“In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Eric Idle
I saw Charlie Durning for the first time onstage in the Broadway production of That Championship Season at the Booth Theater on West 45th St. At the age of sixteen I was already certain I wanted to be an actor and that play, and all the performances, made a very strong impression on me. So much so that I stole the poster from the local train station in Larchmont, NY and kept it in my bedroom through the remainder of my high school years. Years later I did the first revival of That Championship Season in New York in the role of ‘Tom’ and kept a replica of the original poster in my dressing room.
In 1988 I had the pleasure of doing a TV film entitled Unholy Matrimony, in which Charlie and I played con men busted by Patrick Duffy after murdering a young woman. Beside the need to pay my mortgage I took the part because Charlie had already been cast and I jumped at the chance to work with him. One look at his work onstage or in films like The Sting or Dog Day Afternoon and you got the immediate sense that he had great instincts, a pugnacious demeanor, and would be a blast to work with, which he was.
The film we did wasn’t so great but one story comes to mind about Charlie that I don’t think he’d mind me telling. We were in San Antonio, TX, staying at a posh hotel. The next day we were flying to Phoenix, AZ to change locations. That evening a young man who was in town for a Herbalife convention approached me in the lobby.
“Mr. O’Keefe,” he said earnestly, “I see you’re here with Mr. Durning and I just want to say I can’t let this opportunity pass by.”
“Really?” I replied. “How so?”
“Well, the man is obese and I think I can help him. I’m here with Herbalife and if I could just get a chance to speak with him I believe I could be of service.”
“I’m sure you could,” I said, concocting a bit of a plan on the spot. “Here’s the thing, Charlie, um, Mr. Durning is a very early riser. Your best bet is to call him around 4:30 or 5 AM and make your pitch.”
“You all are staying here in the hotel, aren’t you?” the young man asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “We’re here. You ring Charlie up. Early. Real early. It’s going to go over like a song.”
The next morning the entire cast was outside the hotel at 9 AM to catch a van to the airport. I came outside to a sunny morning with a bright-eyed feeling, spied Charlie, and said, “Hiya Charlie, how’s it going?”
“Fuck you,” Charlie replied. And I burst out laughing, as did the other actors after both Charlie and I explained what had gone down. I thought that was the end of it and we were none the worse for the wear.
At the airport all of us checked in together and I took all of the claim checks for the luggage and put them on my ticket, which I carefully placed in the inner pocket of my sport coat. We’d need those in Phoenix.
Upon arriving and walking as a group to baggage claim I was dismayed to find I didn’t have my ticket or the baggage claim stubs so I ran double time back through the airport to the plane, which was still at the gate. I went over the plane a number of times and still couldn’t find them.
Back at the baggage claim, prepared to grovel for all the luggage belonging to our cast, I was greeted by the sight of the entire cast in a van, with all the luggage, including mine, waiting for me. Charlie had lifted my ticket with all the stubs from my jacket without me noticing. He had the last laugh and it was a well-deserved one.
In the movie business chances are you will make more clunkers than memorable films and what you have when you’re done is not necessarily what you meant to do but what you did. After learning that lesson I learned that the relationships you have with your co-workers are imperative, not just because we all depend on each other to get the work done, but because when it’s done all you do have is the memory of having done it.
My memories of Charles Durning are vivid and enduring. He was funny, dangerous in the right way, and knew how to hit his marks and speak the truth. I’ll miss him but, thankfully, I’ll have his many amazing performances to remind me of how talented he was and how lucky I was to get to know him.
- - -
Michael O'Keefe is the author of Swimming From Under My Father (Noble Swine Press 2009). He has many film, television, and theater credits. His new pilot King and Maxwell will premiere on TNT in early 2013. His films, Neighbors, Junction, and A Thousand Cuts will be released in 2013. Apt. 143 (Emergo) is available on demand on most cable networks. Bonnie Raitt recorded Marriage Made in Hollywood, which O'Keefe co-wrote with Paul Brady. It is on Raitt's new record Sliptream, which was just nominated for a Grammy in the Americana category.
