Sunday, April 30, 2017

National Poetry Month: Writing Groups, Part 2

When I first joined the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective in the Fall of 2011, it was with the intention of improving my skills as a short story writer. But several of the members of the group were primarily poets. I had actually first encountered the group at one of their Open Mic nights, which immediately followed an event I was participating in at the Vintage Theater, and most of what I heard that night was poetry.

I presented one of my stories at that first meeting, and it was critiqued and discussed, with suggestions for improvement being made by several of the members. But then someone else presented some poetry. How, I wondered, could the group critique a poem? A poem, to me, consisted of a coherent whole, and it seemed that any suggestion from an outsider to change this or tweak that might cause the entire poem to unravel.

Several members of the group presented suggestions: consider changing this image , this is distracting, this is redundant, this is irrelevant to the image being presented; consider switching these lines around, move this bit to here, and try it again, see how it flows.

The poet re-read the piece, incorporating the changes. It worked. The poem was greatly improved.

Writing groups can be a mixed bag. If established writers can share their experience and knowledge with aspiring writers, that's a wonderful thing. But it doesn't always work like that. Writers can be capricious and other-than-altruistic, jut like anyone else Sometimes the advice given is to the detriment of the work. Sometimes the advice given basically removes the voice of the poet from the poem, and replaces it with the voice of the person offering the advice. At those times it is important for the poet to have the strength and confidence to reject the advice being given. If nothing else, a writing group can give its members experience in deciding when to accept advice and when to dismiss it.

On top of that a writing group allows every member to be exposed to many different poets and writers and their work. This exposure is extremely valuable, as is the network of relationships formed with other poets and writers, relationships which may long outlast the writing group itself.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

National Poetry Month: Writing Groups, Part 1

I attended the Spring 2017 edition of The Writer's Showcase at the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton tonight, and ran into several fellow members of my old writing group. We reminisced a bit about old times and talked about the current state of open mics in the area.

Some - but not all -of the members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective at the last meeting at the Vintage Theater on Penn Avenue in Scranton, May 26, 2012, shortly before the site closed. The group would continue to meet at the Northern Light coffee shop in Scranton and then return to the new location of the Vintage on Spruce Street, where it would remain until the final closure of the site in August 2014. The group would not long outlive the venue that had become its home. 
When I first joined the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective, it was with a mind to improving my skills as a short story writer, not as a poet. Frankly, taking up poetry again after a hiatus of over two decades was not something I had in mind. Besides, how could a writing group help a poet? Wouldn't changing a poem fundamentally change the work into something different from the poet's original intent?

I soon learned how a writing group could help with poetry, and some of the hazards involved in such a thing. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, April 28, 2017

National Poetry Month: Who gets to write poetry?

Who gets to write poetry?

For a lot of people, poetry is something written by "the other." Professional poets, stuffy ivory-tower academics with glasses pulled down low on their noses and patches on the elbows of their suit coats. Women who have locked themselves in their parents' attics. Mopey teenagers sulking late at night. But the truth is, anyone can write poetry - even if maybe some people shouldn't.

The first rule of poetry is: there are no rules. Of course, the second through billionth rules of poetry contradict this rule, simultaneously proving it to be false and true. There is no agreed-upon definition of what poetry is, but there are very specific and rigid rules regarding meter, rhyme scheme, and structure for specific forms of poetry.

Blank verse is very popular, a poetry style without rhyme or structure. Some people take this as license to throw down anything and call it a poem. One writer I knew would read shopping lists and call them poetry. Other poets accepted that. I could see their point. Even Billy Collins, a poet I greatly admire, wrote a poem about waiting for a friend at a train station. The whole poem consisted of a series of lines saying "Not (name of friend).", followed by a single line with the friend's name.

At the other extreme is the unloved child of modern poetry: poems that rhyme. Once the standard of what constitutes a "poem," poems that rhyme are relatively rare these days. To me this is a welcome change; I find most rhymed couplets childish and tediously inane. Still, like all rules, the demand for a rhyme scheme creates an opportunity for creativity in constraint.

On the other hand one poet - a terrible, and now deceased, poet - once told me that his technique for writing poetry was to find a bunch of words that rhyme, and then fill in the blanks.

There are objectively terrible poets, poets who are universally recognized as bad poets and refuse to do anything to improve their work. More common are subjectively terrible poets. Almost every poet will be hated by someone else, or several someone elses. Sometimes these people are poets. This can be born of jealousy, or a desire to suppress what is perceived as competition for listeners' ears. It can also be born of a judgement based on a sense of what is good for poetry and what is bad for poetry. Some poets aren't just bad poets, they actually threaten the perception of poetry written by other poets, effectively filling their listeners with disgust going forward.

One poet I  know writes pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-hip poetry, poems that sound cool and meaningful but ultimately aren't just meaningless, but also mock the listeners for having listened in the first place, for trying to extract meaning from something that was ultimately devoid of meaning. At the same time, he also actively works to silence other poets, to discourage them from writing and reading poems. Why does he do it? Is he trying to suppress bad poets from reading and writing bad poetry? Is he trying to silence all other voices in the area, to make himself the last poet standing? I don't know. I gave up trying to understand why he does what he does long ago.

