Poetry Month Then and Now

English: Signature of Shel Silverstein.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night Rebecca, George, Magda and a small group of library patrons celebrated National Poetry Month by gathering in the reading room at the Osterhout Free Library for Wilkes-Barre’s first Third Friday Art Walk of the season.  Patrons stopped in, some to watch and listen between checking out the historic photographs and paintings on the wall, and some to spend a little time reading with us. The majority of the poems were from books of children’s poetry. We had everything from A. A. Milne and Shel Silverstein to Robert Lois Stevenson and Sherman Alexi.

Next month we’ll be celebrating the release of the new Word Fountain literary magazine, which has been on hiatus for the last two years. Recently some other new library employees agreed to join me in editing a relaunch. The submission deadline was April 1st, and we had no idea how many submissions we would get. Thanks to Duotrope adding us to their database, and promotion through the library and sites like NEPA Scene and Poets of NEPA, we were overwhelmed by the response! So if you submitted and haven’t heard from us yet, we’re down to making the difficult, last-minute decisions, so you’ll hear from us soon.

line art drawing of catbird.

The Catbird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before going back to finish up Word Fountain though, I’ll be taking this week off to spend time with one of my best friends in the world, as fellow poet and member of the original triumvirate who led the old GayFatherhood.com website, Vincent Creelan comes to visit from Northern Ireland. We’ll be trekking through the woods, looking for birds and geologic rock formations, drinking wine and reading poems together. So, I know I’ll return back to you refreshed for next week.

And while gathering things like binoculars and field guides today, as I do a bit of house-cleaning in preparation for Vince’s arrival, I thought of a poem about birds that I wish I had shared with the group at the library last night. By this point in my life I could probably recite this poem by memory, but here is a video of me reading the poem in King Street Park, Northumberland as my family was celebrating National Poetry Month about this time four years ago. We don’t always gather in local parks with sidewalk chalk, poetry books and a guitar, but when we do, we certainly get the neighborhood’s attention. Then again, they probably just think, ‘Oh, it’s that weird Bauman family again. They’re always doing stuff like that. Bunch of hippies.’

The Kitty-Cat Bird

The Kitty-Cat Bird, he sat on a Fence.
Said the Wren, your Song isn’t worth 10 cents.
You’re a Fake, you’re a Fraud, you’re a Hor-rid Pretense!
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Cat Bird.

You’ve too many Tunes, and none of them Good:
I wish you would act like a bird really should,
Or stay by yourself down deep in the wood,
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Kat Bird.

You Mew like a Cat, you grate like a Jay:
You squeak like a Mouse that’s lost in the Hay,
I wouldn’t be You for even a day,
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Cat Bird.

The Kitty-Cat Bird, he moped and he cried.
Then a real cat came with a Mouth so Wide,
That the Kitty-Cat Bird just hopped inside;
–Did the Kitty –the Kitty-Cat Bird.

You’d better not laugh; and don’t say “Pooh!”
Until you have thought this Sad Tale through;
Be sure that whatever you are is you
–Or you’ll end like the Kitty-Cat Bird.

Theodore Roethke

Music Monday with Simon and Garfunkle’s America

I was just 7 days shy of turning 7 months old when Simon and Garfunkle released the album Bookends in 1968. The third cut from that album is one whose harmonies and key changes has haunted me in such beautiful ways my whole life. If you’ve ever traveled cross-country in a bus, this song will take you back. But even if I you haven’t–how do I explain it? Well, the music does it for you. It takes you on the journey; you’ll swear you were on the bus.

1968 was before the age of music videos, but you didn’t need a video with a song like this. It was written so well you conjured it up in great detail in your head.  And the lyrics blend so artfully into the music, as good music should. You can’t help feel nostalgic. It’s even one of those songs in which I think the lyrics could stand on their own. But at this point, nearly half a century of radio time later, how you could ever read the lyrics without singing them? And likewise, how could you hear the music without singing along. That’s a hallmark of a good classic folk song.

