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Wow, that's a blast from the past! Thanks, Ken.
Some twenty years ago, I was living alone in an East Hollywood apartment (directly across the street from the world headquarters of the Church of Scientology). One night as I tried to sleep, somebody’s dog commenced barking and never stopped. Subsequent nights I lay awake, trembling with anger, as the beast beat its giant wings inside a steel echo chamber. I experimented with earplugs, but they couldn’t shut out the constant, insidious yapping that pierced through the din of sirens and police helicopters and babies crying. Was this annoying debacle the owner’s fault? The Humane Society’s? Was it the smog? I worried that repetitive noise and sleeplessness might drive me crazy. I didn’t want to end up like a half-assed Son of Sam. For weeks, I canvassed the neighborhood. I scanned backyards and peered under cars, staked out dumpsters and vacant lots. I grabbed people on the street and asked if they had any idea whose dog wouldn’t shut the hell up. “What dog?” was all they said. If I did find the owner, I planned to tell him I’d overheard a Scientologist announce that she wanted to call the police and, though the racket didn’t bother me, I felt obliged to warn him to muzzle the pooch. Brave, I know. But I never located the dog or the owner. Meanwhile, the barking got so loud it seemed to be coming from above. Exhausted from lack of rest, I slogged through my days. At night I collapsed onto the Murphy bed and willed myself to sleep, but eventually the barking invaded my dreams. Had I kept a dream journal during my early-twenties, the following entry might have appeared: I drive to a sporting goods store and buy a thirty-four-ounce Louisville Slugger—the Pete Rose model. Bring the bat home and take practice swings in the kitchen as I wait for darkness to fall. Put on dark clothes and sneak out the back door of the apartment building. I follow the sound of howling through the neighborhood, struck by how sharp my senses are. I can actually smell fur. I see a house with a fenced-in yard. Approach the front of the house. No lights on. I make my way towards the back yard. Sure the animal is there. Suddenly the dog starts to whine and yelp, and when I turn the corner I am confronted by a man whacking the canine repeatedly with a baseball bat. He’s wearing dark clothes and curses at the dog as he beats it. The dog is defenseless, tied to a post. I know the man will not stop until the animal is dead. There’s a doghouse in the foreground. I lower my bat and walk away. Months passed. That crazy barking curse contributed to my decision to get out of Los Angeles and move back east. I would love to say that I finally spotted a black and gray German Shepherd poised on the roof of the Church of Scientology, untouchable, clamoring mercilessly from his... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
My friend and colleague, Alister Sanderson—professor, experimental filmmaker, and former creative director and senior producer at the A & E Network—has embarked upon an interesting little project. Well, maybe not so little. “In the old Anglo-Saxon riddles,” Alister says, “things speak poignantly or tongue-in-cheek about their experiences in the human world. My own things speak in the Shakespearean sonnet form, the missing rhyme in the last couplet being the name of the thing speaking—and an invitation for the listener to guess what that thing is.” Makes me think of Francis Ponge as well as those poems in the part I prologue of Don Quixote. Beyond merely writing these charming and sometimes haunting riddle sonnets, Alister has begun using his skill behind the camera to film performers reciting his work. He posts the results on his website at for all to see. Early this past spring, Alister invited me to recite one of his poems on camera and I agreed. A few weeks before the appointed day, he gave me a copy of the text, and I started memorizing. Here’s the nifty—yes, nifty—script in which the poem itself appears: RIDDLE SONNET XXII SCRIPT :60 (approx.) VIDEO VOICE-OVER :15/ Music The Life of Things 26 riddle-sonnets by Alister Sanderson XIII spoken by Jerry Williams Slow zoom out from mouth to medium shot of the speaker In the riddle you’re about to hear, a thing is talking about itself but leaves out the last word of the riddle, its own name. Listen as Jerry Williams lends his voice to The Life of Things and guess the name of the thing. The door clicks shut, I’m in the dark, alone, a hush settles in, time to contemplate why I went mad. I know a switch was thrown that jolted me into a howling fit. I ate air though never enough, couldn’t catch my breath —the horror of my emptiness inside, whirring wings—o those angels of death and moan of whirlwind where my mouth gaped wide! It’s your fault, my sad fate, how I’m designed to rage and never satisfy my craving. Can’t you hear me screaming out of my mind?! Furies torment me; you care only that I’m “labor-saving.” You with your tidy mind and tame demeanor, are you any saner than your ______ - _______ ? Hold on Jerry, fade to black © Alister Sanderson, 2011 Music On Saturday, April 30th, Alister lugged his equipment to the Bronx on the BxM7 express bus and set up in my living room. I made myself as comfortable as possible in my black faux club chair, and he pointed a lens at me. I hope you will allow me this small measure of corn: The next two hours evaporated in the guiltless exuberance of artistic collaboration. All I remember is that the director seemed encouraging and supportive, and he didn’t mind that I hadn’t done a very good job of learning my lines. We cruised through more than twenty takes of “Riddle Sonnet XXII” that... Continue reading
Posted Jul 5, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Hey, Ravi, yes, that's cool. Foxwoods!