So who gets to write poetry? Anyone. Anyone who is willing to take the time and put in the effort, anyone who is willing to take the chance to get up in front of friends and strangers and say "Here's something I wrote..." Will you be good? Maybe. But if you're willing to work at it, maybe you can get better. And maybe you will someday be called a "poet" by someone else.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

National Poetry Month: Writing

And so I didn't get a post together for Thursday because I was writing poetry.

I finally put together a submission for Poetry in Transit, which was harder than I expected. While trying to get there, I hacked out some lines about the car I'm about to junk. More on that later.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

National Poetry Month: Planned posts

Spent the evening at an open mic in Scranton, followed up with some shopping, mostly for cat food. I'm tired now, and a little down because of the looming prospect of having to dispose of my broken-down twenty-one year old car. So, no post today.

One thing this National Poetry Month exercise has made me realize is how very few poets I'm actually familiar with. I need to remedy that.

I have two non-poem posts planned before the end of the month: one about the value of a writing group to a poet, and another titled "Who gets to write poetry?" But those are for other nights.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

National poetry Month: Francesco Marciuliano, I Could Pee On This

I know quite a few poets. Many I've met in person, a few I just know online. Only one has had his book of poems on a New York Times bestsellers list.

Francesco Marciuliano has been the writer for the comic strip Sally Forth since 1999, and has more recently taken over writing duties for Judge Parker. I first met him online when he left an encouraging comment on a post on my blog back in July of 2007 when I observed that Ted Forth and I had lost our jobs at the same time. In early 2011, he did a series of blog posts that paired up quotes from Charlie Sheen with pictures of mischievous cats, and this evolved into a series of poems by cats, which developed into a book of poems where each poem was paired up with a cat photo - I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats.

I have often joked that Francesco's success with this volume and its sequels (I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs and I Knead My Mommy and Other Poems by Kittens) has resulted in him getting a death mark from the Union of Professional Poets. But I do wonder how much "serious" poets resent the success of his work. Frankly, I hope they take his success as an inspiration and an encouragement.  His book struck a chord with the book-buying public, appealed to the cat-loving public, and also was a perfect gift. May many other poets have the same sort of success that he has!

Monday, April 24, 2017

National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson, Before I got my eye put out –

A poem for the Spring. One I have never seen before tonight.

Before I got my eye put out –
by Emily Dickinson

Before I got my eye put out – 
I liked as well to see 
As other creatures, that have eyes – 
And know no other way – 

But were it told to me, Today, 
That I might have the Sky 
For mine, I tell you that my Heart 
Would split, for size of me – 

The Meadows – mine – 
The Mountains – mine – 
All Forests – Stintless stars – 
As much of noon, as I could take – 
Between my finite eyes – 

The Motions of the Dipping Birds – 
The Morning’s Amber Road – 
For mine – to look at when I liked, 
The news would strike me dead – 

So safer – guess – with just my soul 
Opon the window pane 
Where other creatures put their eyes – 
Incautious – of the Sun –

Lliacs and lawnmowing

Just some quick notes:

First lilac blossoms noted: April 21
First lawn mowing: April 23

Tulips are in full bloom

Daffodils and Irises are apparently past bloom

Sunday, April 23, 2017

National Poetry Month: Poets in their own words

I was first exposed to Langston Hughes in Fourth Grade, when I was eleven ten or so. I didn't know what he sounded like, but for some reason I did know what the famous actor Paul Robeson sounded like. Having very little personal experience - that is to say, none - with people outside of my lily-white Polish community, I assumed that Paul Robeson's booming, rolling bass tones were typical of all men of his racial persuasion. So I imagined Langston Hughes' words being spoken in Paul Robeson's voice. I carried this assumption with me until just a few years ago when I heard a recording of Hughes for the first time.

I was taken aback by his soft, lilting voice. That isn't how he's supposed to sound, I thought. That isn't how this poem is supposed to sound.

How should a poem sound? The written word is a funny thing. Some people experience it visually. Others experience it audibly. Some experience both simultaneously. Is our audible experience of a poem as valid as the poet's intended phrasing?

Poet Sara Holbrook wrote about why she will not explain her intended meaning of a poem to students. Once a poem is released into the wild, the right of interpretation passes to the reader. Inflicting a single "correct" interpretation of the meaning on all readers is to take away the experience of discovering the resonances and relatability of the poem for the individual reader.

So too with the sound of the poem. What rhythm the poet intended to be present in the poem should be encoded into the poem itself, waiting for the reader to discover it. Finding out that the poet had read the poem completely differently than the reader has been hearing it can be a bit of a shock - but it is one that should not detract from the experience of the poem, nor does it invalidate the reader's interpretation.

Here, for example, is T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land," a poem many encountered in high school. Does this differ from how you had heard it in you head?