I’ll include the lyrics below the video, and I will include another video below that, along with a link to a new blog I’ve been writing on this week. Yes, I have been working on some new poetry, and I read a little of it at my reading at Priestley Chapel last Sunday, but the new blog isn’t a poetry blog. In times like these it’s hard for a poet to not get political, even in primaries where opponents are, usually in many respects, at least ideally on the same side of the issues.

I’ve been slow to share the other blog here, not because I’m worried about people disagreeing with me on an already niche-poetry-site–after all, artists are often activists–but because some of my dearest friends either plan to, or have already voted for the other candidate, and I do not want anyone I care about to think that I am disrespecting them or their rights to vote their conscience. So, please, if Bernie Sanders is not your candidate, I respect that, and won’t feel slighted in the least if you chose not to follow the links. But if you support him, or are curious about whether you should, I’d be grateful if you clicked and checked out The Case for Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders, as you will see from the videos below, is who has got me thinking of this song “America.”

“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And walked off to look for America

“Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw
I’ve come to look for America”

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, “Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera”

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, thought I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

And the New York version:

The Case for Bernie Sanders

Keeping the Sabbath with Emily Dickinson, 236

Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Emily Dickinson’s “Chorister,” the Bobolink (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Good Sunday to you. And if I haven’t said it already, happy National Poetry Month from the Northeast of these United (sort of) States.

At last the April snows appear to be over here. It’s sunny, but with that brisk chill that somehow returns me to childhood, not for any particular memory or event, but the emotion associated with tactile memory. The taste on the breeze, of cool moisture on a spring morning, the warmth of sun contrasting with cold air on my skin.

I sat on my back steps in my bathrobe, waiting for my coffee to be ready. Through my pantry window I had seen Mamma Robin again, and it made me think of a new poem by my friend Joel. So I had to go out and see her in person, her rufus breast puffed out, the feathers on her head peaking up just a bit; she was not going to be intimidated by my presence, and soon seemed to accept my company as another fact of the morning. This was the first time this year I had noticed actual dew drops sparkling in the grass, dew drops, not frost.

A american robin bird

American Robin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It always comes back around, doesn’t it? If you wait out the winter, keep going, sometimes pushing through snow, hibernating when you can. It always comes back around. There were other birds in nearby yards, the House Sparrow landing on the eves of the house next door, the coo of a Mourning Dove, but sadly no Bobolink. Ah, Miss Emily. We do what we can with what we have. I nodded good morning to Mamma Robin and returned inside for my coffee.

I found this video this morning, and the date for its creation is the last day of February of this year. From the stark beauty of the bare trees, and the patches of remaining snow in the shade, as well as those winding roads, it feels like home in the hills of Central Pennsylvania. I even remember being a crazy youngster, walking in my bare feet in the cold woods like this.

The memory of what YouTube used to be to some of us. Yeah, that’s probably part of the nostalgia I feel in watching this simple video. Back when it was a group of creative upstarts with microphones and cheap cameras, back before it became corporate-tube. Yeah, some of you might remember. It’s lovely to find something like this is still being done.

I was once a believer in deity, but I have come to be a believer in people instead. I think it makes more sense, and is certainly no more dangerous. But I confess, I’ve always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson, number 236 as it is cataloged. Though she did not entitle her pieces, we generally find them easier to sort through by their first lines. If a touch of glossary helps: *Sexton  *Surplice.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)

By Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University press, 1999)

One Art, 17 Drafts

Bishop's sixth draft of "One Art."

Bishop’s sixth draft of “One Art.”

A little over a year ago I recorded again one of my all-time favorite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” It was part of a recurring Valentine’s Day series called “Love Poems You Wish You Had Written.” I suppose the post is worth re-reading, especially since it mentions my favorite professor and celebrates the reunion of another one of her students and I, after nearly a quarter of a century.