CONNIE VOISINE (12/28)
Hey Nonny Nonny, ya NECTARINE
Happy birthday, Connie Voisine
Tawny and Scrawny are both turning green
Happy birthday, Connie Voisine
I’m bending a note for the BENZEDRINE
Happy birthday, Connie Voisine
The Queen of qua non, if you know what I mean
Happy birthday, Connie Voisine
Oh, happy birthday, Connie V.—!!
Our uncles and nieces and cousins and we
Are taking a much-needed break from routine
Happy birthday, Connie Voisine
(ed. note: for more about Connie Voisine visit her website here. sdh)
I remember boiling 4 "new Potatoes (those are the small ones others call salt potatoes) making myself a small sauce pan of melted butter with pepper, and eating the potatoes whole and scewered on my swiss army blade as I read Williams' Selected poems. I was 18 years old, and the only one awake in the house at three in the morning. It is one of the happiest memories of my life. Maybe it was the linoleum which was torn just under my seat. I scratched an itch on my bare foot with it. Maybe it was the flourescent light. It could have been Williams' poems, too, but I know, know beyond all doubt that, without those 4 potatoes, no happiness would have been as possible.
-- Joe Weil
This video clip is even better than the one I posted on Dean Martin 's birthday (June 7) of the famous reconciliation scene during the Jerry Lewis Telethon of 1976 twenty years after he and Dean Martin broke up their world-famous comedy act, with "Jer" playing the out of control overgrown teenager. and "Dino," nine years older, the straight man and Lothario. They had enjoyed a ten-year-run of movies and sold out appearances at the Copa and other such hot spots when they decided, like many a couple, that they had irreconcilable differences and couldn't endure another day in each other's company. The Telethon enounter, arranged by the Godfather, was the first time they saw or spoke to each other after twenty years of stony silence. Sinatra: "I think it's time, don't you?" [Imagine if you could reconcile two warring nations this way.]. Notice the cigarettes -- not as props but as part of the routine in several senses. The Dean-Jerry exchange is sweet: "So. . . how ya been? . . . There were all these rumors about our break-up and when I came out to do the show and you weren't here I knew they were true. . .So. . .ya workin'?" Dean, on why they broke up: "Because I was a Jew and you were a Dago." The phone number line is good, the duet with Dean and Sinatra is funny ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Too Marvelous for Words"), and though Dean is not in the best voice, the sequence helps substantiate Jerry's assertion that he was the greatest straight man of all time. -- DL
(ed. note: This post originally appeared on December 21, 2009 and it's a perennial favorite. I share Michael O'Keefe's love of Barbara Stanwyck and especially Christmas in Connecticut. When you've had enough of gifts and food and family, this movie, and Stanwyck's amazing performance will get you back into the spirit. I watch it every year.)
For some A Christmas Carol, (Alistair Sim’s version please) is the definitive Christmas film. For others It’s A Wonderful Life holds the honor of best film to watch during the holidays. “Marry Christmas Bedford Falls! Marry Christmas, Mr. Potter!” James Stewart bellows returning from a parallel, yet horrible, reality to face charges for bank fraud in “the real world,” whatever the hell that is. Both have the Christmas spirit for sure. But for me the films to watch at Christmas all star Barbara Stanwyck.