There is a video with a clip of William Butler Yeats reading "The Second Coming," but it makes use of a visual gimmick so bizarre and disturbing I will not include it here. Surprisingly, his recitation is very close to how I imagined the poem to sound the first time I read it.

Here is another recording of Yeats where he tells an anecdote about another poet's reaction to hearing his own poetry read by someone else. He also recites several of his own poems, as he intended them to be heard.

There is value in hearing poems read in the poet's own voice. I have books that contain poems that I have heard read aloud by their authors, and it is fun to read them in the voices of the poets who wrote them. But the voice in which you hear the poem as you read it is just as valid. Perhaps more so. The poem as read by the poet involves just the poet and the words. But the poem as you hear it involves an interaction between poet, the poem, and the reader.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

National Poetry Month: Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learn'd Astonomer

A decade and a half or so ago, I worked at a DVD Compression / Encoding / Authoring facility. We would get the various bits and pieces that would go onto a DVD as raw video and audio assets, subtitle files, image files to be transformed into menus, and so forth. We would process them - compressing video, encoding audio - and then "author" them into a finished, assembled DVD project to be sent on to the next stage of production . (I was the guy who calculated how the video would be compressed, and then figured out how all the pieces would have to fit together onto the finite space of a DVD.) One Fall day in 1999 or 2000, I was getting ready to head home. We had some large windows that looked west, over the rooftops of our neighbors in Olyphant, and gave a great view of the setting sun. The sunset that day was spectacular, magnificent, a symphony of colors and textures, layer after layer of clouds in gold, red, orange, and yellow. (My synesthesia kicked in and I was also hearing the sunset, a Wagnerian orchestra playing sweeping crescendos and booming fanfares.)

I stopped dead in my tracks. Two of my co-workers saw me looking out the window and stopped to see what was going on. I pulled out my cell phone and called my mom, thirty-five miles away, to tell her to look out her window and see if she was seeing the same thing.

I have a degree in Physics, with a second major in Philosophy. I have studied the physics of rainbows and sunsets. One of my favorite books is Light and Color in the Outdoors by Marcel Minnaert, in which amazing optical phenomena of the natural world are discussed and analyzed in loving detail. As I looked at the sunset I was awash in the physics of it all: photons generated by the sun through thermonuclear fusion, traveling tens of millions of miles to Earth's atmosphere, being refracted just so, the red and yellow and orange and yellow being bent down, down into the layers of clouds, great masses of water vapor floating in the air, drifting gently in the currents, buoyed up by temperature and pressure differences, and...

"How can anyone look at this and doubt the hand of God?", one of my co-workers said.

I was knocked out of my reverie. Yes, of course. God. Why is the sunset so beautiful? God wants it that way. Why does it rain? God. Why does the wind blow? God. Why do the birds sing? God. God. God is the answer to everything. Forget science, that's for the nonbelievers. God. End of discussion.

I've never been a big fan of Whitman. I hear he's good. Bram Stoker was impressed enough by him to model Dracula on him. I haven't read much by him, but one thing that stuck with me was a poem I read in high school. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Was Whitman expressing his contempt for science? Was he just saying "Math is hard"? It seems to me that he got it exactly wrong. Or maybe Whitman was in desperate need of an interlocutor, someone who could bridge the gap between the learn'd astronomer and the not-so-learn'd layman audience member. Maybe he needed a Carl Sagan or a Stephen Hawking, a Bill Nye, a Richard Feynman, a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a Marcel Minnaert, someone to let him know how amazing and wonderful and beautiful science is, and how much more deeply an understanding of science would have allowed him to appreciate the wonders of the world, and the universe.

Check out "A Glorious Dawn," the first video from "Symphony of Science" - a project that turns the words of scientists into music, and scientists into rock stars.

Epilogue: I had a bit of a crisis at the March 29, 2017 Be Daring Open Mic at Adezzo in Scranton. The International Space Station was scheduled to pass over the area that night, and I wanted to see it, but I didn't want to miss the open mic. My set ended just a little before the flyover time, so I stepped outside as the next act set up. Adezzo is located in the middle of a block, at the intersection of two alleys, and the buildings surrounding it are surprisingly tall. But thanks to the predicted timings and location from Heavens Above, I was able to watch the ISS pass over, almost as bright as it could get, its solar panels reflecting the Sun which was now well beneath the local horizon. Thanks to a bunch of learn'd and dedicated astronomers, I was able to see this glorious phenomenon - and then step back into the open mic to enjoy the rest of the evening.

Not much opportunity to observe the ISS as it passes over - unless you know just where to look.

Friday, April 21, 2017

National Poetry Month: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

When I was a kid in the early 1970's, we had these things called "encyclopedias," a sort of printed version of Wikipedia, only with fewer entries. These entries were written (in theory) by people with special knowledge of specific topics. Every family of means had a set, especially those with children, and some people made a decent living as door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. Supermarkets would often hold promotions where during one week for this amount of money you could get Volume 1 of an encyclopedia, next week you could get Volume 2, and then after that you could buy the rest as a set. These would sometimes be specialized encyclopedias geared towards children, covering science or animals or the world in general. My parents bought a set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias - my mom still gets their annual supplemental yearbooks, after more than fifty years - but my sister, my brother, and I managed to convince them to get us volumes 1 and 2 of a lot of specialized sets.

