Myles (then editing dodgems) gazes up at their bright future. Terry Stokes in background (more later). Magnetic bottle-opener went missing en route to the Smithsonian and subsequently spotted in a private collection (but provenance could not be definitively determined). Pre-book poet and critic John Yau. In 1980 we published John's collection The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix (the title piece was reprised in my Short anthology); 50 more books would follow. During the party, a guest told me she'd just been in the kitchen and had a lovely chat with the building's super. Although I hadn't invited the super, I was delighted he was there. I went into the kitchen to welcome him, and instead found Paul Violi (center) having a lovely chat with another guest. (Oh Paul, I do miss you!). On the right is Nathan Whiting, who had recently published Running: Poems and Drawings. Nathan ran everywhere (including to this party) wearing plain old sneakers, and he would become an eminent ultra-marathoner. On the left, Henry Korn, director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, who went on to head many cultural organizations and publish several books. On the right, Erika Rothenberg, the first woman art director at McCann-Erickson, before embarking on a stellar career as a multi-media artist of "provocative and satirical work about social and political issues." Singer-songwriter Steve Lee (nine years later he played at my wedding). He is now a Clinical Psychologist and continues to sing & write. Harry Miller (left) and Jerry Leichtling (right) who were—ever so briefly—noted scholars on the works of Release Press author Mercy Bona. A review of Bona's Sleeping Obsessions speculated that Bona was actually "three men from Brooklyn." This is not true; only two of us lived in Brooklyn. Harry redirected his scholarly prowess from imaginary poets... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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419: I walk the late afternoon streets. A cop enters a coffee shop to get something to-go, leaving his partner outside. The partner paces, lonely, wondering what’s taking so long. The faint moon is lonely in the blue sky, arms-length and 238,000 miles from a passing plane. A woman in a pink dress walks a dog. The dog is lonely for other dogs and tugs whenever he sees one. This dog’s loneliness cannot be solved by the company of the woman in pink. The woman in pink is lonely. The companionship of the dog helps, but is not enough. A grocer stands behind his cash register, lonely for a customer who used to come in every day and now comes no more. A beggar posted at a subway exit gets lonely between trains. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” wails from the window of a cheap hotel. The song makes the old man sitting on the steps feel even more lonely for his dead friends. A barber sits in one of his swivel chairs, lonely for the back of a head and a face in the mirror. The sun sets, and in rooms where lights do not go on, lonely people sit in the dark. The moon is covered by a single, lonely cloud; they will soon drift apart. A couple walk, hand-in-hand; they smile, but underneath they are lonely for parents. I weave among them all, keeping my composure, not letting them know that I know. Not a damn thing I can do for any of us. 420: My watch died of complications. 421: Harry Greenberg and I loved Joe Franklin’s after-midnight talk show on Channel 9 in the 70s and 80s. You might get Tony Curtis, the New Kids on the Block (when they were kids), and a guy hypnotizing a chicken (we suspected it had something to do with his fingers around the chicken’s neck). We especially enjoyed how Joe lavished praise equally on the super-famous and the obscure; everybody was the best and they were all Joe's dear friends. The ultimate Joe-moment came after he mentioned never having met his next guest. When the best-ever-whoever emerged from the curtain, Joe extended his hand and said, “It’s been a long time.” After a beat, Joe recovered and added, “It’s been never.” Several decades later, Joe was fronting Joe Franklin's Comedy Club (nee Memory Lane) restaurant on 45th Street and Eighth Avenue. Erin and I decided it was the perfect place to take Harry Greenberg for his birthday. While we waited for Harry and his wife, Rose, to arrive, I spotted Joe Franklin making the rounds, while his kinescope image interviewed Fred Astaire on the flat screens above. I knew what I had to do—or regret it forever—and I made a bee-line to Joe. In the middle of dinner, Harry was disappointed at the lack of a Joe-sighting. During dessert, Harry looked up to see Joe approaching him with outstretched hand. Joe said, “It’s been a... Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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416: I was drowning in memories when my life flashed behind my eyes. Voila: this book. 417: This is about how our miniature dachshund Latte might have saved my eyesight: November 2014, I am awakened at 3 a.m. on my knees, stunned, pain ascending, blood. I’ve fallen out of bed. I’ve crashed my head into the corner of the side table. Erin tends to the cut near my eye and declares, “You need stitches.” We make sure Latte’s water dish is full and leave her with the usual “Watch the house.” The emergency room at St. Luke’s is relatively calm. The intern confirms I don’t have a concussion and stitches me up (after first getting permission from a resident). He is about to release me when he glances at my paperwork. “At your age, protocol calls for a CAT-scan in case something got shaken loose. It’s up to you. I’m pretty sure we