I’m not much of a fan of Independence Day. “What a waste of gunpowder and sky,” Aimee Mann sang bluntly in her “4th of July” manifesto. Today the holiday seems even more pointless than usual. What is America anyway? A Chase Bank with a colostomy bag for a charter? While the existence of a real America may be called into question, the existence of real Americans—never. Exempli gratia, singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt released seventeen albums during his abbreviated career. His music sounds folk-jangled, and the lyrics read as a charmingly egg-headed stalking of life’s naked truths. However, the overall effect feels poignant and foreboding. Chesnutt was born in Georgia and came of age hanging around the historic Athens music scene of the late-eighties/early-nineties. In 1983, a car accident left him mostly paralyzed. He was eighteen. After his recovery, he read a lot of poetry (future song titles would include “Stevie Smith” and “Wallace Stevens”). He resumed playing the guitar. R.E.M. singer and human bandwagon Michael Stipe produced his first two albums, Little and West of Rome. Over the next twenty years, he recorded a ton of songs; he worked with Sweet Relief Music Fund to raise money for musicians who need medical care but have no insurance; and in 1996 he had a speaking part in Billy Bob Thornton’s Rocky, Sling Blade. In 2009, Chesnutt died from an intentional overdose of muscle relaxants. At the time, he was facing a $35,000-lawsuit for outstanding hospital bills—despite the fact that he paid over $500 a month for personal medical coverage. A new series of operations loomed. No more singing to be done. One of my favorite Vic Chesnutt songs is “Independence Day” and I found an odd little video of said song that I hope you will take a look at: The studio version came out on Little in 1990 and it’s very fine and clean, but this rooftop version from 2008 gives you a better idea of the emotional range and instability of Chesnutt’s songs. I love the way he moves among feelings of independence, dependence, and interdependence with such sad sleight of hand. The song is sharply humorous. I doubt any of the questions will ever get answered. I have included the lyrics—just as they appeared in all their lower case, half-punctuated, rock-n-roll glory: well future stepped into my field and turned it into an empire forefathers where are you now your dust is settling on my furniture oh independence day, I never knew it would be so symbolic oh independence day well I stepped out of a cloud and the ditch it is close I mean the ditch it is closing in hemingway, you did yourself justice so here’s to you, you articulately dead fisherman independence day, I never knew it would be so symbolic independence day independence day, I never knew it would be so symbolic independence day what if I said I love you and I needed your guidance to help me through the moral obstacles would you... Continue reading
Posted Jul 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
I am writing to you from deep in the bowels of the Robert Treat Motel in Newark, New Jersey, where I am participating in this year’s Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival ( I’m glad that Martin Farawell got the festival up and running after a year hiatus because it’s a wonderful creation, the largest poetry gathering since the dawn of time (according to Billy Collins). The poets I like most this year include Amiri Baraka, Teresa Carson, Rita Dove, Bob Hicok, Dorianne Laux, Dunya Mikhail, Sharon Olds, and Marie Ponsot. Earlier this morning I sat in the poets’ cafeteria under the massive Border’s tent, and I marveled at how I seemed to be slowly approaching the inner sanctum of American poetry. After all these years, they might let in another half-smart scribbler from Ohio. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling like a fraud. I sort of wanted to go back up to my incredibly fragrant room and watch TV. But I soldiered on to my first event, a conversation on the “Riches of Daily Life” with Sharon Olds, Marie Ponsot, and Rachel Hadas (whose work I am not at all familiar with). A delightful Dodge staffer introduced us around and Sharon gave me a little nod, remembering me perhaps from the first Academy of American Poets Forum, which was held at my College. Sharon really is such a sweet person. I can see that she has a good heart in all this chaos. Marie shook my hand and said, “Good to see you again,” perhaps remembering me from a dinner after a Barrow Street reading. What a gutsy delight she is, truly, still protesting all our daffy foreign adventures with her buttons and everything else. Then Rachel shook my hand, said hello, and turned to the Dodge staffer and delightfully said, “So is Jerry going to be serving