One of those was the International Wildlife Encyclopedia. I ate those up. I learned all about axolotls and aye-ayes, anemones and acorn worms, anoles and aphids. The pictures were especially appealing, photographs and paintings and even microscopic images for "amoeba" (or possibly "ameba.") One illustration in particular stuck in my head, an ink sketch (actually a Gustave Dore woodcut) of a bedraggled man, a huge dead bird hanging around his neck. This was in the entry for "albatross."

The image had a bit of text beneath it:

And I had done a hellish thing, 
And it would work 'em woe: 
For all averred, I had killed the bird 
That made the breeze to blow. 

OK, that was weird. What the hell did it mean? I read further and I learned that the lines were from a poem called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I filed that away.

I wouldn't encounter the poem itself until high school. It is long, brutally long, but it is filled with enough images of death and horror and misery to catch a teenager's attention. It is, as they say, totally metal. Iron Maiden thought so when they abridged and adapted it into a song on their album Powerslave in 1984.

Clocking in at over 13 minutes in length, the song is epic, and includes a central interlude that features a direct recitation of a passage. Iron Maiden's version is a faithful adaptation of Coleridge's work, to the point that, when we began to cover this in my senior year English class, several metalheads perked up and said "Hey!! I know this one!" and paid attention for the first time all year.

So, thanks to Iron Maiden, a lot of people are familiar with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" who might otherwise have paid no attention to it.

(Because of the immense length of the poem, I have put it beyond the cut. You can also find it here.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

National Poetry Month: Ogden Nash, Everybody Tells Me Everything

Everybody Tells Me Everything
by Ogden Nash 

I find it very difficult to enthuse 
Over the current news. 
Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens, 
And that is why I do not like the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

National Poetry Month: E.E. Cummings, All in green went my love riding

I was first exposed to E.E. Cummings in high school. His poems were radical - the nonstandard capitalization! The rhythm without rhyme! I had never heard such a thing before, and it made me realize that poems didn't have to rhyme - or play by the rules.

Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer's Almanac on October 12, 2012. His reading begins at about 2:40.

All in green went my love riding
by E. E. Cummings

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.

Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.

Four red roebuck at a white water
the cruel bugle sang before.

Horn at hip went my love riding
riding the echo down
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the level meadows ran before.

Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.

Four fleet does at a gold valley
the famished arrow sang before.

Bow at belt went my love riding
riding the mountain down
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the sheer peaks ran before.

Paler be they than daunting death
the sleek slim deer
the tall tense deer. 

Four tall stags at the green mountain
the lucky hunter sang before. 

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn. 

Four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
my heart fell dead before.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

National Poetry Month: William Shakespeare, Sonnet 147

Sonnet 147
William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, 
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care, 
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Monday, April 17, 2017

National Poetry Month: Oscar Wilde, Requiescat

Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life's buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

National Poetry Month: Open Mics

The final Third Thursday Open Mic at The Vintage, Scranton, August 2014

Open mics are incredible resources for poets and fans of poetry. For a small cover charge - or, more often, no charge at all - you can treat yourself to an evening of poetry presented by new and established poets. If you are a poet, then you can sharpen your skills in presenting your work, and gain experience reading in front of an audience.

Chaz Bennett, May 2012, Jen Diskin Memorial Open Mic, The Vintage Theater, Scranton. Chaz passed away in October 2015.
Not all open mics are ideal settings for poetry. Some are specifically intended for poetry and other spoken word presentations. Others are geared towards music, or comedy, or a combination of the two. Some are truly "open" mics, open to everything. But at these locations, audience expectations may dictate how anything outside the normal fare will be received.

Kait Burrier, May 2012, Jen Diskin Memorial Open Mic, The Vintage Theater, Scranton

Richard Aston, May 2012, Jen Diskin Memorial Open Mic, The Vintage Theater, Scranton

Harold Jenkins, October 2013, inaugural Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, Embassy Vinyl, Scranton (photo by Alvin Nurse)
Some open mics will be full of people you know. Others will be full of strangers. As a performer and an audience member, both situations present useful experiences.

Eric Wilson, December 2013, Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, Embassy Vinyl, Scranton

Kyle Rebar, December 2013, Arts Seen Open Mic, Wilkes-Barre

Alvin Nurse, March 2014 Third Thursday Open Mic, The Vintage, Scranton
Christina reads "Stay With Me", March 2014, Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, Embassy Vinyl, Scranton
Some of the readers will be regulars, presenting at every opportunity. Some will be first-time performers. The quality of the material presented can vary wildly. Some established poets will insist on reading the same pieces over and over again. Others will use the open mic as an opportunity to field-test new works. Some presenters will be there on a lark, basically mocking the format, presenting dirty limericks or other random stuff. Some will be starting out in poetry, looking for feedback and support. Others will just be lousy poets, inflicting their words on the audience, unconcerned with how they are received or how they could improve. Most heartbreakingly of all, some will be poets you have never seen or heard from before, who present works of staggering beauty - and then disappear, never to show up at another event of any sort.