won’t find anything.” The CAT-scan confirms my brain is intact, but a suggestion of a shadow hints at a pituitary tumor. “Only way you can tell for sure is with an MRI,” the intern says. “Don’t lose any sleep over it—they’re almost always benign—but do call your doctor soon.” The prospect of an MRI terrifies me. Take Xanax, a friend advises, but that is another of my fears. Turns out the two work nicely in tandem, especially with the Beatles piped in and Erin holding my foot. The MRI confirms what the CAT scan suspected, and my internist refers me to Dr. S. at Langone, a specialist in skull-base tumor surgery who, research reveals, is “world-renowned,” “a pioneer,” and a New York Magazine “Best Doctor” (I always wanted one of those). Dr. S. and I admire each other’s fountain pens, then he shows Erin and me the image of my brain laid bare, pointing to a white mass. “Is that my pituitary?” I ask. “No,” he says, “that’s the tumor enveloping your pituitary.” He points to where it wraps around my carotid artery, and to the short—but safe, for now—distance between the tumor and my optic chiasm. The benign tumor will keep growing slowly, so no need to do the surgery—which has risks—until it almost abuts the optic chiasm. “What about the carotid artery?” I ask, imagining a tiny snake suffocating me at the source. “The carotid adjusts,” Dr. S. explains. Erin and I feel total confidence in Dr. S, and we like him, a gentle spirit harboring great power. After several MRI follow-ups over two years (Xanax, Beatles, foot-holding), Dr. S. points to the tumor encroaching on the optic chiasm. “Now we know what it’s trying to do,” he says, and we schedule surgery for September 18, 2017. Two weeks before the surgery, on a blustery Friday evening, we walk with Latte along the West Harlem Pier, where we come across what may be saddest Bingo game ever: a Parks volunteer calling numbers to two players. It is our humanitarian duty to play, and, before long,... Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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412: In the early 60s, Jerry White has a folk music show on WJRZ, New Jersey. One stormy night in 1964, Jerry plays Another Side of Bob Dylan in its entirety before its release. I can barely make out the lyrics through static, but one line sings through: “For every hung-up person in the whole-wide universe.” On Sundays in the summer, Jerry White broadcasts live from the band shell in Palisades Amusement Park (home of the largest salt water swimming pool in the world). A bunch of us go as often as we can, cheering in the car whenever WJRZ runs the commercial for “Dennison’s, a men’s clothier, located near The Flagship, where money talks nobody walks, open 8 a.m. until 5 the next morning.” We keep swearing we’ll go some night at 3 a.m. but we never do. Many of the Palisades performers will go on to mainstream fame, such as Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Jose Feliciano (accompanied on stage at Palisades with his seeing-eye dog), and Jesse Colin Young (years later before a Youngbloods concert I will ask him about Jerry White and he will take a step backward with his mouth open and say “Wow”). Others will never transcend the folk scene, like Patrick Sky (whom Jerry White saw getting off the Crazy Mouse with Buffy St. Marie); Mel Lyman (who wailed a hypnotic “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica and went on to head the Lyman Family cult in Boston); and Peter LaFarge (whose “Ballad of Ira Hayes” would be covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Kinky Friedman). On the radio, Jerry White sometimes plays Peter LaFarge’s protest song “Coyote,” sung chant-style with each line ascending into falsetto, which provokes us to end sentences in falsetto, resulting in contagious, spasmodic giggles. Driving to Palisades on a night Peter LaFarge is scheduled to appear, we consider not taking our usual front-and-center table, afraid we’ll start laughing if he sings “Coyote.” But we do take our regular seats, hoping either that LaFarge won’t sing “Coyote” or that we will be able to behave ourselves. He sings “Ira Hayes” and “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” (which refers to the length of time the white man’s land treaty was supposed to be in effect), finishing to thunderous applause, much of it coming from our relieved table. Jerry White invites an encore and Peter asks for a request. Now, if one of us requested “Sing Coyote!” it could be explained as a deviant outburst, leading to peer repudiation. But we all yell “Coyote, Coyote.” 413: Unreasonable Facsimiles 414: The barber leans against the shoulder of his fifth customer on a Tuesday afternoon. He pretends the contact is a byproduct of maneuvering into the optimal snipping angle, but artistry is not the issue, he is snipping as much air as hair. He is bone weary. The barber promises never to cut another hair if he can somehow get through this day without crumbling to the floor or being berated... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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409: Most Sundays of my father’s final year, I take the 4:05 train to Lynbrook. For a couple of weeks in the spring and fall, the landscape glows, a suburban Hopper, and darkness settles as I go down the station stairway to my father’s car. Often, he is dozing off the effects of his chemotherapy, but today he is outside, leaning against the car door. Teenagers skateboard in and out of the parking area under the tracks, jumping curbs, dodging people. The youngest kid buzzes by my father, who yells, “Be careful!” The kid gives my father the finger. “Let’s get him,” my father commands, and runs after the kid with pre-cancer speed. I hustle behind him, furious at this punk kid. I cut around a railroad pillar and the kid screeches to a halt a few feet from me. My father catches up, winded but pleased. The kid smirks, “What are you going to do?” I grab the kid’s arm and hold on. First he’s scared, then defiant. “You can’t hit me. I’m a kid.” “You watch what I can do if you ever come near my father again.” I let go with a modest shove, and my father and I walk toward the car. I resist looking back, but tune my ears to listen for the sounds of pursuit. I ask my father if he is all right. He starts laughing, “Al, I didn’t really mean to go get him. I just wanted to scare him.” “Well, you might want to be more specific next time,” I respond, savoring the energy and camaraderie in my father’s face. When we get back to the car, the oldest one is waiting for us, cradling his board. He has scraggly blond hair and I read in his face that he is the punk kid’s older brother. Suddenly I am nervous that he will file a complaint with the police and I can kiss my teaching career goodbye. “Sir,” he says to my father, “I want to apologize for my brother. He was out of line. We mean no disrespect.” As he walks off, he gives me a respectful nod with his skateboard. 410: Inevitable meet-for-coffee with my ex, at the place we used to linger. The waitress greets “Oh, hi” and I order black. My ex asks for sparkling water and shrugs apologetically at my disappointment. When my cup is almost empty, the waitress extends the pot, raises her eyebrows, and I nod. As she pours, coffee aroma mingles with skin scent. “Are you ready for a coffee now?” she asks my ex. “No, I’ll pass.” After the waitress steps away, I blurt out, “When you meet an ex-lover for coffee, you really should have coffee!” “I can’t. I’m nursing.” Soon my ex will leave. The waitress will finish her shift. And I will wait until closing for one of them to return and refill my life. 411: The photograph came in the mail. It shows me walking away from my... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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Before the shutdown of all sports, I was able to enlist major league baseball players to demonstrate good and bad examples of social distancing. 1) This is a good, basic application of six-feet rule. 2) Even Better 3) A little too close. 4) Much better! 5) As often as possible, clean all surfaces. 6. When visiting someone who is safe at home, wear protective gear. 7. Capacity Crowd. 8. If you must touch, use gloves. 9. if someone should succumb, wait for professional help. 10. No comment needed. Stay safe!! Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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404: 1993, hundreds of Woolworth's are closing and thousands of generic parakeets will be released on noon of the final day. Scrawny blue and green twelve-dollar birds will scatter in downtown Las Vegas, uptown New York City, and suburban Lynbrook. They will be freed from their group homes, where they sleep leaning on each other like passengers on a midnight train in India. These are not the cream of the exotic bird crop; they are bred for volume, their markup too low to help keep Woolworth's in flight. If you see one in your neighborhood, coax it home with seeds and love. Let it fly freely around the house, offer it food off your plate, teach it the words you’ve longed someone to say to you, and love it like you love the America that once was. 405: I overhear other people’s imaginary voices. Sometimes I do their biddings, which can be confusing when my imaginary voice gets garbled. What’s that you say? No way Jose! If that’s even my real name. 406: Long ago in America the Yankees got rained out and my little brother and I saw three Ape movies. 407: March 1967 Schenectady. After being up all night my roommate and I drive to Albany to watch the sun rise from a hilltop, but when we get there it has already become early. We have huge sleepy diner breakfasts, imagining what everyone will do all day. Back to Schenectady via winding back roads, my friend driving as I drift off. I awake to a bloody coat, shattered windshield, no pain. My friend moans, holding his stomach, no blood. He reaches out his hand, and I take it. Looking back at me from the rearview mirror is my shredded forehead, a small patch of my skull. A policeman wrestles the door open. Points a flashlight at me and says, “This one looks bad.” A few seconds (my time) later, I am being stitched up, floating serenely. A nurse hands me a phone and says, “Tell your mother you’re all right.” “Hi, mom, how are you?” I say, then remember my line and say “I’m all right.” The next day, with half of my face bandaged like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, I remember I have a date—such a crush—to see Eric Andersen in Albany. I call her, explain my situation low-key not to alarm her, and she says, “Does that mean you’re cancelling on me?” My mother comes up to accompany me on the train home to New York. My father and five-year-old brother Philip meet us at the top of an escalator in Grand Central Station. Philip looks scared and my father reassures him, “It’s Alan.” Philip smiles kindly and says, “My brother’s name is Alan, too.” 408: Visiting the Liptons on Shelter Island, I turn off the bathroom light at 3 a.m. and realize my mistake after a few paces engulfed in darkness on this moonless night. Somewhere are two bedrooms and a steep set... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Wow--what a group to be touring together. We have seen and will see. Thank you!