as moderator or something?” The tenderness of the inner sanctum washed over me like amniotic fluid. We each read a couple of our own poems and talked about how they relate to the Riches of Daily Life. When Martin had asked me to take part in this discussion—he put me on the schedule and everything—I thought he’d made a mistake. What do I know about the riches of daily life? Now, if the discussion had been called the Helplessness of Daily Life or the Small Humiliations of Daily Life or the Practical Joke of Daily Life or even Chicken Soup for the Spleen, I would have felt right at home. But when Rachel read a poem about jury duty and Sharon read an ode to her menstrual blood and Marie read a poem that basically said there can’t be any riches of daily life when people are dying in war, I sat up in my seat and read a poem about someone else’s riches and someone else’s period blood—and I’m not joking. I fit in, somewhat. The conversation went great. The crowd in the Robert Treat/Tri-State Ballroom had some great... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Found Poem a.k.a. Double Rainbow by Hungrybear9562 a.k.a. Copyright Infringement Whoa! That's a full rainbow–– double rainbow. Oh my god. It's a double rainbow all the way. Whoa! It's so intense. Whoa! Man! Oh! Whoa. Whoa. Whohohoah. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh. My. God. Whooooooo! Ohhhh-hoh-hoh! Wow! Whooooh! Yeahhh. Ohhh. Oh my god, look at that: It's starting to even look like a triple rainbow. Oh my god, it's full on double rainbow all the way across the sky. Oh my god. I'm weeping. Oh my god. Oh my god. What does this mean? Oh! Oh my god. Oh! Oh god. It's so bright. Oh my god, it's so bright and vivid. Ohh! Ohh! Ohh! Ohh! It's so beautiful! I am weeping/laughing. I am weeping/laughing. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god, it's a double complete rainbow right in my front yard. Ohhhh! Oh my god! I am weeping. Oh, my god. What does it mean? Tell me! Ohhhhhhh! Too much. Now tell me what it means. Oh my god. It's so intense. Oh, oh. Oh my god. Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Now that I have gathered enough details and scared up the nerve to write something that will certainly never satisfy me, I’m going public with my sorrow. Robert Emmett Bowen III died on Monday, August 30th, as a result of injuries sustained in a bicycle crash on Thursday night, August 26th. Someone driving a flatbed truck hit him while he was riding down Second Avenue. As far as I know, that someone is still walking around, breathing air Bob tried to keep clean with his words and with his actions. That someone is eating Doritos and watching television or whatever one does after slaughtering another human being. Time passes. The memorial services keep coming: I wish I could attend the gathering set for Sunday, October 10th, from 2-6 p.m. at Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, Ohio. I officially met Bob after a Barrow Street poetry reading at Marymount Manhattan College in 2004, though I already knew him by reputation: world class bass player, visual artist, experimental thespian, and subtle but effective social activist. His wife, poet Amy Lemmon, introduced us, and we became friends instantaneously, as if we’d known each other our whole lives. In a way, this was true. Bob and I both grew up in the alluringly wretched town of Dayton, Ohio. He came of age in a supportive and adoring family; mine destroyed itself. We entered the University of Dayton around 1984. He graduated with a degree in music; I flunked out and lucked into a job at a cardboard box factory. All those years ago, we moved in some of the same circles, hung out at some of the same bars. I’d heard he was the best musician in the state, practically a legend, but I could not remember having ever met him or seen him play. That night at Marymount, I made a funny and derisive remark about our hometown—the Miami River Valley smelled like syphilitic corn or all our childhood whiffleball games were fixed, something—and I am proud to say that he actually fell down laughing. He had the perfect laugh. Put that on your list of reasons to love him. Since 2004, Bob and I spent a fair amount of time together, despite our busy schedules. He had relocated to New York in 1996, earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, and steadily climbed through the ranks of the jazz scene while nurturing a marriage and raising two children in Astoria, Queens. I watched him play with some great musicians in the most famous venues in Manhattan. The humblest genius I’d ever encountered, he amazed and inspired me. I simply cannot believe he’s gone. In Bob, I had met a man overflowing with energy. And I’m not talking about that base-jumping, sky-diving shit; I’m talking about boundless curiosity, a body and mind flawlessly built to compose and play music, a guy who made Mother Teresa look like a mooch. He could use the words cat (male person) and bread (money)... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Now that I have gathered enough details and scared up the nerve to write something that will certainly never satisfy me, I’m going public with my sorrow. Robert Emmett Bowen III died on Monday, August 30th, as a result of injuries sustained in a bicycle crash on Thursday night, August... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2010 at Williamsprof's blog