Wendell Bullock, April 2014 Third Thursday Open Mic, The Vintage, Scranton

KK Gordon, July 2014 Third Thursday Open Mic, The Vintage, Scranton
Open Mics will draw a mixed crowd to the audience, some regulars, some just there out of curiosity. In the latter case it's fun to see if first-time audience members become regulars. If you're a poet, you might be the one responsible for getting them hooked!

A cabbie who had read about the upcoming Third Thursday Open Mic at The Vintage decided to come and present some of the poems he had been reciting to his fares. Sadly, this was the final Third Thursday Open Mic, and I don't know if he ever got a chance to perform again. The Vintage, Scranton, August 2014.

Liz Lewis, February 2015 Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, AFA Gallery, Scranton

Maddy Brozusky, March 2015 Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, AFA Gallery, Scranton

Charlotte Lewis, final Kick Out the Bottom Open Mic, August 2015, Scranton Iron Furnaces
Open mics come and open mics go. Once upon a time I had a dream of a network of open mics throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, all supporting and scheduling around each other, each one advertising and promoting and encouraging attendance at the others. For a while, it worked, and it seemed like the biggest problem would be an embarrassment of riches, multiple open mics every week in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Tunkhannock, Stroudsburg, and elsewhere. But, as I had been warned, eventually personality conflicts got in the way. Or perhaps the issue was competition for a limited audience - how many different events could people be expected to support? (This assumes that the audience is a limited resource and cannot be expanded beyond a fixed value.) Add to that the difficulty of putting on a show every month, or every week, as well as the finite and sometimes transient nature of venues. In time, all of these factors played into the breakdown of the network. Eventually, several of the open mics involved closed down.

Rich Howells, final Youth Scene Open Mic, April 2016, Adezzo, Scranton
But new open mics have come into being since then. For a while Rich Howells of NEPA Scene presented the Youth Scene Open Mic at the Adezzo coffee shop in Scranton. This was an open mic specifically geared towards readers ages 14 to 20, though readers of all ages were welcome. He eventually brought it to an end, but almost immediately segued into the NEPA Scene Stage Time Open Mic, an over-21 event every held every Tuesday at Thirst T's Bar and Grill in Olyphant. The Be Daring Open Mic almost immediately filled the open space at Adezzo, and has been running the last Wednesday of every month as an all-ages open mic.

Al Man, Be Daring Open Mic, November 2016, Adezzo, Scranton

There are several other open mics continuing to run in the area. Most are not specifically geared towards poetry, but are open to it. There will be more in the future, and perhaps someday there will even be a network connecting them all and encouraging them to cross-promote.

If you are a poet looking for an opportunity to read before an audience, or a poetry fan looking to hear live poetry, seek out your local open mics and find out what they have to offer. You'll be glad you did!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

National Poetry Month: Stabat Mater

Tomorrow is Easter, which brings to an end the observation of Lent, the season of reflection and sacrifice leading up to the celebration of the Resurrection. As a child going to Catholic School in the 1970's, a big part of Lent was the weekly participation in Stations of the Cross. 

This would take place in the final hour of the day each Friday in Lent. We would line up by classes and process up the hill or through the side passage to the church. The ceremony wasn't an ordinary Mass, but instead a series of ritual prayers said at each of the twelve dioramas mounted on the walls of the church. The priest and two of the older altar boys (eventually including me) would make their way through the church, moving from station to station*, with the priest making the ritual call "We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee," and the congregation giving the response.  As this was a children's version of the rite, we would say the special, simplified prayers on each page of our booklets.

A little too simple for my tastes. My mind and eye wandered. I picked out the background details in the pictures - pictures I would later learn were black-and-white reproductions of color paintings, and not carefully rendered pencil sketches. But I would also focus on the three lines at the bottom of each page, three lines that seemed to come from a poem. The first three lines bore a title: STABAT MATER.

The poem was something different, something odd, something I could focus my mind on instead of the childish chants or the half-sung, half-mumbled prayers from the priest or the incessant rounds of kneeling and standing.

It wasn't until years later that I would learn that the Stabat Mater is a thirteenth-century prayer poem, a hymn, and I was reading Edward Caswall's nineteenth-century translation of it, woven into the pages of the Stations of the Cross. The Stabat Mater wasn't part of the ceremony; it appeared in our booklets but was skipped over. Like much of the rest of grade school, I found the stuff we didn't cover to be much more interesting that the stuff we did.

*If you ever wondered where David Bowie got the title for Station to Station, now you know.