I’m also pretty happy with the audio recording, though I’m less keen on the link to the old, grainy video from 6 years ago on YouTube. But despite the poor quality and the over-long and irrelevant introduction to that reading, I just can’t delete any of it. It’s all sacred somehow.

Fortunately for us, Elizabeth Bishop did not feel the same way about her first draft of the poem. There is a misconception,  maybe born from modern Valentine’s verses, or the goth fad of the 90s and early 2000s, that you can vomit up your emotions onto the page and call it poetry. Usually, this is among the younger set, but not always. There is this notion that poetry cannot be critiqued or judged in any way, as it is somehow sacred, holy and perfect in the form it first takes when it is born on paper. Yet most living things grow and develop after they are born. No baby is ever dumped from womb into bassinet and thought to be unchangeable and fully formed.

Special maybe, sacred even, but we would think it odd to keep an infant an infant and then send it off to school without ever teaching it how to walk. But maybe the metaphor breaks down here, especially if you don’t think of art as a living thing. But it’s also inadequate because the best parents learn from their children as they grow too. The best writing experiences for me are growth experiences.

Bishop was persistent in her craft. In the special collections section of the Vassar library there are 17 drafts of “One Art,” much of it in the poet’s own handwriting. Even the typed lines are full of cross-outs and scribbled corrections and changes in the margins. After watching M. Mark’s video I now want to go to Vassar. I am glad those “sacred” early drafts were saved so that we could follow the path she took in her precision. But I’m even more grateful that she didn’t stop at the first or third version, that she went on to sculpt and perfect what is one of the greatest poems in modern English.


Spring Poetry Readings

Sunday, April 3rd

1278011_605442046179825_1740252407_oI will once again have the honor of being the featured poet at the Priestley Memorial Chapel in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. This time it’s April 3rd, the first Sunday in National Poetry Month. So if you are anywhere in the Central Pennsylvania region that weekend and are up for a 9:30 am poetry reading, let me know! I’m hoping to hit a few folks up for brunch after!

The musician for the program is pianist David Levengood from Bucknell University. The tunes will range from classical to improv jazz.

Do not worry my faithless friends, this is not a church service. From PriestleyChapel.org: Priestley Chapel Associates presents an informal program of words and music from 9:30 to 10:10 am on the first Sunday at Joseph Priestley Memorial Chapel, 380 Front Street, Northumberland, PA. Programs begin at 9:30 am and conclude at 10:10 am.

Friday, May 20th

wb-library-osterhoutThere will be a reading of poetry and prose during the Official Release Party for the “Come-back” issue, the Spring/Summer volume of Word Fountain, the Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library on May 20th at 6:30 pm. The festivities will take place at the Osterhout, 71 South Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA as part of the city’s Third Friday Arts Walk.

Interestingly enough this venue, while no longer a church, is located in the former First Presbyterian Church, built in 1849. It’s served now as a public library for 127 years. See more information about its history at Osterhout.lib.pa.us.

I should note that at the time of this writing there are still 9 days left until the deadline for submissions to that issue. And while we still need to get an editors’ bio section up on that About page, I can tell you that you already know one of the four editors. He has this weird blog about poetry, family and of all things, very occasionally, birds! Check out Word Fountain’s submission guidelines for details and then send us something we’ll love!

Other Poets Reading in North Eastern and Central Pennsylvania this Spring

Click on the links for details and directions:

And those are just the events I know about! There are surely plenty more. Who are those idiots who keep claiming that poetry is dead? I think I have seen that in enough national rags by this point.

Now, I apologize to my many readers who live in other corners of Pennsylvania, other parts of the country, other nooks in the continent, or outside the continental US altogether. You actually outnumber my local readers, but I couldn’t help bragging on my home turf here.

But in the comments, it’s your turn. Please leave a comment if there is a poetry or literary event in your area this spring that you have information about. Hey, you never know, a simple google search could lead a potential attendee right to your information here, so feel free to provide links, and all the info you can in the comments below. Thanks you so much. And at the risk of verbing, poem on!