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397: When I was a kid, sometimes I’d look down as I walked and imagine I was flying. Everything on the ground became magnified in its smallness—rivulets of rain water in the gutter became mighty rivers abutting cliffs, grass a golf course, dirt a desert. I thought about this today as I came across the fork in the road, and then saw a half smoked cigarette as a limousine, followed by a lumber yard, and fall foliage in the snow. Wee wee wee I flew all the way home. 398: I have nothing prepared for the 6th grade Science Fair. In desperation, I copy a diagram of the human brain onto a piece of oak-tag, and add some facts from the encyclopedia, including the similarity between the human brain and the sheep brain. I tell my mother I am going to make a brain out of paper maché, but my brain can’t get my hands to do it. The next day my mother brings home a sheep’s brain she got from the butcher. I display it next to the oak tag, and my table gets lots of attention. 399: From my 7th grade school notebook: “In Science we went over chemical equations and actions for how electricity is produced in a dry cell. I don’t get it at all. I doubt if I’ll ever get it.” Two years later, researching an idea for a science class project, I read that a copper wheel and magnets can turn on a light bulb. I start to get excited about electricity. I buy the material and meticulously follow the instructions, but the bulb stays dark. I have no choice but to turn it in anyway, with a short composition about how it works, knowing it doesn’t. The teacher is fascinated and beckons me to the front of the classroom. I hope for a miracle, and feign shock when nothing happens. The teacher consoles me, says this is what science is all about, and gives me an A, which makes me feel even more ashamed. After teaching creative writing for many years, I come to realize I earned that A. 400: Youth in Repose. December 1965, a blind date at a fraternity party rushing me, you were doing a favor by doubling with your friend, who soon disappeared upstairs with my friend. Lights went low, music simmered, liquor flowed, no place for strangers. You stewed. No choice but to go out into the chill night. We talked and laughed and stood close together creating warmth. You worried about your friend. We found them back downstairs, entwined on the couch, youth in repose. The room was free upstairs, but you said no, no, I can’t do that. You wrote me a couple of weeks later, a “thank you for a fun night,” told me about your Christmas visit home, the trimming of the tree, how nice to be with your family. I never answered, not looking for “fun nights.” Twenty years later your unusual last... Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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396: The supply room is empty, and no one knows when the next delivery is due. No one can remember the last shipment or who ordered it, only that we were well-stocked for a long time. We call every number in our Contacts and say, “Please bring more.” Some are sympathetic, some blasé, others downright rude. No one says when we can expect supplies. “At least we have each other,” I say to the room, but the others are gone. Just me amidst empty closets, empty chairs next to empty desks.I can barely see in the twilight and turn on a lamp. The bulb gives a final flicker and dies. There is simply no point in looking for another one. The sun, too, runs out. I am left with a night’s supply of darkness. I shall make it last. Continue reading
Posted Mar 15, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
395. The voice on the radio is hysterical. We turn it louder until we can’t make out the words, drowning out the phones and sirens. We shut the windows and harmonize in a hymn. Your hands throw scary shadow figures onto the wall. My fist shadows pummel them. Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Tara, Thank you! Your comment led me to your website and now I am a huge fan of your work and will keep checking in--Alan
Thank you so much Kent! My agent will be shopping it around before too long (I'm going to send her your comment). Hopefully someone will pick it up. --With gratitude, Alan
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388: In my small writer-in-residence cabin at Interlochen, I live as if I have several rooms, working wherever I wind up: curling up in corners, prone by the fireplace, perching by the window, or sometimes even at my desk. There are times when I am desperate for a paper clip—a modicum of organization is all I need, but I need it badly and instantaneously, and relocating to locate one is an onerous and potentially work-killing task. But the thing about paper clips is that you stop needing one about as quickly and often as you start to need one, so I tend to toss newly-detached paper clips willy-nilly. I make a cool discovery: Once the cabin is primed, whenever I need a paper clip all I have to do is feel along the floor or table without even taking my eyes off my work. Most first-time visitors will graciously stoop to pick one off the floor only to be rebuffed: “Please put that back where you found it.” 389: On my lap is a large manila envelope containing my mother’s x-rays. I picked them up from one doctor, and am taking them for a second opinion. This is the kind of opinion only some people are entitled to. The envelope is open at one end, with an indent in the middle from which protrudes the tip of the x-rays, for smooth removal. Held to light, this film tells a story, in a language foreign to me. We have been told that the story is a sad one. The new translator concurs. 