Friday, April 14, 2017

National Poetry Month: Dr. Seuss, In a People House

Nursery rhymes may be the first examples of poetry that we are exposed to as children. Many of the classic nursery rhymes were written in the nineteenth century and earlier. While these rhymes have intrinsic value, they are generally things that children born centuries after they were written cannot relate to.

When I was a little boy my mom received a mailing from the Dr. Seuss Book Club. I had heard of Dr. Seuss, but had never read anything by him. I was about four, so I probably hadn't read much at that point, aside from comic books, MAD Magazine, the newspaper funnies, and the solutions to the daily crossword, which I assumed was a game of "find the things that are words." The illustrations in the flyer excited me, and I begged my mom to sign us up for the club - not just for me, of course, but for my older sister and little brother, too.

"In a People House" was one of the books included in the introductory package, and I fell in love with it. I remember it as a fun book with fun illustrations. Recently I came across a version of the story set to music, and realized that the story was also an excellent introduction to poetry.

It's great to experience this story in a new way, and realize the effect it had on my life. How about you? What was your earliest introduction to poetry?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

First blossoms of 2017: Cherry and Forsythia

Just a note for now: I first noticed cherry and forsythia blossoms this year on April 11.

I also saw a bumblebee on April 13.

National Poetry Month: Craig Czury, Thumb Notes Almanac

Poet Craig Czury lives in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, the huge "play" of natural gas situated beneath much of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The region has, in the past decade, been transformed from a bucolic, laid-back, economically stagnant rural area to one peppered with wells for gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the roads thick with trucks, and a lucky few landowners flush with cash paid to them for the right to drill on their land.

Craig set out on a project to hitchhike up and down a several-mile stretch running through this region, taking rides as they came, making conversation and gathering material. "Thumb Notes Almanac: Hitchhiking the Marcellus Shale" is the result of that project. In it, Craig weaves his experiences and conversations into dozens of poems - or perhaps one long one. We hear the voices of the winners and losers, the gas workers and the landowners, the people happy to be making money at last, the people bitter about seeing the landscape they had known all their lives transformed forever. Here a young man dies at a traffic light, his pickup crushed by a runaway wastewater truck. There the CIT O stands, a rundown antique gas station in a boomtown, lacking the resources to replace the G on its sign. Over there a poet composes music by firing a shotgun at blank composition sheets on a line.

Thumb Notes Almanac captures and preserves an image of a region at a moment in time, the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Anyone seeking to understand the complexities of the effects of fracking in rural regions would be well advised to start with the poems of  Craig Czury's Thumb Notes Almanac.

Thumb Notes Almanac: Hitchhiking the Marcellus Shale

Digging Deeper: Albright College Spotlights Craig Czury

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

National Poetry Month:

No poem today. Just this amazing resource for poets and people who love poetry. Even the po-curious will benefit tremendously from the wealth of poems contained within - if you're not ready to commit to a poet's chapbook or a poetry anthology, sample a few poems and see what you like!

Poetry Foundation

From their About page:

The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

National Poetry Month: Brian Fanelli, Raking Leaves read by Garrison Keillor on the September 20, 2016 edition of The Writer's Almanac. (Brian's poem begins at 3:05.)

You can hear a half-hour interview with Brian from WVIA's artSCENE by Erica Funke from October 6, 2016 here.

You can also see the latest from Brian on his blog.

And be sure to check out Brian's labor of love, The Writers' Showcase, on April 29 art the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton from 7 - 9 PM. $4.00 admission for an evening of poetry and prose by new and established writers! (This was where I had my first feature performance!)

Image may contain: cloud, sky, tree, text, outdoor and nature

Monday, April 10, 2017

National Poetry Month: Poetry in Transit Call for Submissions!

Poetry in Transit is an amazing program that puts short works of poetry in the advertising space of the buses of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority. They have just put out their annual call for submissions! I have had the honor of having my work featured in this program for the last three years, but I look forward to seeing all of the works that are selected each year.

The theme for this year is "Migration." Can you come up with a six-line (maximum) poem on that theme? If you can, submit it, and maybe your poem will be featured for the coming year!

Call For Poems
~ Poetry In Transit 2017 ~
Let us put your poem on the bus!

Poetry In Transit, an award-winning community program, invites your participation. Patterned after the Poetry In Motion program on New York's Transit System, along with London’s Poems on the Underground, Poetry In Transit displays poetry in advertising space inside Luzerne County Transportation Authority (LCTA) buses. The poems stay up for one year (September – August), with a monthly rotation so that riders can see the entire 2017 collection.

Winners are chosen by an advisory board of faculty from five area colleges: King's College, Misericordia University, Pennsylvania State University - Wilkes-Barre campus, Luzerne County Community College, and Wilkes University.

