A Journal of the Plague Year: #18

It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.

But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.

Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.

Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.

In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.

I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education, Politics, Reportage, Teaching, The Plague Year

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XVII–The Impactful Album Challenge

What follows, dear reader, is a revised and slightly expanded version of my participation in the Facebook Album Challenge that’s been making the rounds of late in this merry, merry month of May in the year of our pandemic, 2020.

I include it here so that it’s all in one spot for quick reference for anyone who cares to take a gander, but mostly for me, as a record of how I responded to the challenge, the challenge to post a photo of 10 album covers over 10 days of records that had a significant impact, whatever that means. These could be records that influenced your musical tastes. If you play an instrument seriously or are a songwriter, maybe these could be records that had the most impact on your own path as a musician. For me, it was both of the above, but also I considered records that intersected with my life during important moments of development or growth, that enriched my spirit, and also, that have withstood the test of time for me. I could listen to any of these records right this minute and experience that same sense of wonder and joy and giddiness. For example, when I was a kid, Kiss records were impactful–but very little of their music is on current rotation, so they’re not here. Similarly, The Sweet–a profound early influence–and yet, their cringe-worthy lyrics offend my 21st century sensibilities. But unlike the Kiss omission, that was a super difficult call, one that I’m still struggling with, one that I may have to amend.

I also thought that this might be an accessible reentry for me into a blog series I started years ago, the purpose of which was to listen to a single compact disc from every artist represented in my collection, A to Z, and then to write a little reflection on the experience. I wrote 16 volumes of that series over several years, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words, and I managed to get to, but not finish, the letter H. At this rate, I thought to myself, I might not live long enough to finish, and then I’d never get to write about Frank Zappa! Oh, the horror.

So here they are, my entries to the challenge, revised a bit, with the photos of the “10” most impactful albums on my life and times.

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

XTC, Apple Venus Volume 1: I was nominated by my friend John Stanford to play the album game. I accept begrudgingly, only because I don’t like being “called on” and I’m not too keen on the rules. Nevertheless, I accept, because who could turn down John Stanford. So I vow to break the rules all over the place. Here’s me, with, perhaps, my favorite pop record of ALL TIME, a record that never gets old and seems to me as timeless as Sgt. Pepper. The band is XTC. It’s the second to last record they would ever make together. It’s 1999. I am one decade into my teaching career and I am feeling brash and optimistic and unstoppable, just like this record, just like almost any record from XTC, who are, it’s safe to say, my favorite band ever. They were, to me, The Beatles of the 80’s and 90’s. I could have chosen a half a dozen of their albums for this challenge. For now, I would say, though, “Apple Venus Volume 1” is tied in first place with this one: “Skylarking.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Day 2 of a record album game in which I ignore the established rules. This was maybe the first album I ever obsessed over. I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor with her tiny little portable suitcase turntable and I played this album over and over. This was the beginning of my love affair with music. Maybe the first album for which I ever memorized every word.

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD.: Day 3 of the record album game. Right alongside Sgt. Pepper, I spun this again and again as a child, and, like Sgt. Pepper, it has had the same kind of staying power for me. The neighbor girl and I liked to pretend we were radio disc jockeys. There was this odd little nook in her family’s attic that became our “station.” The requests for this record kept pouring in. We played it over and over. It’s a dream of mine to do a song-by-song cover album of this baby.

Photo on 4-28-20 at 4.13 PM

Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Day 4 of top 10 most influential, pivotal, earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-altering record albums. This one blew my little 4th grade mind right open. Adventurous, varied, naughty, literate, literary, beautifully performed; every tune a gem. Not a clunker in the bunch. I was so hard core about Elton in elementary school, some kids called me Elton Jarm. This record was the pivotal one, and shortly after that, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first LP I ever bought with my own money. Two favorites to this day.

Photo on 4-29-20 at 5.56 PM

Laurie Anderson, United States Live; Kate Bush, The Dreaming: Day 5. Let the cheating begin in earnest. No serious music fan could name just 10, so I’m squeezing in a two-for. I can think of no two women who had more impact on my musical life than these two. They both enlarged for me the possibilities of pop music, what it can do sonically, and what it can do for the head and the heart. Anderson’s record, the first box set I ever purchased, a live album over 5 lps, brought so much of what interested me in my early adulthood into one brilliant package: she was funny, super literate, poetic, absurd, a trailblazer of music technology and for the marriage of the literary and the pop culture. Pure brilliance. And Kate Bush? This is her fourth album, but it’s the first one that I heard and I found it absolutely magnetizing and sexy and weird and theatrical and I loved it for nearly all the same reasons that I loved Laurie Anderson. But man, Kate could really sing. One of the most distinctly original female voices in rock music.