First there is the not very well known Remember the Night (left). Fred MacMurray and Stanwyck star in Preston Sturges’ screenplay. (No, they don’t plot the murder of her husband, though Stanwyck does play a shoplifter.) In the interest of transparency I should mention it’s a romance, the protagonists meet cute, overcome obstacles, fall in love, observe traditional male and female roles (and I mean traditional for 1940) and live in an America that may have only existed in the mind of Preston Sturges and his contemporaries in Black and White Hollywood, USA. Oh yeah, transparency. I should reveal that in the singular nature of my love life, I'm not extraordinary nor remarkable. I’m single and stand alone. And my proclivity to indulge in sentimental notions around Christmas makes my opinion not only biased but most likely hooey, as they used to say in 1940.As hokey as some of the sentiment is, and as obvious as the plot line of a shoplifter bailed out and brought home to Wabash, Indiana by a prosecutor for a heartwarming Christmas is, the film knocks me for a loop every time. The key and the heart of the film is Stanwyck. MacMurray’s family is seen through her eyes, and their homespun values melt her cynicism in moments that pierce what passes for my veneer of sophistication. Perhaps the fact that I’m approaching the age of fifty-five and have little to show from my love life but a collection of snapshots, cards and memories that linger but do not nourish should disqualify me in the holiday movie round up. Or could it be that that same status should make me Chairman of the Christmas movie board? For the purposes of this blog let’s hope it’s the latter. The two other films to look for are Christmas in Connecticut and Meet John Doe. Though the latter is not set at Christmas its climax takes place on Christmas Eve and that’s close enough for me. In Christmas in Connecticut (right) Stanwyck plays a columnist that has created a fantasy world of a farm in the country, a loving husband and a handle on domestic details that surpasses anything Martha Stewart ever cooked up. When asked to take in a wounded Vet for Christmas by her publisher she attempts to con them both but ends up falling for the Vet, played by Dennis Morgan. The look in her eyes as she gives herself over to her longing is spectacular. But her speech at the end of Meet John Doe, a wonderful Frank Capra film, where she begs Gary Cooper not to jump from roof of the City Hall, is the topper of them all. She’s suckered Gary Cooper into playing ‘John Doe’ so that her ruse of writing a John Doe column for a powerful paper won’t be uncovered. Cooper plays along at first but when he realizes he’s been a stooge for a power hungry Nazi-like bad guy, Edward Arnold, he tries to reveal the scam but is thwarted in his attempt to do so. Abandoned by all those he’s touched across the country he decides to keep John Doe’s promise to throw himself from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest man’s inhumanity to man. What he doesn’t know is that Stanwyck, Arnold and his cronies, and some loyal supporters are there waiting for him. Sick with the flu, and desperate to stop the suicide Stanwyck throws herself into his arms and begs him not do to it. The depth of her plea is staggering and when she calls him “Darling” I fall to pieces every time. In short: If Barbara Stanwyck’s character from any of these films walked into my life I’d sweep her off her Black and White feet and never give the bright and shiny world a second glance. I’ll be home and alone for Christmas this year but Barbara Stanwyck, with a little help from her friends, will give me hope. And that’s gift enough for me. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
C E L E B R A T I O N
In our world, nothing compared
with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
God’s power surging through the congregation,
from altarboys in our stiff collars and big red bows,
to the solid men of the parish in their finest array:
Blue suits, gold wrist watches, crisp white shirts.
The women perfumed and girdled, lipsticked
and bejeweled. Enough incense
in the air to do the Wise Men proud.
The procession wound through the church,
organ honking, voices lifted in the special
Christmas sense of the slate wiped clean
and the universe beginning anew.
The tree in the house lit with fat colored bulbs
that looked good enough to eat. The old suitcase
full of fragile decorations, buried treasure found
every year on Christmas Eve and set free again.
The baby Jesus alive and well! Herod thwarted!
This called for presents. Toys, games, maybe
a watch or a knife. Along with Jesus came the whole
cast of Yuletide characters—Santa, Rudolph,
the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby, Frosty, Scrooge.
I’m surprised the Easter Bunny didn’t crash
the event. My father put out apple pie
and a glass of milk for Sanny, the remaining traces
of which on Christmas morning were proof enough
for me and my brother Jimmy of the entire
supernatural infrastructure of Bronx Irish culture.
But it was the party after Midnight Mass
that I remember most. Relatives and neighbors
would pour into our apartment for an all-nighter.
My mother would get the percolator going,
and start making breakfast for half the parish.
