Monday, September 21, 2009

Robert Pinsky, David Chin, and me

I certainly do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the other two poets. But for a few days in July, I did share a place with them.

For two consecutive summers, the Chautauqua Institution has been part of the summer for Pam and me. It is a unique place, a combination New England historic village, educational salon, lakeside resort, and religious haven. For me, each session has been an affirmation in poetry.

We had no concept of the broad array of classes and seminars available each week. Last year, I attended a poetry reading on the first Sunday and learned that the poet-in-residence, Susan Grimm, held a daily seminar. Pam convinced me to go. This year I registered early, and it proved to be an interesting week with David Chin, a poet who has childhood roots in the same upstate valleys from whence we came. He asked me to read one of my poems as a prelude to a lecture he gave on poetry and the paintings of Edward Hopper; I read my own ekphrastic poem, Hudson River School From the Train, 5:00AM, which can be found here; David Chin is in the middle of the seminar attendees in the pic above.

But that wasn’t the most unique part of this year’s session.

Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States in the late 1990s, attended Chautauqua for two days during the week we were there. His project for the past 10 years has been the Favorite Poem Project, in which he asks people to read a favorite poem and describe its significance to their lives. The project has resulted in three anthologies, all in hardcover, and a website. The Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle, and the Writer’s Center, solicited submissions for a public reading on that Thursday afternoon in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy; a dozen submissions were to be accepted. I was picked.

Pinsky was very clear in his directions to us that afternoon: we were to bring no notes (‘if you do, I will chase you off the podium!’), describe why this poem is important to us, and then read the poem. I read Ann Sexton’s poem, Snow.

An account of the poetry reading, and a few pictures, can be found in The Chautauquan Daily of July 25, 2009, which is archived here. I am very grateful to the Writer’s Center, CLSC, and David Chin for the wonderful week of poetry.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Tick Tock

So many lines of thought lost,
the discipline of words, failed.
I did not pick up the pen,
scratch paper,
grab the journal
and pour it out,
even in fragments.

The color and image fades
unadorned, turned to gray.
The picture may have been
a cartoon, may have been deep
with rising shape. But
I never tried.

We bring coffee to Andrea whenever we get a haircut or style. Well, Pam gets the latter; Andrea just cuts mine. It’s part of the tradition. Andrea just laughs and says that Pam has us all well trained. I had an 8:30AM appointment last Saturday, so instead of the usual Stewart’s coffee, I got the gift cup at the coffee shop on the front corner of Andrea’s building. The young woman at the counter gave me a frequent coffee card, and I mentioned that I would be back for my own coffee after my appointment.

I came back 30 minutes later and got a coffee and a blueberry muffin. I can’t just sit and stare out the window. Generally, I read the paper or magazine. Lacking that, I found a magnetic poetry board and began building. I don’t remember the result, but I was happy with it. And I was also very content, unrushed, in no hurry to move on.

Clearly for me, there is achievement and accomplishment in building something with words. Construction, using different tools: a mental dictionary that translates images, pen on paper, keyboard to screen. Translating images into new buildings, moving words into lines and lines into taller verses, even laying out an incongruous structure with tilted frame or sloping roof. A viewer needs to decipher or rebuild the structure to their own mental image, using their own language through eyes, lips, even ears.

Some will see what I saw. Some will see a different image. Some will tear down and build to their liking. Others will just shrug and keep on walking by.

Not every building draws attention. And as the poem above illustrates, not every building gets beyond the thinking stage.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The camera films a different time signature

A recent WIRED magazine article describes new high-speed cameras that can stretch incredibly fast action into minutes. This results in footage that slows action down to the smallest of elements. The entire article can be found online here.

The most amazing view is of a hummingbird as it feeds. The discovery, apparently, is the way the bird stores the water in its outstretched throat. But the most fascinating part of the film is the the hummingbird's flight: watch the wings. Incredible grace; they almost flow with every beat. The human eye only sees a mad blur of wing. The camera demonstrates how fluid and powerful the wings' ballet truly is.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Musical Box

Pam and I worked at Proctors Theatre on Friday night. The event was “The Musical Box”, a Genesis tribute band – although the participants would blanche at that description. This group has done this show since 1993, and pride themselves on meticulously recreating the sound and staging of Genesis tours. They duplicate the clothes, the projected slide show, the exact play list, even the nuances of the guitar and voice lines in each song. They have accumulated a library of film clips and play lists for as many Genesis shows as possible, and even copy the patter between songs. Each player on stage takes the persona of a member of Genesis at the time of the concert.

They view themselves as a stage show. This iteration is a recreation of Genesis’ “Trick of the Tail” concert tour in 1976. Peter Gabriel, the leader of the group for nearly a decade, had just left the band, taking with him the more dramatic and operatic bent of their music. Phil Collins was taking over most of the vocals. Within two to three years, Collins would alter their sound and they would put together a huge string of radio hits. They became darlings of the FM music crowd deep into the 1980s.