Photo on 4-30-20 at 8.59 AM

Talking Heads, Fear of Music: Day 6. Talk about an appropriate title, the first time I heard this record I totally freaked out, thought it was the weirdest, ugliest, most unlistenable thing I had ever heard. I took it back, claimed it was defective. It haunted me. A couple of years later, after easing myself back in by trying their first two albums, “77” and “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” the “Fear of Music” album worked its way back into my collection and summarily changed my life. It is, still, by far, the weirdest Talking Heads record–but in the best, most beautiful way. “Electric guitar gets run over by a car on the highway. This is a crime against the state. This is the meaning of life: to tune this electric guitar.” Need I go on?

Devo, Are We Not Men? Oingo Boingo, Nothing To Fear: Day 7. Between these two I could not choose. By the time I had accepted Talking Heads into my heart, Devo and Oingo Boingo were busy carving out space in my mind for full on Nerd Rock New Wave devotion. And these two weirdo bands have the distinction for me of the best cover renditions of all time, Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Oingo Boingo’s “You Really Got Me,” both tunes on each band’s debut, respectively. This is not Oingo Boingo’s debut, but their sophomore effort. It kicks more ass; it’s less like a West Coast Devo. I wore out the grooves on this one and years later replaced the record with a CD. Watch me replace it on vinyl again if it ever reappears there. Who knew then what Mothersbaugh and Elfman would have in their musical futures? No body.

Joni Mitchell, Wild Things Run Fast; Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth: Day 8. It was 1984. I was a community college freshmen. The Dolby album was brand new that year, and simultaneously, I discovered “Wild Things Run Fast” from two years before, my first serious listen to Joni Mitchell. I immersed myself inside both of these albums, both artists becoming giant influences. Both records were imbued with this beautiful infusion of pop and jazz in a way that I don’t think I had ever heard before. In the next year or so, these two heroes of mine would collaborate on Joni’s “Dog Eat Dog” album, in hindsight, kind of a failure, but at the time I was over the moon. I love it when heroes collaborate. David Byrne and St. Vincent? Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock? Brilliant. More please.

Photo on 5-4-20 at 8.52 AM

Cheap Trick, The Dream Police: Day 9. I could have posted any one of their first five studio albums. This band–a childhood favorite that continues to blow my mind and continues to make great music. Check out anything from “Cheap Trick ’97” onward. Robin Zander, I think, is one of my all time favorite ROCK singers. Even their Christmas album rocks. Yeah, they made a Christmas record. Sad to see that Bun E. Carlos is out of the fold. He was such a force in this band. I loved his drumming, especially his tendency to put the eighth note bass drum hits on the other side of the snare in the rock beat. He and Rick Neilson were the perfect foils for super models Robin Zander and bass extraordinaire Tom Peterson.

Here’s my story: I saw Cheap Trick open up for Kiss without ever having heard a single song of theirs–this was before the Budokan album made them famous–and I thought, even as a young tike, that if you took all those pyrotechnics and motorized platforms and blood spitting and make up and crazy outfits away from Kiss, Cheap Trick was clearly the superior band musically, in every way.

The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing; Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model; Japan, Tin Drum; Gary Numan, Telekon:

Day 10 of breaking all the rules. Appropriately enough, today I share my own personal New Wave Holy Quadrumvirate. There’s no way I could leave any of them out of a group of songwriters or bands or albums that ultimately shaped me into the musician and lyricist I became. Bob Geldof, from the Boomtown Rats, in particular, was my first political songwriter. The wit of Elvis is incomparable. David Sylvian from Japan may have been my first rock star spiritual guru. And Numan was just freaky, a perfect role model for awkward and nerdy teens.

It feels wrong to cut out too early here. It’s hard to express the impact all four of these records made on my young life. It’s worthy of its own blog entry, perhaps. I have been loyal to them all over the years. The Boomtown Rats just reunited after 37 years for a new record and I’ve followed everything Geldof did as a solo artist. Elvis is frighteningly prolific. He’s the artist in my collection that is most plentifully represented, second behind only one other artist. David Sylvian’s solo work has been super exciting to follow, challenging, far reaching, deeply spiritual and literary, and Gary Numan continues to make great, really great records.

Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch: Day 11. Zappa much? While not a completist, I have more Zappa in my collection than any other artist, 37 albums in all, many of which are double and sometimes triple cd collections. This one may not be my all time favorite, but, as it was my first Zappa record, it has a special place in my memories of all-things-Frank. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, indeed! The best musicians in the world playing the weirdest, most difficult rock music ever composed. Zappa also has the distinction of being the first artist, while living at home, that I felt I needed to hide from my parents. I listened at relative low volume in my bedroom or cranked it up when they weren’t at home. The line in particular from “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” comes to mind, a song I would never want to play within my mother’s earshot. Iconoclastic. That’s the word. The music, the words, the thought–he was in every way a musician’s musician and a thinking person’s musician. Everything he did was daring, astounding, funny, intelligent, incisive, brilliant. Cancer sucks, by the way. What might he have done had he continued to live?

Photo on 5-7-20 at 9.07 AM

The Police, Message in a Box (The Complete Recordings); Rush, A Farewell to Kings: Day 12 of the Album-Game Cheat-fest. Today, it’s about the drummers, man. These two guys, more than any other drummers, shaped my musical brain. Copeland maybe more so, because I never did develop anything close to Peart’s chops. Stewart’s chops likely dwarf mine as well, but I cut my teeth playing to Police records and could pull most of it off. The Rush stuff I had to fake. In my Cheaty-McCheat-Face way, I’ve included the entire Police catalogue. And then this, I think, my favorite Rush album of all, in it’s original cover artwork glory. I wanted to take a picture of the 40th anniversary edition–but you know, they’ve reimagined all the artwork. I don’t know how I feel about that. I DO know how I feel about Neil Peart’s untimely passing, and you can read all about that here.

Photo on 5-8-20 at 9.22 AM

Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings: Day 13. They were punk, they were ska, they were funk, they were soul, they were metal, they were pop, they were super smart; their energy was frenetic, palpable, and, while they chronicled our American ugliness, their music was undeniably joyful and life-affirming. I am somewhat embarrassed that Black American Music is not more widely represented in my collection–but I am so appreciative of this band for bringing to my twenty-something white boy privilege some awareness and consciousness that, truly, I had little of before encountering this band.

Photo on 5-9-20 at 10.11 AM #2

They Might Be Giants, Flood, Apollo 18: Day 14. “Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It’s a word that I have been guilty of abusing, but not this time. 😁These guys were my antidote to the grunge movement of the 90s. I needed the nerd rock to cleanse the palette in between all that Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. And I loved those bands, but I am uniquely aware of their conspicuous absence on this list. Nevertheless, here it is, my penultimate offering in the Most Important Records In Your Life game, cheater version: They Might Be Giants.

Photo on 5-10-20 at 11.11 AM

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin: Day 15. To conclude the 10 day, one-album-a-day challenge, about which I have bent the rules considerably, I choose this 1999 classic, a record I did not hear for the first time until 2001, a record that came to me at a perfect time in my life, a record that matched the absurdity, the profundity, the magnitude of my world, externally and internally. It is, perhaps, with a half a dozen XTC records, one of the most important records of my life. “Suddenly, everything has changed.”

I have penned more words on this blog site about this band than perhaps any other band. Check out the “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography” under F and “A Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of Oczy Mlody.” They have consistently challenged me, intrigued me, touched me in really surprising places, but also, from time to time, pissed me off. Unlike XTC, they have made terrible records. But I appreciate their fearlessness. I appreciate how successful they have become while being so undeniably weird and counter to most of what you might call mainstream pop music. Wayne Coyne, I think, is really something else.

And that’s it for my list of the “10” most impactful records of my life. But, I’d like you to notice, I have included only music from the 20th century. I have continued to listen avidly and to actively seek new music out. New music continues to shape me and move me. So maybe, I’m thinking, there may need to be a 21st century edition, again, not because anyone is holding their breath to know what my favorites are, but because this activity of writing about music that was meaningful to me is a little bit therapeutic and life-giving. I feel like I’m doing what Whitman was doing in his SONG: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” My record collection, though, is way better than Whitman’s, but serves in many ways, both literally and figuratively, as my Song of Myself.