Bacon, eggs, blood pudding, plates of fresh rolls
with poppy seeds bought that day
in the Treat Bakery on Tremont Avenue.
Eating breakfast at two in the morning!
This was a miracle for a ten-year-old boy.
Bottles of Seagram’s and Canadian Club
stood at attention on the kitchen table,
silver ice bucket ringed with penguins
awaiting duty beside them. Ladies smoking
and gossiping. Glasses clinking. Laughter
throughout the house. The smell of pine,
the delicious aroma of sizzling bacon,
all welcoming Jesus back for another year.
Then the music and singing would start up,
my father on the banjo, P. J. Conway on the box.
The Stack of Barley, The Lakes of Sligo,
medleys of marches, waltzes, and polkas.
Theresa McNally, from my mother’s own town
in Galway, would sing “Galway Bay.” Steps would
be danced, jokes told, more drinks mixed and gulped.
I would go to bed so filled with the spirit
it seemed impossible to believe that life could
ever return to normal. Lying there exhausted,
but anxious to sneak down the hall at the earliest
opportunity and tear open the tantalizing packages,
I believed in everything: Jesus our Lord, Santa
our magic benefactor, my parents the immortal source
of the ongoing celebration that could never end.
[from Boy Drinkers, Hanging Loose Press, 2007]
P.J. Conway, my father Paddy Winch, and Brian Keenan in 1958. P.J. and my father performed locally in NY as "The Two Pats." If they had a drummer for any particular gig, it would either be me, my brother Jesse, or P.J.'s nephew Brian Keenan, who immigrated from England in the '50s. Brian went on to become the drummer for The Chambers Brothers, who were popular in the '60s and later. He died pretty young, and lived pretty hard, as I recall. I am the steward of P.J.'s Walters D/C# accordion and my father's Vega tenor banjo, seen in this photo. I used to have one of those green plaid tuxedo jackets, too, but it has vanished.
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(ed note: This post originally appeared on December 23, 2010)
You now behold (in the photo above) a group of Beverly Hills High School alumni (parents, bankers, singers, and friends) returning to the alma mater as they do each December to sing "Still, Still, Still" with their old high school singing group, The Beverly Hills High School Madrigals.
I had been a parent for oh about a minute when I realized that I would never again stumble upon a group of carolers singing on floor 3 of the mall, children chiming off-key in a red velvet auditorium, middle school brass sections bugling themselves bug-eyed at Disneyland without instantly bursting into happy tears.
Every face, every trying-hard face is so shiny and focused. And then there are always a few faces, bored and daydreaming...the child in the navy satin poof skirt inaccurately mouthing the words. The boy with the monkey-face dramatics who couldn't quite pull the requisite colored outfit together, and would fit in better at the local Chuckie Cheese. And the social dynamics. Gee, they just slap one in the face until the stomach remembers the old flip-flops. Nodding to the parents with a "hip" Queen medley mostly from Bohemian Rhapsody, "mamma, I killed a man...my life had only just begun..now I've gone and thrown it all away" as we audience members howl with laughter, the joke on us for getting old, humming along. A high school diva in a black slinky dress, draped over a piano as if she were a lounge act, supported by four guys her own age in hats and bow ties, two of whom she'd never date, and one who would never date her (wrong gender), and the one who just maybe...and that isn't even storying up to the accompanist. The girl-on-girl duet, part love, part catfight. The sounds of the audience, the live net of high school affections and antagonisms, providing the soundtrack to the series of festive, frought events. I love them. I love every single one of them.
There we sit, we parents, grandparents, and other partisans, holding our tinier-each-year camcorders and recording our bigger-each-year children. I am purged over and over by the beautiful imperfection of the music, from the tiny beauty pageant kindersingers, to the high school minnesingers or maestros, tuning with purpose, and following the conductor with more verb and verse. Sometimes it seems as if you can feel layers under the singing or strumming--the hours of practice, all the different ears assaulted by scales, the "have you practiced enough" arguing behind every household door, and then later the "stop practicing till you have done your homework" or the "that dress is black but it's too short" "too fancy" "too casual". The parents, the children and their dreams. Like raising peacocks or grooming unicorns part of what's so touching is knowing that this is it, this is childhood, the most "adult" form this art will ever have for many of our children.