My mother and I were poised on the fake leather sofa in our living room watching The Exorcist on television when my father sneaked up behind us and yelled "WAAHHHHHH!" as loud as he could without pulling a neck muscle. I nearly jumped out of my dermis, and I imagine my mother did, too, because she promptly grabbed a thick, vanilla-scented candle off the coffee table and chucked it at him, missing wide to the left. The candle landed dully in the corner, and she emerged from her afghan and griped across the blue shag carpet to retrieve it. "Asshole," she hissed, not quite under her breath. My father orangutan-laughed and moseyed off to the bathroom with the sports section and a pack of Winstons. Startling people when they were lost in thought or folding laundry or reading an issue of Mad Magazine remained one of his few hobbies. No daydreaming or concentrating in the Williams household. I don't remember much about The Exorcist because I could not sit through the entire movie—far too scary for a ten year old with the jitters—and I've never seen it since. Poor Linda Blair's face had that gnawed-on-by-a-horde-of-rats veneer, and she sounded like a gargoyled Louis Armstrong. When you're a kid and your parents, teachers, and every other hapless adult have trained you to believe that god and the devil exist, then the raw gutterality of Linda Blair's voice becomes the most frightening expression imaginable—more frightening than the crack of a belt against flesh. Though we had school the next morning, my older sisters had gone out for the evening: Susan with the gear-heads and Quaalude-munchers and Patty with the cheerleaders and jocks. I holed up in their bedroom until the movie ended, listening to Robin Trower's "Bridge of Sighs" on the record player and trying on their adjustable mood rings. By the time I resurfaced, my father had been exiled to the ragged gold beanbag in the family room and, still shaken, I convinced my mother to let me sleep in their king-size bed with her. After donning my customary slumbering attire, sweatpants and a Miami Dolphins jersey, I lay under the covers while she loaded her blond hair with curlers. She was a heavily freckled woman, not very tall, not yet overweight, and when she smiled the split between her front teeth unveiled an earthy pragmatism. She did whatever she had to do to survive. If her husband grew angry with her for breaking one of his million niggling rules and confiscated her checkbook and car keys, she waited patiently at home until he needed her to make a purchase or run an errand. Quote life unquote always snapped back into place. When we finally settled in and my mother turned out the light, I couldn't get the image of Linda Blair's mauled face out of my mind. All those scratches and gashes and bloated purple bruises had looked so convincing to me. My heart raced, and I felt goosebumps crystallizing... Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Since we are still huddled together in the toxic shadow of Valentine's Day, I suppose it's appropriate to write about breaking up. Surely, thousands of VD survivors waited until after the holiday to move all their stuff out of apartments and disappear in U-Hauls; get caught cheating on purpose; send goodbye e-mails (or texts); or, hell, just break up face to face like people did before Nikola Tesla kindled the world's ruin with electricity. Thus? In honor of the colors red and gray, let me begin at the end of the middle. Katarina stood six feet tall in heels, and she always wore heels (flats made her calves hurt). She had dark brown hair and eyes. Her broad features were finely sculpted; her skin was the color of cinnamon. She looked like a statue standing outside the doorway to Desire. I know that sounds mawkish, but she was Russian. When we started seeing each other she had just turned thirty-six—exactly twice my age. The relationship lasted about nine months and remained rocky, twitchy, and sticky pretty much the whole time given that she was married, had two kids, and worked as my direct supervisor at Bank One, where I answered credit card application phone calls for ten hours every