Postscript: Honorable Mentions in no particular order. “Destroyer” by Kiss, “Give Us A Wink” by The Sweet, The Pretenders debut album, “Life’s Too Short” by The Sugarcubes, “Parallel Lines” by Blondie, “Powerage” by AC/DC, “Face to Face” by Angel City, “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie, “Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo, “The Big Heat” by Stan Ridgeway, “True Colors” by Split Enz, “Temple of Low Men” by Crowded House, “From the Inside” or “Flush the Fashion” by Alice Cooper, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, “All You Can Eat” by K.D. Lang, “Discipline” by King Crimson, and “Thrak,” also by King Crimson, “Songs from the Big Chair” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, “So” by Peter Gabriel, “Globe of Frogs” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Whatever and Ever, Amen” by Ben Folds Five, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths, and “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish. I’ve forgotten something. I know I have.

Until next time, happy listening!

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Congratulations: You’ve Written Another 30 Poems. Now What?

May 1st and May 2nd I spent all day both days not writing a poem. I continued not writing poetry on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. It turns out, no poetry was written into the days and the week ahead, so that today, on the 10th of May, I have written not a single poem. Don’t get me wrong. After writing a poem every day for 30 days, it’s not like I’m tired of writing poetry (does anyone ever tire of doing the thing they want more than any other thing to do?). It’s just that I needed a break, a break, maybe, to write a paragraph, or a letter, or to dabble in fiction again, or to return to a project in progress, and to relieve the pressure (not that anyone’s holding their breath for it) of posting something to the blog every day for 30 days.

But wouldn’t you know it, I found another daily thing to do with words and pictures. If you’re a Facebook user, you may have noticed a recent spate of record album challenges. Musician and music fan that I am, I couldn’t let that one go. The rules are, typically, to post an album cover of a record that had a significant impact on your life–just the album cover, no comments, no explanation. Nominate a friend to play.

I bent the rules quite a bit. While I was nominated by a friend and was super willing to participate, I find somewhat distasteful the practice of nominating friends for things. They don’t need my nomination. If they’d been paying attention, surely this social media game would have been on their radar, and nobody really needs to be “chosen” to participate in a thing like this. Just do it, if you like, right? So I didn’t nominate anybody. And I didn’t post 10 records over ten days. I posted closer to 30 over 15 days. And I didn’t post just the album cover; I posted a selfie of me holding the album cover. And I didn’t forgo the commentary. I felt it might be interesting to see, for those who cared, some little explanation of how these particular records intersected with my life, why I loved them, how they influenced me, and why they matter. So I did that, too. It turned out to be kind of a cool little series, so don’t be surprised if a version of that Facebook activity makes its way on to the blog. Kind of a “light” version of an album listening project I started years ago and never finished because it was insanely hard. This may be the happy medium, the middle way, a sound compromise, to that crazy project.

Now what? Onward and upward. Here’s to music. It has saved my life.

I found these cool record boxes at Simple Wood Goods.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry, Writing and Reading

#374: Ode for a Colleague Leaving

You are a force of nature,
a force to be reckoned with
in the best possible way;
students say they are afraid of you
and yet they love you, clearly.
What they fear, actually, is your
disappointment, not your
wrath; although, to be fair,
you can be wrathful–
I’ve seen it with my own eyes;
wrath, though, dealt fairly, evenly,
and always deserved.
You’ve made
miracles happen in that
theater, in that black box,
got young people to do miraculous,
funny, profound, silly,
scandalous, and controversial
things, and this grew them
beyond their own meager
capacities to comprehend,
but they will never forget
and will always be shaped by
the opportunities you gave them,
the coaching, the care,
the professionalism; you were
always raising the bar and
they always rose to the occasion.
And you have given our little
town its own theater company,
an embarrassment of riches.
You have been a friend to teachers,
a support, a confidant,
an ally, and you have thrown
glorious martini parties.
You and I have a history
unlike any I have shared
with another colleague: we were
classmates some 40 years ago
in the same building where we
have taught together now for
more than a decade.
And over these many years
I was George to your Rebecca,
Mercutio to your Juliet,
Bottom to your Titania,
and Capulet to your Nurse,
and every one of those moments
was a kind of watershed,
a peak experience, a time when
I felt in some real tangible way
how lucky I was to know you,
how lucky your students have been,
how lucky this community.
This is the second time I have
written you an ode. Please don’t
let it go to your head. But know this:
I don’t want you to leave. And somewhere
in my darkest thoughts I think that I
might not ever see you again.
You’re the psychologist, so tell
me what this means:
I had a dream that The Democratic
Republic of Congo deported
you back to the United States,
specifically back to Milwaukie.
I must confess I was not disappointed.
I don’t wish that for you, really.
What I wish is that, wherever you go,
you are valued, you are empowered,
you are an agent of change, you are at peace,
you are happy, and you are,
as you have always
been here in your hometown,
loved.   