390: Are we on the wrong road? Or the right one, but only up to a point that we have passed? Or haven’t we gone far enough? This car speeding past us into our future might know. Or the oncoming lights on cars going back in our time. 391: In college, my Sex, Censorship, and Literature class is visited by Dwight Macdonald. He leafs through one of the skin magazines the professor keeps on hand for class consideration and says, “You know who these girls are? They’re hookers, that’s who they are. That’s where they get them.” After class, I show him one of my pieces and he points out that the character I am profiling doesn’t change (a concept I will continue to wrestle with as a writer and teacher). I tell him I’m doing a series on protest movements for the student newspaper, and he says, “I’d like to see them. Send them to me at The New Yorker.” I never do (oh why oh why?). That night, after a few drinks, he asks me to take him to the Vale Cemetery, to search for the grave of Captain Mordecai Myers, who, I learn, was a mayor of Schenectady, and, more importantly, Robert Lowell’s great-great-grandfather (“Poor sheepdog in wolf’s clothing!”). We scamper in and out of cemetery lanes for what increasingly becomes clear is a mission with little chance of success. Still, I thoroughly enjoy playing Peter... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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381: Everyone has stories to tell Some big, some small— Know someone long enough and well You’ll hear them all, Though details may morph as years swell And tales grow tall. 382: Hey cowboys, a traveling tip: It’s better to ride off into the sunrise. 383: As I sulked, a swan came out of the river. I told her all about you, pointing to where you lay in the sun, eyes closed, pink sweater beside you. I mentioned your eyes and how they matched the grass. The swan started toward you. I told her you wanted to be left alone. She turned and eased back down into the river. Why, she hardly knew you — and understood so quickly it put me to shame. 384: “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know!” I’ll take your word for it: the minuend (the amount you have forgotten) is greater than the subtrahend (what I’ll ever know). But is the minuend of what you still know greater than the subtrahend of what I know now? 386: Elegy for Phil Ochs (original draft written April 9, 1976). I hear the news, awakening from a nap to the radio. “Death of a folksinger,” the announcer says, and I tense waiting to hear which one. It’s you, Phil. I think of the first time I saw you perform, in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, how you strummed between songs and I got the feeling new songs were forming even as you performed the old ones. And the time you were sitting near me at a bar on MacDougal Street, talking politics with some people whose names I probably knew: “What we need is an armed army of Trotskyites,” you said, and I quoted you over and over as if you’d said it to me. Then there was your billed farewell performance a few months ago at Folk City. You did a perfunctory set, ending with a few lines of an unfinished song about Sonny Liston, who lost his heavyweight title rematch to Muhammad Ali after what some called a phantom punch: “Sonny, Sonny Sonny, why’d you have to take a dive...” After the song, you asked the bartender for “another vodka and orange juice” (I thought it strange but elegant that you didn’t ask for a screwdriver) and introduced Sammy Walker with, “This is my last night. This is his first night. I hope you don’t bother HIM.” And I was angry; we were your devoted fans, how did we bother you? Today you hung yourself in your sister’s closet; what did she do, other than harbor you through the dark days, which you'd convinced her were ending. Phil, Phil, Phil, why’d you have to take a dive? 385: Elegy for Laura Nyro (original draft written April 9, 1997). Laura, Laura, I say your name over and over as if singing a song for you. I have been listening to your first songs since I heard the news yesterday, the songs you wrote before you... Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Excessive toughness for #380 duly noted! I have added an alternative. AZ
