15 May 2011

Bad Poem and Other Projects

My usual April disappearance, partially having to do with finals, national poetry month, and other obligations, but I'll spend the next few days here catching up, as I've a number of collaborative projects to report on as well as a new play I'll be in, and the usual this and that.

One unexpected diversion was that I read a call in January O'Neil's blog for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival's Bad Poetry Contest, the six "winners" of which would have their poems read by America's expert on bad poetry, Steve Almond.  By the way, I wish to offer Jan congratulations on what appears to have been a hugely successful event which she co-organized.  I know how much work those kinds of events take, and it impressed me, right up there with the O Miami! Poetry Festival last month, as being one of the big to-dos in poetry this year. 

Now mind you, bad poetry contests have the same kind of cache for some writers as does the more famous Bulwer-Lytton contest, in which fiction writers try to outdo one another by writing the worst possible first sentence to a story.  There are bad poems, stuff written by the casual and affected poets, and then there are bad poems, written by practitioners who should know better. 

So I shot off a very old poem from my files, just to answer Jan's call and to give her enterprise a little support from afar.  And making Steve Almond read dreck is always my idea of a good time.  Happy day, about two weeks later, I received notice that my poem was one of the six lucky "winners."  Since the ceremony and reading took place yesterday, I feel free to share my work with you here.

This is a poem I wrote way back in the late 70s, when I was probably a sophomore in college, still under the influence of Richard Brautigan and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. 

She's so

My baby,
She's so spastic.

She's got epilepsy.

She has a grand mal,
I put my finger
in her mouth.

My baby,
She's so spastic.

What makes it bad, in my book, isn't the offensive subject matter, but its utter earnestness.  The speaker here, if you think about it, is totally accepting of his beloved's malady, and he is even willing to sacrifice one of his digits in the event of an episode (naturally this is an unwarranted and unwise gesture, but isn't that the way of love?). 

Bad Jim, very bad Jim. 

05 March 2011

ArtPoem II

Phil Heubeck discusses, quite astutely, the process of creating his brilliant painting, "Cherokee Roses," inspired by Brittney Brady's poem, "Traces" in his blog, Variations on Silence

ArtPoem I

Another round of ArtPoems.

This year I had the pleasure of working with ceramicist Andi McCarter.  What makes ArtPoems different from other ekphrastic poetry endeavors is that the creativity works both ways.  The poet creates a poem from an existing piece of visual art (that's the typical), but also in this collaborative event, the visual artist creates a new piece of art inspired from an existing poem.  This year, Andi drew my name for her artwork.

Andi really wanted to do something with my poem, "The Dance of the Polyglot" (I was really pleased that she got the whimsy of that poem), but the imagery just didn't come together for her.  So she selected an older poem, "Dances: Ingrid, 1966."

This is what Andi produced:

How cool is that? And here's the poem:

Dresses:  Ingrid, 1966

I hold the sawtooth-framed photograph,
a two-inch square black and white, while
Ingrid, you hold your mouth in an oh,

waiting for me to see how you look
like your daughter Cassandra, then, all
fragrant mop-haired and girl-frocked,

the flounce of your skirt poofing
with Spanish wind.  And it’s also your mother
you wish me to see, she kneeling to you

and facing full to the camera, a woman
arrested in two directions.  Ingrid, I confess
I did not pay attention to your beauty

for once, not this moment, not that moment
in the past.  I could not even see your
dress, but only my male-tilted idea of it,

even now.  I saw only your mother’s
white purse, a patent-leather and gold-
buckled affair, a purse good enough for Anita

Ekberg to remember to retrieve at the club
after dancing with that man-goat American
Frankie Stout in La Dolce Vita, a purse

too gauche for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy,
but not too crass for Jackie Kennedy
Onassis, which once opened would

smell of mink oil, ambergris, lipstick,
and Bilbao, which once opened would
bounce on a spring, like a woman’s laugh

after a man’s too forward, too direct
word, and then would quickly snap closed,
no, no, no, and laughing still. 

27 February 2011

No People . . .

like show people.

Last night, just before the second-to-last performance of Agamemnon, I was suffering through a nasty round of illness (related to a chronic thing I really don't want to write about here), and about 15 minutes before showtime, I had to inform the director, Barry Cavin, that I really didn't think I would be able to make it through the performance.  He simply said don't worry, that he'd talk to the other cast members, and they would cover for me.