1 Comment

Filed under Poetry

#373: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet, II

unnamed

Last year on April 29 I wrote a poem with this same title, hence, the Roman numeral two punctuating its conclusion. Let this be the second part of a prose poem meditation on the penultimate day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in his potentially penultimate professional year, ending in a rhyming couplet.

I have had three penultimate teaching years in a row. The bottom line is this: I am not ready to retire. I’m a mess. This year, especially early on, I waffled all over the place.  Then, almost immediately, I stopped waffling. I knew I was not ready and made my peach with that. Did I just type the word peach? I have not been making peaches.

And yet, I knew, somehow (a meeting with a financial advisor?) that I was not ready. I knew, somehow (the repeated occurrences of joyfulness in the work?) that I was not ready. And I knew, finally, somehow (the passing of a deadline for declaring an intention to retire?) that I was not ready.

The deadline for declaring an intention to retire, by the wayside, was April 1, yes, April Fool’s day, but much more importantly, the first day of national poetry month, and the beginning of the third week of shelter-in-place orders as the result of COVID-19. I transitioned on that day from journaling the plague year to poetry-ing it.

Nearly all of my poems this month have been about, or at least mentioned, the coronavirus pandemic, sheltering-in-place, distance learning, social distancing, abandoned schoolhouses, grieving for the class of 2020, walking the dogs, and sitting in the back yard with birds.

Here’s the shortest commencement speech ever: Class of 2020. You’ve been robbed a little bit, but just a little. Sure, there are things you didn’t get to do that every class for the last 102 years has been able to do, but none of those classes, none of them, have chalked up their school’s courtyard while keeping a safe distance quite like you have–and these things that you’ve missed, ultimately, will be less important in time than the things you didn’t miss. So there. Godspeed. Congratulations. Your accomplishments are legend.

Two beloved colleagues, both long-time friends, one longer and more friendly, but both, it bears repeating, beloved, are leaving the school house. One is retiring and the other will be teaching internationally, and both, I know, are grieving that this last year in public education has been so fucked up. Another reason, as if I needed one, for staying.

It is time to retire the word penultimate. A thing cannot be second-to-last forever. I understand this now, and will endeavor to stop thinking ahead, just as my mindfulness practice tells me, that the most important moment is the NOW moment, the expansion of consciousness in the present–an awareness that poetry serves up better than any cushion. Ultimately, I will retire from the public school system . . .

before I’m toast but not until I’m ready,
and until that day I swear I’m holding steady.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

#372: Day 28 Hummingbird Haiku

66120991-480px

My sophomores, under the gentle tutelage of a wonderfully gifted student teacher, are distance learning about imagery, beyond the sort of rudimentary understanding that imagery is language that appeals to the senses, into a deeper knowledge that imagery plays on both the intellect and the emotions, that it is associative, that it often works best in juxtaposition to other images. So she’s having them write haiku. In my earlier experiences as a poet, a had a tendency to poo-poo the haiku, but in recent years I’ve come to a new appreciation, in part, because of a late, very late understanding of what we’re introducing to these 15 and 16 years olds now.  So, ignoring the Napowrimo prompt for today, and ignoring, as Robert Hass gives us permission to do, the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, I give you: haiku.

I

Hummingbird makes a nest
in the tree above my hammock.
Ignores the feeder.

II

Hummingbird makes a
loud clicking sound;
wakes me from napping.

III

Birds chirp, warble, coo
in the back yard.
The Hummer has no song
but buzz and click.

IV

At my brother’s house,
a red-headed hummingbird
accompanies our reunion.

V

Hummingbird knows
nothing nor cares about
our troubles with Covid-19.