It seems so grown-up really, to believe in this effort and practice and excellence. To work hard. And then to come together to live it all out. What's wrong with us adults--so quickly bored and scattered, our energy dissipated by not wanting to disappoint our own hopes. How big we were, small like that!
Last week on NPR, Barbra Streisand (now in a new movie) was interviewed by Terry Gross. She talks about singing "People who need people," a song whose lyrics might be exactly opposite of what she believes, but they felt right. She talks about the moment when she was thirteen, and a bridge in the music, a bridge she swore was too long, suddenly got filled by a new idea for her, and when she came back in, the sound that came out of her--it was new. It was something she didn't know she had inside her.
And so this is what art is like. What life is like. Near as I can tell it.
We stop worrying about perfection. We pause for not knowing. We let effort happen, for its own mysterious reasons in its own mysterious state.
And sometimes, if we're very lucky, both Heaven and Nature sing!
Thanks, Joel Pressman. Happy Holidays to One and All...j.f.
I'm from Texas, live in New York, and am currently wintering in Louisiana. I haven't the slightest clue what Boxing Day is. I never asked my Canadian former roommate and my English violinist-friend says it has to do with helping the less fortunate and "boxing" up charitable donations the day after Christmas. I choose to picture a voluntary, boozy, postprandial family slugfest celebrating making it through Christmas without incident. I'm pretty sure we're both wrong. Anyways, happy bank holiday to all my friends in the Commonwealth! (And happy first day of Kwanzaa, too!)
I just want to get this thought out of the way: I am not a writer. (I feel so much better now!) Therefore, gentle reader, go easy and know how intimidated I am at this moment. I'm in no way issuing an apology for what may spew forth, but I think context is important. Truthfully, I'm not foreign to this community of writers, but my only experience is with dead ones. Lyricists and librettists of decades and centuries past. My image of writers usually includes a quill pen and candlelight. Are there any last holdouts in today's writing community? Old school blotters and ink-stained fingers?
More than the drama and costumes and wigs and make-up, what's interesting to me about being a singer of opera is, regardless of technological aides (digital recording devices offering immediate aural and visual feedback, etc), voices are trained today in essentially the same manner as voices a century or two ago. The finer points could be argued, no doubt, but in broad terms, there aren't too many ways for a human voice to be heard over an orchestra without amplification. The musculature hasn't changed, we haven't seen laryngeal evolution of any kind. We are still dependent on our body's acoustical resonant amplifiers and a very complex coordination of neurons and muscles to compete sucessfully with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. I think it's pretty damn cool actually. Sometimes it's technique that keeps me coming back for more and not the stage theatrics.
A confession - I'm not very prepared this week, having succumbed, as usual, the holiday insanity. Today I've got cookies, wrapping, and cleaning on the agenda, and, what with the rest of the holiday preparation, I just haven't had the time to think up something brilliant, moving, and appropriate for this week's post.
So instead, I'd like to share my all-time favorite Christmas poem. (I tried to get Black Jack and the sheep to pose for an illustration, but they were more interested in breakfast than art this morning.) This is a poem specifically about Christmas, but to everyone of whatever faith, or questioning, or none at all, blessings this holiday season and for the New Year.
"The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
(ed note: This post originally appeared on December 23, 2008)
Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967) continues to inspire conflicting feelings and opinions. John Nemo, writing in The Dictionary of Irish Literature, puts it this way: “His followers, a varied but vocal group, speak of him admiringly as an important force in Irish letters, second only to Yeats. His detractors, fewer in number but every bit as vocal, dismiss him as a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant who disrupted rather than advanced the development of modern literature.” As a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant myself, I will take my place among Kavanagh’s followers.