Here are the specs:

* Length: 6 lines or less (excerpts from longer works are fine, but you must choose the 6 lines to send)
* Limit: 1-3 poems per author.
* Theme: Migration. We are a nation of immigrants. Immigration can also be understood in a broader sense, not just between nations. We invite poems that examine the concept of migration in any of its definitions.
* Please avoid profanity, outright political screeds, or religious statements
* Languages: Any language, if accompanied by an English translation

Submit your poems by Friday, April 28th, 2017:

* Email your poetry to:


* Mail your poetry to:
Poetry In Transit
c/o Mischelle Anthony
Chair, English Department
Wilkes University
84 W. South St.
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766

Sunday, April 09, 2017

National Poetry Month meets National Library Week: Word Fountain

April is National Poetry Month. April 9-15, 2017 is National Library Week. With this convergence, I believe it will be most appropriate to focus on the Word Fountain, the literary magazine of the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

I was honored to have a submission accepted for inclusion in the Winter 2017 edition of Word Fountain (issue #12.) The issue is chock-full of poetry (and some prose pieces!) by local, national, and international poets and authors. The entire issue is now online, so you can read it from anywhere. Submissions have already closed for the Spring/Summer 2017 issue, but a call for submissions for the next issue will be coming soon!

Rather than focusing on a single piece, I'm encouraging you to go to the site and check out the entire issue! You can also read all of issue #11, Summer 2016!

Saturday, April 08, 2017

National Poetry Month: Last Words (for Marc)

Marc Lederman died on December 11, 2016.

I met Marc and his wife Joy through a mutual friend several years years ago. We got together that first time, and several times afterwards, for a session of tabletop games. The first was "Kill Dr. Lucky," but there were many after it. Marc loved these games, and he took special pleasure in reading the rules aloud for all players before each game. He also loved entertaining, and any gaming session at his house would be accompanied by a feast, often featuring pork prepared in a variety of ways.

Outside of my experience, Marc had many other sides to him. He was a proud and active member of Mensa, the high IQ society. He was a practicing magician for many years. He was a collector of many things. He loved movies, and outside of his regular job he would also usher at a theater, taking in many first-run movies along the way.

Marc loved to engage in disputations of all sorts. His comments appear throughout my blog and on many of my Facebook posts. Sometimes it seemed like he was being contrary just for the pleasure of engaging in an argument. I'm still not sure if he really held some of his positions, or just assumed them to be contrary - or to challenge the person on the other side of the argument to think carefully about their own positions.

Marc was a big guy, with a big heart and big appetites. In the end, that may have been what killed him. His last words to Joy, as she revealed at his memorial service on March 31, 2017, were "Is this it?" When I first heard that I immediately thought, "Well, that depends what you mean." I took that as the starting point of this piece.

At the end of each game we played, Marc would poll the players to get their opinions of the game. Two questions were always asked: Did you enjoy it? and Would you play it again?

Yes, Marc, I did. And yes, I would. I wish we could.

Last words
for Marc

"Is this it?"

Depends on what you mean.

Has your heart stopped? Are you drawing your last breaths? Have you had your last cheeseburger, watched your last movie? Have you thrown your last dinner party, read your last set of rules? Are you about to die?

If that's what you're asking, the answer is "Yes."

Or are you posing a more metaphysical question? Is this the end? Is this all there is? Is your life, your existence, over?  Will the universe go on without you?

That's a bit trickier to answer.

I can still hear your voice. I can still read your words. Nearly sixteen weeks after you died, I watched you perform two magic tricks in a video salvaged from a broken computer's hard drive.

Your voice lives on, inside my head. I hear you, questioning, challenging, assuming the opposing point of view. Are you being contrary just to be contrary? I never knew then. I do not know now.

As long as we can still hear you, are you really gone?

"Is this it?"

The game is over. The board has been put in the box, the pieces in the bags. The box is back on the shelf.

Did you enjoy it? Would you play it again?

Friday, April 07, 2017

National Poetry Month: Harold Jenkins, Hands

Yeah, I did that. I went there.

In the Netherlands right now, men are holding hands in public to show solidarity with a gay couple that was brutally attacked. Which is a nice response to an utterly horrible situation. But you have to take your wins where you get them.

This poem was inspired by something a friend told me when I took her grocery shopping, how her mom always told her to hold her hand in the supermarket and in the parking lot so she wouldn't wander off and get lost. Later I managed to get us lost while driving back from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton, which is quite an accomplishment, even for me. "It's a small planet," I said, as I tried desperately to get my bearings.

An excerpt of this poem was my first piece featured in the Poetry in Transit series.


You should hold hands, they say,
whenever you cross the street
or walk through a parking lot
or when you're in the supermarket
so you don't get lost

We should hold hands all the time
when we're sad
when we're scared
when we feel alone

It's a small planet
but a big universe
and it's easy to get lost
So it's good to have someone by your side
to hold hands with
as you try to find your way

Thursday, April 06, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est

I considered posting this yesterday, in light of the gas attack against civilians in Syria. It wasn't an original thought, but one suggested by my friend Ike Renfield. Today it seems even more appropriate. Today is the 100th anniversary of the United States becoming involved in WWI. And just a few hours ago, Donald Trump ordered a strike with Tomahawk missiles against an airbase near Homs in Syria - a strike that has apparently resulted in the deaths of several Russian military advisers.