VI

I saw this mother bird
fight off a finch;
the nest, safekeeping.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Teaching

#371: Monday Review

 

27

I’d give it two stars.
I’d say that so far, its performance
has been uneven, like it can’t decide
really what it wants to be.
Heavy rain early, then cloudy,
then a clearing, dry enough
for a dog walk, but too damn warm.
Muggy, almost. Monday has forgotten
that we live in the Pacific Northwest
where muggy, most often, is not a thing.
Monday has had most of April to blame
for its indecisiveness, its recalcitrance.
Additionally, Monday has been stingy,
has given me insufficient work to do.
It asks me to watch remotely my colleagues
remotely teaching here at the beginning
of this third week of remote learning.
Remote is a word I would use for Monday,
distant, aloof even, and kind of naughty.
Like a mistress, she’s asking me to do
things I probably shouldn’t be doing.
They don’t pay me to write poetry
or make music or watch funny animal
videos, but I may, by the time Monday
has ended, by the time Monday has
had her way, have done all of these things.
Even the haiku, the form my intern
is teaching right now to my distant
tenth graders, a few of which I should
be writing, is elusive on this Monday.
It’s early in the afternoon, so there’s
still time for this day to redeem itself,
but it will be a difficult feat to pull off,
having lost me pretty much already
in its meandering, its stupid weather,
and its temptations to put off until
tomorrow what might be done today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

#370: Almanac Questionnaire

Almanac Questionnaire

Weather: It’s sunny and warm again, yes, again, yes, finally after three gray days. We’ve been spoiled a little by weather. Nature trying to soften us up.
Flora: The oak trees are leafing–I almost saw it happen. You have to be quick. There must be a moment, three o’clock in the morning, likely, when these giants burst open.
Architecture: 1931, an English Tudor; we are closing in on a decade.
Customs: This could very well be my 10th year of writing a poem every day in April.
Mammals/reptiles/fish: My next door neighbor has a Koi pond.
Childhood dream: A swing set. She made me take off her shoes.
Found on the Street: There are two flattened squirrel corpses in front of the house.
Export: I moved my entire music library to an external hard drive.
Graffiti: “Sorry about your wall!”
Lover: Mostly imaginary.
Conspiracy: Aliens have landed on this planet at some point in the earth’s 4.5 billion year time line, and there are living human beings who know about them.
Dress: Every day from here on out, it’s shorts and a t-shirt.
Hometown memory: My favorite record store has turned into a porno shop.
Notable person: Who is not notable? What is that Stafford line: some people are so dull you can never forget their names?
Outside my window, I find: the flower pots she’s planted, the back yard dog corral, truck in the driveway next to the garage, the mossy roof of the woodshed.
Today’s news headline: America Is Not Set Up For This.
Scrap from a letter: “Greetings friend! I’m writing this at 9 pm on a Saturday. I just finished a steak dinner and am curled up, a snifter of Dry Fly whiskey to one side and my cat Winston to the other.”
Animal from a myth: Today I learned that a Pooka is a shapeshifter and can take any form it chooses. Usually, it is seen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin or even an old man. I prefer the image of a rabbit with ears like a German Shepherd. I might be Irish.
Story read to children at night: I read to my son from The Hobbit when he was a wee lad.
I walk three minutes down an alley and I find: finally, the dogs, having escaped from the yard and rampaged their way through the trailer park for seniors up the road. Some little old lady on one side of the alley, my son on the other. He scooped her up, the dog, that is.
I walk to the border and hear: that someone has drawn an imaginary line that goes for thousands of miles.
What I fear: I read yesterday that young people who showed no other symptoms were dying of strokes caused by COVID-19.
Picture on my city’s postcard: Red, red, red roses. A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude.

maxresdefault

The Pooka

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

#369: Some Kind of Hymn

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

(after James Schuyler and for Cresslyn Clay)