One of his most ardent admirers was my old friend James Liddy, an Irish poet who spent most of his adult life as a professor at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee until his death in 2008. Many years ago (in the ‘70s sometime), James sent me a copy of an Irish journal called The Lace Curtain, which included his “Open Letter to the Young about Patrick Kavanagh.” Describing Kavanagh’s work (and, really, his own as well), Liddy writes, “Or there is a poetry in which real ideas from living come at us. This kind can be direct statement with a reference behind to the story of what happened to the poet. It relies on the mind staying alive, on the man making the statement keeping his emotional intelligence alive.”
Kavanagh brings that emotional intelligence, I think, to “A Christmas Childhood,” a poem one encounters regularly this time of year in Irish circles on both sides of the Atlantic. As an Irish accordion player, I relish the mention of his father’s melodeon (pronounced melojin), which is a single-row button accordion.
The poem introduces us to the thrumming imagination of a six-year-old Irish farmboy, ca. 1910, who is perfectly in tune with the magical world around him.
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost—
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven's gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw—
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood's. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy's hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon. The Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’—
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade.
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
At his wedding in April 1967; Kavanagh died in November of that year.
One final note: Kavanagh’s best-known poem is probably “On Raglan Road,” which was written to the tune of an old march called “The Dawning of the Day.” Many singers have recorded the song since the ‘60s, including Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor.
(ed note: This post originally appeared on December 21, 2011)
For the events leading up to this spectacular photo of our man in Mongolia, watch this video:
We took a ride last Thursday night to the country outside Ulaanbaatar. Along the way, we encountered this camel. The voices you hear in the background are of the young Mongolian man trying to negotiate the terms of a ride; U.S. Ambassador Mark Minton; Kevin Nolan, an intern in the Embassy (whose speech moves fluently from English to Mongolian); David; me ("I don't want to get on") and the compliant camel.
(This post appeared originally on June 2, 2008)
<< Lehman was visiting Florida International University in Aventura, Florida, on October 18th as part of the Writers on the Bay reading series. Lehman and Ashley M. Jones discuss prose poetry and its limitations (or lack thereof), the ways in which poetry can be generated with or without inspiration, the new technological frontier of poetry, and poetry’s place in popular culture. >>
Link here for the full interview -- and more, including an interview with Margot Livesey.
We are tired of
so we quit our jobs and travel
making out and littering wildly.
We survive on winnings
from hot dog-eating contests
and also, hot dogs.
I smell like sauerkraut.
I think you still love me.
You grow cocky and enter
any competition you can find.
We can’t lose.
All our fathers
Are finally proud.
I tell you I want to settle down,
build a castle for our trophies.
You build a glass display case
and strap it to my shoulders.
I accidentally leave it behind at a rodeo.
You burn my eyelashes.
When I finally win Miss Teen USA
I am immediately disqualified
because of my age and marital status.
The judge snaps my tiara
and hands you the pieces.
You glue them together
and crown the runner-up.
She nuzzles your chest.
You propose and everyone cheers,
even though she is only fourteen and
I am standing RIGHT THERE.
Like any disgraced pageant queen,
I am gracious.
I shake her hand and hope
it rains for the rest of her life.
Chilly Dovebber with his boadig blast
Dow cubs add stribs the bedow add the lawd,
Eved October's suddy days are bast—
And Subber's gawd!
I kdow dot what it is to which I cligg,
That stirs to sogg and sorrow, yet I trust
That still I sigg, but as the liddets sigg—
Because I bust.
Add now, farewell to roses add to birds,
To laded fields and tigkligg streablets eke;
Farewell to all articulated words
I fain would speak.