What I hated about that moment was the admission that the illness was besting me, an admission of being weak, of needing to step aside, and so it was humiliating--of course, I had to let the director know, just so he could bolster up the cast. 

After I returned from the restroom, just to splash a little water on my face, to regain my bearings and to refresh with the night air, the cast members came to me, said it wouldn't be a problem, telling me that they really wanted me to make it through the performance.  My sister chorus members, Brittney Brady, Dana Jenkins, and Veda Roberts were especially empathetic and supportive (they dedicated a number of power lines to me), and it made me all weepy, really, to receive their generous words and understanding.  And the rest of the cast, including Brad, Nate, Kaitlyn, Tyler (her last words to me were especially dear), Kiara, Ryan, Ben, Casey, and Gabby, were also warmly encouraging.  What was liberating was that each affirmed that I didn't have to go on, which gave me some space and time to breathe and recollect myself.  I allowed myself the possibility of not having to go on so that I wouldn't have to worry about it.  It was that simple. 

As it turned out, I made it through the whole performance, and probably in its totality, it was the best performance of the run--among the chorus, we had greater urgency--and with the full house, we all were able to feed off the energy from the audience.  At the end, I was dehydrated, but none too worse for the wear, and there was just a simple shared giddiness of all of us making it through and doing such a good job of it.  And also as it turned out, this was the performance my son was able to attend, flying down from Evansville for a quick weekend visit.

So now the run is over, the stage is struck, and it's back to my more normal grind.  The play and playing, though, are still very much with me, still electric and alive yet.  And this time, I'm just feeling more grateful than usual.

20 February 2011

Run Half Done

Just finished the first week of Agamemnon, and we've done a pretty good job of it, if you ask me.

Of course, no night is ever the same, but we're at the point where we are comfortable performing these roles and are beginning to tweak it here and there, finding a little room to play off of another actor, what he or she is giving, and then add to it.  Barry Cavin, the director, has essentially given me one note to work on, which I played out during today's matinee.  It's near the close of the play, where the chorus is having it out with Aegisthus.  In our last rehearsals and into the first few performances, it was something of a shout-fest between me and Aegisthus (Brad Chiddester is doing wonderfully in that brief role), which was working on one level.  Before today's performance, Barry simply asked me to think about how little my character might actually think of Aegisthus.  From that prompt unfolded a whole new array of possibilities for me to turn on, and I found myself listening much differently to Aegisthus's complaint.  It'll be interesting to see how these new variables play out for me over the next week.

The challenge for the actors in this play is its sheer foreignness.  Trying to find psychological dimensions to the characters does little good, or at least from a 21st-century frame of mind.  That is not to say the piece does not have timeless qualities, but that the regular footholds for an actor to find purchase are really not there, save perhaps for Klytaimn√©stra (and even with her, the fissures of Greek tragedy make her character unrecognizably fractured).  Or, what is intriguing about the play is just how profoundly emotional it is, how the breakdown is all on the surface, and I constantly feel that every character is on a precipice, each alone, terribly so. 

16 February 2011

Opening Night!

Agamemnon opens tonight, and here's a terrific preview of it.

I can't say enough about my experiences working with these students, and yes, quite selfishly with Tyler Layton.  It's tremendous to be working with an artist in her prime, a craftswoman who is serious in her play and execution, but who can skip with a lightness and dexterity that reflects genius, nerve, and imagination.  What a lucky, happy time to be part of such a brave, little group. 

17 January 2011

An Example . . . .

Yesterday, I spent about an hour capturing video imagery of the historic live oak tree at the courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.  The oak tree, like most of the property owned by the city and county, has been neglected for decades.  Other places under the city's and county's care that have gone to ruin because of this "benign" neglect include:

the Pleasure Pier

the Hall of Fifty States

Exhibition Hall

The live oak at the courthouse has undergone, over the last twenty years, a number of "fixes," usually meaning the cheapest remedy available, and it's now destined to being cut down after two of its limbs have broken off, constituting a legitimate safety concern.

The current plan is to "save" the trunk by commissioning wood sculptor Marlin Miller to create an eagle out of it.  He's made something of a name by sculpting "Katrina trees" in and near Biloxi, Mississippi.  At best, some of his work is whimsical, and to his credit, he works with the natural shape of the tree to create his carvings.  One of his signature pieces is located at the town square in Biloxi.