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373: Would you prefer to: a) be a mule b) be a pig c) be a fish d) swing on a star and be better off than you are e) none of the above 374: Mr. Plant, my senior year high school history teacher, “confided” in us that the government and our textbooks don’t tell the whole truth, but there’s a book that does, except you can’t find it in a bookstore. He asked us each to bring in $3.00 and he would buy the books for us, but don’t tell anyone because it would take too long to get official permission. A few weeks later, Mr. Plant was absent several days in a row. The principal asked me to come to his office, and keep the meeting confidential (he trusted me because I was editor of the school newspaper). “We have not been able to reach Mr. Plant. There’s a rumor that he collected money from his students for a book.” I confirmed the rumor. “Did you receive the book?” He was relieved to hear that we had not, and told me the book was None Dare Call it Treason, a right-wing polemic adopted by the John Birch Society. The school reimbursed our money and we never saw Mr. Plant again, though one of my classmates swore he spotted him walking on the Long Beach Boardwalk wearing a dress. 375: Paused at an intersection on a desolate Northern Michigan road. A blue vintage Corvette whizzes by, the model used in Route 66. I used to dream about being the Todd of a Todd-Buzz Corvette-rambling duo. (Todd went to Yale and will have a lucrative future when his drifting days are done.) Another vintage Corvette, followed by another and another. I count to 16, when the intersection becomes still, ominously bereft of Corvettes. 376: I wake in the middle of the night and can’t find my left arm. Not draped over my wife or squished under my chest. I panic for a few groggy seconds. There it is: by my side, but somehow detached. I remember hearing that prisoners in German concentration camps were sometimes forced to sleep in such confined spaces that their whole bodies fell asleep while their minds remained conscious. I muffle a scream into the pillow as I shake my arm awake, breathing rapidly until I can once again embrace my wife. 377: On the 1-train, the ragged man blesses me for my dollar. At my stop, the train lurches and I stumble toward the door somehow eluding passengers. With a final harrowing jeté I land upright on the platform. The ragged man yells out, “Good balance, sir! Not bad for an old dude.” 378: I am five, in the hospital with a mysterious infection, led into a small auditorium—the audience a sea of white. I stand on stage and realize my pajama bottoms are sagging. I keep them up with one hand, while the audience listens and takes notes. I hear something about my parents... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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365: Late 1950s, Lassie barks for help through the darkness. The T.V. picture has gone kaput. My father says “I’ll teach you to fix it” and removes the back to reveal a landscape of small tubes. He plucks out several and drops them into a paper bag. We drive to the drug store where, hidden in a back corner, is a scientific-looking object the size of a vending machine. He instructs me how to plug the tubes in—one at a time, matching the slots with the numbers on the tube—and watch as the gauge points red or green. It reminds me of a game on the boardwalk. He sets aside the only tube that turned the gauge red, and finds its match in the cabinet. Home, he re-plugs all the tubes except for the new one, which he lets me do. Lassie comes home! 366: The ancient writer, told he has hours to live, asks his doctor to bring him his books, and he starts paging through them. “Why didn’t you ask for your wife?” “I’ll have eternity with her in heaven. These are going straight to hell.” 367: Now, while the time since your death is still counted in weeks, I’ll be walking along and there, just beyond the ability of my eyes to distinguish faces, I’ll see someone who looks like you, and for a few milliseconds my brain will form your face. At first it was a little unnerving, but I’ve come to look forward to and treasure those milliseconds, and I will mourn them when they are gone. 368: The houseguest opens the refrigerator, smiles, and says, “Someone brought home baked goods from Entenmann’s.” 369: “Garçon, un bock! I write to please myself, just as I order my dinner…” [George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man]. I don’t need the menu, just bring me whatever looks good today. 370: My mother’s critique: “Received your article to-day and for a routine write-up, you sure made it into interesting reading.” 371: The evil that men do lives long after them, along with automatic renewals. 372: The only priest in the remote village announces he will be moving to a faraway parish in a week. A run on Confessions, future absolutions granted; pray now, sin later. Hail Marys peal from every corner, alley, barroom, bedroom. After the priest departs, it is holy sanctioned hell on earth. Except for a pious few, who eventually set off to find the Garden of Eden and scrounge for seeds. Continue reading
Posted Jan 17, 2020 at The Best American Poetry