Farewell, by cherished strolliggs od the sward,
Greed glades and forest shades, farewell to you;
With sorrowing heart I, wretched add forlord,
((from *The Penguin Book of Nonsense Verse*, Quentin Blake, ed., 1995)
(tr. by Anthony Madrid)
Henry David Thoreau, while barely catapulting out of his own 20's, was nevertheless ready to dispense valuable advice on creativity and the energy necessary to sustain a life of purposeful alertness. Here he is speaking on mornings.
For an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.
Be awakened by our Genius, not by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor.
Be awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, not factory bells.
Be awakened to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I love these quotes. And largely, I love mornings. Though, in those funny creative collisions and collusions so common to early parenthood--timeless days, endless nights--one December, I found myself reading Henry David Thoreau's Walden over my infant's sleepy head. You may imagine I got a bit of a kick out of the statement on mornings that Thoreau makes above. And still today, on this "shortest day of the year", I curse at my 'nudging mechanical servitor' and solemnly swear that my rescue dog--the newest "baby" to interfere with my sleep--must be by tautology, logic, and luck, my personal genius. Now if only I could teach him to use a pencil....
My first memory of the alphabet is seeing the letters—they were about the size of a mug—printed on one of those long pieces of posterboard that is meant to rest above the blackboard. I think there were apples and worms next to the letters, and the worms may have even had glasses. What fascinated me were the shapes of the letters, especially those that had tails facing this way or that. And I can’t forget the serious, attentive looking capitals standing next to the miniscules so that the whole picture looked like a silhouette of the Alps or a train of parents and children waiting outside a store the morning after Thanksgiving.
I’ve always wanted to write an abecedarian, to use the structure of my favorite mountain range to order my thoughts in the way those giants Czeslaw Milosz and Ezra Pound once did, but I could never decide on what would be worth sharing. The last year or so as I’ve been happily answering the smart, probing questions of interviewers, I’ve been anxiously hoping no one would ask the dreaded question: “Who are your influences?” It would be like a geneticist walking up to someone on the street and saying, “Here’s a pencil and paper. Now sketch your genome.” It would be impossible to remember every distant cousin and great-great grandparent on someone’s side twice removed, much less to whom you owe your odd-shaped toes or your long eyelashs. The same is true for literary influence. What’s more, I object to a literary family being shaped like a tree because it implies that Homer or the writer of Gilgamesh is the old, hidden root to our twigs when nothing could be further from the truth because I just saw Homer in a bookstore; he was lounging on a whole shelf in fact, and looked as vibrant and full of fire as any debut author.
What follows is an attempt to head off that question of forebears. Some purists will see my alphabet as messy or even sacrilegious since I’ve opened the doors and let in the digraphs, those crazy uncles that never get invited to family reunions. If I made this list tomorrow, it would surely be different. Happily so, indeed.
a – Anna Akhmatova
b – Elizabeth Bishop
c – Amy Clampitt
ch – Charles M. Schultz
d – Annie Dillard
e – Ralph Waldo Emerson
f – Flannery O’Connor
ph – Philip Levine
g – Gerald Stern
h – Seamus Heaney
i – Isaac Babel
j – Jorie Graham
k – Franz Kafka
l – Stan Lee
m – Czeslaw Milosz
mc – Cormac McCarthy
n – Pablo Neruda
o – Sharon Olds
p – “Papa” Hemingway
q – David Quammen
r – Robert Frost
s – Mark Strand
sh – Sam Shepard
t – Leo Tolstoy
th – Henry David Thoreau
u – Du Fu
v – Vasko Popa
w – William Carlos Williams
wh – Walt Whitman
x – is for the anonymous author of “Tom O’Bedlam”
y – W.B. Yeats
z – Zbigniew Herbert
& – is for Jack Gilbert who is not last but first on my list when I start over tomorrow.