But that’s not who the crowd came to see this past Friday. These were progressive rock devotees, groupies that shared a devotion to Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Asia; Rush; and all the iterations of the niche that Genesis filled along with those groups.

And they were male, at a ratio of about 3-to-1.

I’ve been to nine Yes concerts in my life, and I have noted this same phenomenon – albeit only when I bothered to look at the demographics around me in the last ten years. The louder and ‘heavier’ the rock group, the more it appeals to the male of the species. I could conjecture on the reasons for this, but they would be guesses. Power and volume; guitars that dominate all other aspects of the music; obscure, obtuse, or sci-fi lyrics that are unintelligible because they are totally drowned out by the driving bass beat and layered guitars. Rarely pretty, in the musical sense.

These are generalizations. And there are women at these concerts, just as there were on Friday. Some were there with their husbands, to be sure; but I bet it was the husband that did all the hooting and hollering. It’s a 30-60 crowd, of course, because Genesis’ pinnacle ended in the late 1980s.

After our bartending chores were over, Pam and I stayed for about 30 minutes of the show. The group is impeccable, and I was taken away by the music -- they did a great version of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” But our ears hurt.

And, to be honest, I wanted a beer.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Marking Spring

There are three primary events that mark spring in our upstate New York town. The first is the day the ice breaks from the Mohawk River. The ice jam starts in a couple of narrow parts of the River, or against a the abutments of a particular bridge, and creates a one-to-two mile jam of ice floes piled against each other, some reaching to the sky on their edges. Some years, this is a calamitous event which leads to widespread flooding in parts of Schenectady, including the historic Stockade area. This year the icy traffic jam only lasted a few days, and broke through after a few sunny days in the 40s. No need to invoke the flood evac plans.

The second event is opening day at Jumpin’ Jacks. Jacks is the classic burger, hot dog, and fries concession stand , with an ice cream store right next door. The owner opens on the third or fourth Thursday each year (figuring he would get the weekend customers anyway, regardless of the novelty of opening day). The TV crews always show up, cars jockey for the few parking spots, the outdoor line snakes through the switchback barriers to the windows, and plenty of cheeseburgers are absorbed by people shivering at the riverside picnic tables.

Finally, there is my favorite opening day: the first day of the baseball season. I’m still hoping that this becomes a national holiday. But as long as March Madness dribbles into April, I’m not optimistic.

Those three calendar markers have passed this year. None of them occurred, of course, in warm spring weather in upstate New York. We only get teased during the transition seasons; a sunny 55 degree day will spring up in late March, only to revert the next three days to spitting sleet and biting 30 degree winds. We are now in the third week of April, and 50 degree sun is finally the norm rather than the exception. Tulips are just starting to show their colors, and the forsythia is starting to burst.

So what are all these pics?

These marvelous pictures are from Charleston, South Carolina, a month ago. Pam and I traveled to find spring in mid-March, which is when our calendars actually identify it. Charleston is a unique place to watch spring arrive. We shed our winter skins on warm 60-75 degree days, toured gardens in the historic district, took a carriage ride through the narrow streets, and visited the largest romantic garden in the country. Pam has an eye for the colorful flowering world, besides being an inveterate gardener. She took a great collection of pictures.

This trip was a Valentine gift, and was accompanied by this poem:


We can find spring
when petals rise and
waters warm,
where sun starts early
and rays strike later.

We can see colors
other than white
when the day marks
the solstice,
and we shed the heavy
quilt of winter.

We can touch
our ungloved hands
at the same time our hearts
remind us that we are one.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Some never fly south....

Hey, Robin, got news for ya. We gain two additional minutes of daylight today. All we need is a January thaw, and you can have more than this meager watering trough.

Winter arrived early this year. We got our first major snow in early December. Even more dramatic, it has not taken a hiatus for any period of time since it showed up in its white dress. It has coated us in ice, dumped a few 6-10 inch snowfalls, and mixed in some sleet. We have witnessed the thermometer in the minus range a few mornings, and hunched our shoulders against daytime winds that drove us inside. Whenever the sun shows up against the stark blue sky, it fails to provide any warmth.

We have not heard water dripping from a mid-winter thaw that would ease the ice burden in our gutters. The papers have run their annual articles about cabin fever, but we are quickly running out of antidote.

Pam took this picture last weekend. We had received 3-6 inches of snow for two out of three of the previous days, which created the fluffy pillows covering the two-foot foundation already there. A collection of cardinals and robins were watering at this break in a neighborhood creek path.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Governor Paterson's Opportunity

Governor Paterson gave his State of the State address on January 7. The speech did not hold the anticipatory drama that usually accompanies a Governor’s opening speech, because Paterson had already released his budget proposal for the year. The budget is the true policy document and lays out the executive’s priorities and direction, so the pundits did not expect any large surprises in the speech.