The title, and the concluding quote, are from Horace: "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country."

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

Water in the Basement, April 6, 2017

It's been years since I had to break out the pumps and hoses, but the time has come again.

The winter storm dubbed "Stella" by the folks at the Weather Channel dumped over two feet of snow on us between March 14th and 15th. The snow finally melted away by March 30th, leaving the ground a soggy mess and the Susquehanna running high. Today a storm system that has done brutal damage across the country swept into Northeastern Pennsylvania, pounding down rain for hours. (This is in addition to a surprise pop-up storm that delivered a brief but intense downpour on April 4th.)

I stepped out of the house around 2:00 this afternoon to run some errands. The rain was coming down hard, and already water was ponding on the lawn.  The storm drains were doing their job keeping the streets of Nanticoke flood-free. Wilkes-Barre was another story, and I found myself swerving into the middle of the road to avoid puddles of unknown (and unknowable) depth, some of them welling up from beneath the surface of the road.

I got back home around 5:00. The heaviest rain seemed to have already passed, but the ponding in the yard was terrible. The ground was clearly saturated. How much more water would it be asked to absorb?

I checked the basement from the top of the steps. No standing water, no wet cat prints. Good signs.

On closer inspection, water had come in - and possibly already receded - in the sections that take on water first, the southeast and southwest corners. I made a note to lay down towel dams, get the pumps and hoses ready, and keep an eye on the water.

A few minutes later, water began creeping up rapidly.

I retrieved the hoses, attached them to the pumps. Set the pumps up where the water was deepest, close to an inch. Directed their outlets into a shower drain. Watched the volume of water quickly overwhelm the slow drain.

I redirected the hoses into a toilet, where the increasing volume of water in the bowl caused the toilet to flush itself several times before I realized I should turn off the water inlet and stop wasting fresh water.

After an hour or so, the standing water had been reduced to wet residue. I turned off the pumps. A few minutes later, as the water level on the floor began to rise again, I turned the pumps on again.

It's going to be a long night.

National Poetry Month 2017: Carolyn Forché, The Boatman

This counts as my entry for April 5, 2017. It's been a hell of a day.

For the record - the historical record, for we bloggers are the diarists who serve as ground-level observers of history: the civil war in Syria took a very horrifying turn today. Following a string of expressions of tolerance (if not outright support) of the regime of the murderous Bashar al-Assad by the regime of the moronic and illegitimate Donald Trump, Assad decided to turn it up to 11 and use chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel city. Lots of people died. Men, women, children, "beautiful, beautiful babies," to quote Trump, who has apparently discovered a sense of sympathy for people as still-warm corpses who he would have enthusiastically turned away if they came to him as living refugees.

New York Times report on the attack

A friend online, Ike Renfield, contemplated posting Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem about the misery of war and the falsity of Horace's statement "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." The poem contains a vivid description of one unlucky soldier who didn't get his gas mask on in time. (Owen, a British soldier, would be killed later in the war, a week almost to the hour before the armistice was declared.)

My own selection is one that was shared with me some time ago by poet Craig Czury. It is a poem of more recent vintage, on the plight of refugees escaping to an uncertain life and the promise of a possibility of freedom. As it is so recent, I will just provide a link to the published version.

Carolyn Forché, The Boatman

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: Miller Williams, Of History and Hope

Miller Williams (Lucinda Williams's dad) wrote this poem especially for Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997. Hearing it live, in the context of Bill Clinton's first term, some of it almost sounded like scolding.

We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go...

Twenty years later - a generation, as some measure it - his words have a disturbing resonance.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.

...All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit -- it isn't there yet --
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be...


Here is the text as it appears on Wikipedia:

Of History and Hope
by Miller Williams

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands -- oh, rarely in a row --
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become --
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit -- it isn't there yet --
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Monday, April 03, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: Monica Noelle, Idealism

Poetry isn't some thing that happened long ago, gets taught in grade school, and exists now only to class up the occasional car commercial. It's living, thriving, happening all around you. Maybe even inside of you.

Monica Noelle is a poet currently living in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She is the founder and driving force behind Be Kind Scranton. I met her through the Be Daring Open Mic, held the last Wednesday of every month at Adezzo, a cozy coffee lounge cleverly tucked directly in the middle of a city block at the intersection of two alleys. She doesn't read there every month, but it's always wonderful to hear her when she does. Here is a poem she posted today, posted here with her permission.

by Monica Noelle

Sunday, April 02, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Here is a poem so well-known and so significant that it has almost become a cliche. G'Kar quoted it in an episode of Babylon 5 to foreshadow the coming conflict. In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the Technical Boy (the New God of the Internet and its associated technologies) tries to quote it, almost mockingly, in an attempt to solemnize the death (well, murder) of a major character - and finds out that, cut off from the Internet in the isolated and unholy location known as The Center, he cannot recall the words.

 This text is from the version posted on

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.  
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert  
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,  
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,  
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it  
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.  
The darkness drops again; but now I know  
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,  
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,  
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?