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Dear Howard: one shd. Never attempt FLAN in an unfamiliar and very bad oven – so forgive me if these are full of the unforgivable holes .. .I do hope you’re feeling better – Much love -
-- Undated note from Elizabeth Bishop to Howard Moss
Have you ever made flan? I have, many times. Flan is a light custard dessert that makes a great finish to a heavy meal. Flan isn’t difficult to assemble -- there aren’t many ingredients (at its most basic, there’s milk, sugar, and eggs) and the method is straightforward -- but a lot can go wrong in the baking. If you leave it in the oven for too long or if the temperature is off its mark, the mixture can end up resembling scrambled eggs. If you take it out of the oven too soon, you’ll have an unappealing puddle of soup. I’m not sure of what could have caused the holes in the version Bishop delivered to Moss, her friend and editor at The New Yorker, but given her characteristic modesty, I have a feeling that Moss was quite happy with his get-well gift.
Through the magic weirdness that is Facebook, I caught this update on poet Gabriel Gudding’s page: “Gabriel received the flan and warm smiles and t-shirt from Didi just now on the porch in the marmalade light and snow.” Now there’s a lovely line, yes? Bishop's spirit lives on in more than her writing! The Didi Gabe refers to is poet Didi Menendez, editor of MiPoesias, Ocho, and Oranges and Sardines. She and Gabe are neighbors. Lucky him.
Didi was happy to pass along her recipe (below the jump), but notes that credit goes “to an aunt of a cousin I visited in 1979 in Naples Florida although the almond extract part is my version and not part of the original recipe. Also the cheese variation comes from my mother Salome and I am not sure where she picked it up -- possibly on a bus on her way to work or back from working in the factory when we were kids.” Didi's recipe is my favorite kind - it assumes that the cook has a certain amount of comfort and experience in the kitchen. It's the kind of recipe exchanged between friends and family who know each others' habits.
I can't wait to try it:
It was August and I was on my way to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time. For some reason I don’t remember (bad weather, a loose screw), my plane from La Guardia to Vermont was grounded and I would have to stay the night in Flushing. While I was disappointed I was going to miss the C.K. Williams reading that night, what really bummed me out was the thought that the other writers also accepted as scholars would have their meet and greet, bond, and I would be the odd man out. It had been years since I had last been part of a community of writers so I had wanted to make a good impression in the hope that I would leave Vermont with two or three new friendships.
When I arrived the next day, I was relieved to learn that the scholars had not met yet. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I remember thinking how they seemed very down to earth and not intimidating at all as I had thought writers as accomplished as they were (some of them already had books!) might be. I can’t remember if it was then or the next day but at some point we decided that we should have at least one meal together. After that meal, everywhere I went I saw clusters of us sitting together at readings or lounging at the barn or eating breakfast. Something special had happened that first time we broke bread. That new bond we had with each other was cemented during the scholar reading when we all read some of our work in the Little Theater to the Bread Loaf community. Sasha West, the last of our group to read, captured the magic of that night best when she took the podium and said, “I just fell in love hard, 14 times.”
One afternoon when a bunch of us were sitting around a picnic table we did what writers do and had a sublime moment of silliness when we decided we didn’t want to be called by the bland, generic name Scholars anymore. I can’t remember what other names were suggested, but Voltron is the one that stuck. Being children of the 80s, most of us had grown up with the cartoon series, Voltron: Defender of the Universe. In each episode young pilots flying planes shaped like lions would battle evil. Whenever a fight was about to overwhelm them individually, all of the vehicles would join together to form a giant robot.
Before long, the Bread Loaf community started seeing weird signs with VOLTRON!!!! printed on them popping up all over the place. While few people knew what any of this meant, we didn’t care. We were Voltron and that was that. Even though we haven’t all been reunited since that wonderful summer three years ago, I’ve leaned on my Voltron brothers and sisters more times than I can count. I had hoped to leave Bread Loaf with a few friends and instead found a family in my fellow Voltroids James Arthur, Kara Candito, Eduardo C. Corral, Heidi Durrow, Alan Heathcock, Dave Lucas, Marie Mockett, Celeste Ng, Elena Passarello, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jim Ruland, Hasanthika Sirisena, and Sasha West.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.