Saturday. Mid-1980s. Dayton, Ohio. Again. At the time, I was ready for anything, mainly because I was lonely. Most people don't want to know anything about loneliness. Real discourse on the subject is more taboo than alluding to the specter of nuclear war: Ignore it, and it might go away. Yet loneliness makes most of our decisions for us. Bodies collide because of it. Cable channels propagate because of it. Pharmaceuticals slide down esophagi when we can't endure another day of it. Alcohol. X-Box oblivion. Gambling. A rusty knife hacks away at us from the inside, and we surrender to our most meager ambitions. Anything to deaden the pain. I'm probably speaking for myself here—because I want to feel better. And that sole aspiration, in all its casts and configurations, has been, despite what I say or do, the story of my life. Katarina was up front about everything: I should avoid calling her at home during the evening; no one must know, not even my closest friends; we would see each other on Thursdays at a pre-designated location; my performance at work must not suffer; she didn't want to catch any diseases, so I wouldn't be permitted to have a girlfriend. It crossed my mind that she'd had affairs before, but I didn't care. Or at least I thought I didn't care. I marveled at my becoming as dark and disastrous as all the poets I admired. And maybe Katarina felt shipwrecked in adulthood or her husband neglected her. Maybe she wanted to simulate a courtship and recreate the onset of love, something she feared she might never again experience. Whatever the reason, it was apparent that we'd risen (or sunk) to the same level of incautious need. We started... Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
First, let me introduce myself. My entire family, on both sides, originated from Harlan, Kentucky, a coal town in the southeastern part of the Bluegrass State, a place of great importance to labor historians and country singers. My ancestry consists mostly of alcoholics and pill addicts, xenophobes, agoraphobes, preachers, toothless Felliniesque pinheads, veterans of foreign wars with unidentifiable diseases, attempted murderers, moonshiners and bootleggers, racists, golfers, magicians, disability royalty, suicides, freemasons, and a legion of mourners. Before I arrived on the scene, my mother and father and my two sisters moved north to Dayton, Ohio, birthplace of African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, actor Rob Lowe, and sibling aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright. If my father had stayed in Harlan, there is little doubt the man would have been a miner instead of a construction worker, which means I, too, might have gone underground to make a living (if there were any coal left in those mangled hills). I suppose this constitutes what William Wordsworth, son of a noble lord’s personal attorney and lifelong resident of the Lake District in northwest England, referred to in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” as a “low and rustic life” where the “essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.” If so, I got lucky. I am the first person in my immediate family to graduate from high school. To me, Dayton always epitomized a dying city. And, according to the one friend I know who still lives there, these hard economic times have caused this statement to ring true. I spent my early twenties trying to get out of Ohio. On the third try, I never went back. I have not lived in Dayton for more than twenty years. I have nothing against Ohio or Dayton in particular, but there was simply nothing to do in that town except walk around with a plastic cup waiting for someone to pour beer into it. If you wanted to check out any “professional” art and entertainment, you had to drive sixty miles south to Cincinnati. Though quite conservative politically, Cincinnati had the clubs, museums, the Reds and the Bengals, independent cinema, and the University had enough money to bring in some major poets. Now, this happened twenty-five years ago, so the statute of limitations on bizarre decisions has run out. I purchased a sheet of forty doses of lysergic acid diethylamide from an acquaintance for the rock-bottom price of two dollars per tab. Like many troubled yet intellectually curious youth, I wanted to experiment with a drug akin to the one I’d read about in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception—not Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book I did not read and subsequently despise until I was in my thirties. Ingesting LSD seems innocent enough when you’re young, but now I see it as a symptom of reality not especially working out for me.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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