He transformed this dead tree

into this sculpture

I have no doubt that Miller's work will be received well by the community, and in that respect, I suppose it will be a successful work of public art (and there are much worse examples, for sure). But I am having a difficult time of it, as it seems a grotesque usage of the oak, a degradation, another cheap erasure. I think of all that makes use of a decaying tree, from the termites to the air plants and fungus to the woodpeckers and bluebirds, that slow heatening and releasing that is death, an old, old carbon breakdown.

So we break out the chainsaw, cut and hew a cartoon emblem, and it is clean, reassuring, and not the least disrupting, not the least ironic, not the least arresting. Yes, I am angry about it.

So, in translating the live oak to some digitalized coding,  I realize my own hand in making use of the oak. I'm no better than Marlin Miller in that respect.  No, I won't go Julia Butterfly on it, either, as the tree is too far gone to survive (the enemy here is the sidewalk and pavement, what modernized Oak Street into Main Street in Fort Myers, over 100 years ago). The county commissioners have done a good job of it, with plenty of hand wringing, gathering up of the acorns, and then doing nothing. The tree was to be cut down three months ago. Evidently the county has not the funds to finish the job.

I don't know if I'll ever make anything at all from the video (just the capture itself might be enough of a fugitive artistic response), but it exemplifies the kind of thing I'm after these days.

15 January 2011

Postscript on Retirement, and Hello to the New Year

Two weeks into my "retirement" from being a professional poet, and no retributions yet from the gods, and so I think I'm safe.

I want to add a postscript to my last post, as I've received a couple of very sincere questions from friends and students about what my decision means.  What it means, simply, is that I will not engage in the processes of writing poetry for publication and of trying to publish my poetry.  No more submissions to magazines, anthologies, contests, or publishers.  It also includes refraining from applying for grants based on my poetry or toward the writing of my poetry.  No poetry-based residences, conferences, or sabbaticals.  And no more publishing about the poetry trade.

I may do the occasional local reading or open mic, as a courtesy to my friends or as a performance opportunity.  I may respond to a friend's request for a submission to a magazine or anthology (not that I get many of those anyway, but it happens).  I may, in five to 45 years from now, put together a final "new and selected" volume.

I will continue, however, to work as a teacher and editor of poetry, to support individual magazines (my current favorite, which you should subscribe to, is the Crab Creek Review), and to assist in enriching the life of poetry in my community.   I will continue to consume poetry.  But that's pretty much the extent of it.

My choice here is not whimsical, though I hope I land in some state of whimsy through it.  And I'm looking forward to the New Year, performing as one of the chorus in Agamemnon, participating in another joyful round of ArtPoems, teaching my workshop on performative poetics, constructing transmedial performances, and writing performance pieces for specific actors (I'm just getting started on a collaboration on this last one).  For me, I am realizing it's about my own peace, reconciliation, with disappearing.

 *     *     *     *     *     *

Or, it's something of a delayed appreciation for what took place in a graduate workshop some 30 years ago.  This was during my second semester at Indiana University, and the M.F.A. program was in its second year.  The workshops, thus, were under-enrolled, and the program allowed other graduate students to take the workshop, provided they were "cleared" by the M.F.A. program.  So in this workshop, we had one such student, a visual artist who was putting together her own masters project.  I think she had a miserable time of it, as none of us really talked about anything beyond the poetry biz.

For one workshop, when we were to workshop one of her poems, she came in with 12 lunch paper bags, each half-wadded up, and she was distraught over her failure.  "This really doesn't work unless you found these accidentally--you know, at a bus stop, or under a luncheon counter, or next to a water fountain.  It's a total mess."  We opened our bags, and each contained rusted bottle caps, deflated balloons, and decoder rings, all on a bed of white confetti.  The confetti, cut angle-hair fine, had been the paper she typed her poem on.

Of course, we were angry with her.  Yeah, we got the fact of it as an artwork--we were hep enough to understand her avant-garde gesture--but we thought, even so, we need to see the poem as a poem before she shredded it all up.  The following week, she returned, with that poem typed up for us, and we went on our way with it, giving it a healthy and smart and well-spirited review. 

After that workshop, I talked to her, probably wanting on some level to assuage my own guilt in joining in the mob that bullied her.  As you can imagine, she didn't want to hear anything of that.  But she did ask me, "Do you still have the poem-bag?"

"No."  I couldn't lie to her at that point.  "I threw it away."

And she gave me a kiss.  "Perfect."