Moss grows on the roofs of the garage and the woodshed
and the weather is shitty, again. This April, it’s unseasonably
warm and dry with spells that go on for days of rain
and clouds, gray spells. We’re in the middle of one of those.
We sit at home this Saturday and try to think
of things to do. She shops on-line for a bedroom rug
and I look at Schuyler’s poem in awe and frustration
and the dogs whine and complain and we keep telling
them to shut up. The boy sleeps in late, a habit he’s developed,
or a practice at which he’s become a consummate pro.
I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and I’m not hung over.
I have an idea of doing some field recordings in the back
yard mostly to capture the sounds of birds; I could get
audio samples of birds almost anywhere these days but
for some reason I’d like to record my own birds. I think
about spinning Apple Venus (Volume One) again today
as a kind of tonic or some kind of hymn against the shitty
weather and even shittier times. Andy sings “Just like a mad
dog you’re chasing your tail in a circle” and that about sums
it up for many of us, for all of us, to some degree or another.
The boy stirs and his mother grills up the rest of the pancakes.
She keeps calling up the stairs, “Come on, let’s go” to roust him
down to the breakfast table. It’s noon. These pancakes have
blueberries in them, and they’re paleo, for what that’s worth.
He finally comes down and I sit with him while he eats his
pancakes and he tells me about a video game he thinks I’d like
called “Stanley’s Parable.” In a rare father-son teaching moment,
I ask him if he knows what a parable is. He does not. So I tell
him about Jesus and Socrates and all of a sudden he’s expressing
a keen interest in the ancient greeks and I had no idea.
I brush my teeth before I finish that last cup of coffee, and,
while, as I say, toothpaste and coffee are complimentary,
by now the brown stuff inside my Shakespeare Insult mug
is cold. I’m not drinking that. “Thou art a boil, a plague sore.”
That’s fitting. It’s nearly impossible to think of any of the bard’s
greatest insults and not be able to apply them immediately to that
imbecile in the White House, “an infinite and endless liar, an hourly
promise breaker.” I quote not from memory, but from my mug.
It’s my favorite mug, just behind my Composition Notebook mug,
a gift given to me, I think for no occasion, by my teacher friend
Cresslyn, whose birthday is today. I’ve said these are shitty times,
and yet, I am happy, happy for friends like Cresslyn, for time to write
poems after Schuyler, wide long poems instead of the long skinny
poems I usually write, for the kindness of people in my life, like
Cresslyn. Others come to mind, but she’s in the forefront, in part,
because it’s her birthday, and in part, because she is so kind.
I miss her. I mean, I miss being in the same building, the same
room with her, in our school, collaborating in person, sharing
stories about our students, walking all the way across the building
for a quick visit to say hello or ask a question. For now, we have to
be satisfied with looking at each other on computer screens.
There’s a caravan of cars driving by her house this morning,
honking, singing happy birthday, perhaps, heads out the window.
I’m happy for that. The sunshine is peaking through the clouds
and we may be able to walk the dogs. Schuyler’s poem takes a half
an hour to read out loud but I don’t want to write a poem
that takes a half an hour to read, just like yesterday, I’m not writing
about fruit. To say that the sun fruited the trees with leaves–
that’s the best I can do this afternoon. And there’s a hummingbird’s
nest inside the tree right above the hammock. Did this ever happen to you?
What do you want that you can’t have? How do we make whole
what has been scattered or broken? What’s the reason for this
laughter, these tears? Have I made the right choices, Saturday,
this one? The boy’s upstairs now, practicing his rudimental snare
and my wife’s phone is chirping in the other room, like some bird
robot. The dogs stir. This can’t go on forever.

****

Postscript: In case you are wondering about the inspiration for the poem, here’s a link to Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life,” and here is the prompt from Hoa Nguyen’s website.

  • Bring your perspective and verbs back to the present tense, even when addressing memory

  • Seek the “unforced flow of words”

  • Introduce all of the things that you might ordinarily deem incidental or too small for consideration

  • Include quoted speech (overheard, announced, in dialogue, as song lyrics)

  • Build your lines with associative accumulation (parataxis), move with your attentions

  • Introduce a swerve or observation that serves as interjection, non-sequitur

  • Include at least four colours

  • Animate the landscape or nearby object, imbue it with expressiveness of action or address

  • Include perceptions of the weather without, perceptions of weather within

  • Use a noun as verb that is typically not used that way (anthimeria): “white freaked with red”

  • Introduce the occasional 3- and 4-word sentence.

  • “Let’s make a list”: include a list of things you love

  • Did you remember to ask questions?

  • Include a hemistich line: a line made-up of two halves, of equivalent beats, hinged on a silent beat (caesura): “The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down”

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

#368: It’s Friday

It’s Friday
at the end
of the second
weirdest teaching
week in history
and I’m not
going to write
a poem about
a piece of fruit.
In my resistance
to writing about
fruit, in addition
to a number
of diversions
today, I almost
neglected to write
a poem at all.
My impulse
today was to make
music, and I
fumbled my way
through that and
had some fun and
almost wrote a song.
That felt good.
Almost writing
a song today
felt better than
almost teaching
a class, which I
was a great distance
from doing,
and this, almost
writing a poem
about not wanting
to write a poem
about fruit–
that feels pretty
good too.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Poetry