Paterson noted the economic condition of the state early , calling it ‘perilous.’ I did not hear the full speech, but when I read this line so early in the text, I felt let down. A leader needs to raise the hopes of the populace during difficult times, and by leading off with such a negative adverb, he takes us down into a hole.

Granted, he did follow by exhorting us to rally our resources, to marshal the skills and determination of our citizens, to demonstrate that we are truly the great State of New York. He waved the flag of hope, shared sacrifice, and better days ahead.

But every newspaper headline, radio and television soundbite, news website, and the ever-growing blogosphere led off with the word ‘perilous.’

All of this ignores the most important part of his speech, the part that was not in his prepared text: Governor Paterson recited a poem. And his poem represented everything his speech could, or should, have: the passion of the leader, the soldier who grasps the fallen sword and forges on in the face of difficult challenges, the risen warrior who rallies his citizens to push on.

Paterson made more than one major symbolic statement by reciting his poem. Being blind, Paterson memorizes his remarks before he speaks. He memorized this poem as a student in elementary school, harking back to a time when reciting poetry was a frequent learning exercise. Being blind, Paterson has overcome his own barriers and risen to prominence – but he does not view his blindness as an impediment to his abilities to do what he is capable of doing. He rises above us all.

He makes another statement that may not have been intended. In tight fiscal times, there will be a great deal of pressure to cut funding for the arts. Granted, poets are not a money-making employment category in any time period; but poetry is an art, and is deserving of our attention in education, in literature, in publishing, and in funding by society through our government. Paterson highlighted the power of poetry by reciting his poem at the outset of his most important annual speech as Governor.

I occasionally open a meeting at work by reading a poem. It calms me down before I go into a long, or potentially contentious, meeting. But it also creates a tone at the beginning of the meeting: people are quietly attentive and generally focus on the poem, whether it is the recitation or the power of the words themselves.Governor Paterson did the same thing. It was an impressive statement.

The poem was "Opportunity", by Edward Rowland Sill; you can find it here.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Every day has its routine. How much do our routines change over time?

I now live in my fourth apartment or house since I left Oxford. I am in my fifth job during that same time period, which now spans 31 years. We have had two kids born into those homes; one has already left and lived in five places of her own. My own daily routine has been defined by those factors – the time schedules, the locations and distance from work, the schedules of everyone else in the house, the events and activities in which we all participate.

I know what my daily routine is today. But I wish I could reconstruct what it was like ten years ago, or 20, or thirty.

Sometimes I mark the passage of time by how many times I have made the bed. These days, I groan when I bend over to pick up the pillows off the floor and arrange them appropriately at the bedstead. I get irritated if I have to stoop over multiple times because I have dropped one, or because a couple of the decorative pillows made their way underneath the bed on the other side.

I don’t remember thinking this way twenty years ago. Pam was commuting to teach about 25 miles away, and was out of the house long before me. I would get our daughter ready for elementary school. I remember doing her hair every morning, and how inadequate I felt at doing pigtails or braids. We were usually in a rush. Even now her elementary school pictures make me cringe because I see the poor results of my hairdressing.

But what was the morning sequence then? What time did I get up in the morning? What time did I shut the door behind me and head to work? I’m sure it had its own repeated choreography that covered the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, and out the door – getting dressed, making the bed, pushing the kid along, getting breakfast, checking the backpack one more time.

This is life, the regular dance and pace of it all. We assume the script, the steps, the daily timetable. But we shouldn’t belittle it. We are the sum of our actions, whether large or small, whether they make the front page of the business or entertainment sections or just result in a hug from a little girl before she gets on the bus.

This was triggered by a story I heard on NPR earlier this week. A college student and his professor did a year-long project in which a small group of people took a picture every night at 7:15PM and loaded it to a website. The time was chosen deliberately; it was generally after dinner, but before people got settled into their evening routine. The result is a collection of pictures of people in their routine, creating their daily lives – a picture journal that covers one year. Taken as individual items, each picture could be rather mundane; taken as a collection, it is a fascinating record.

The kind of camera I wish I had in my head twenty years ago.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Seasonal Loss

We began to de-Christmas the house yesterday. I get a sense of sadness in my gut as we do this – putting away the holiday towels, taking the candle lights out of the windows, gathering all the little snowmen and holiday dolls scattered about the house. It’s a feeling of nostalgia, maybe of loss, I haven’t really pegged it. Both kids are in their 20s, and I wonder how long the Christmas excitement lasts – as if we will never have this again. An irrational feeling, certainly. I hear from others who have grandkids and they describe the fun of watching little kids at Christmas morning, or they talk about what the kids want for Christmas. Such things sound like re-generation.

Advent is the season of waiting. Now that the event has occurred – a celebration of life and hope – how do we treat our lives? Maybe the best way is to invoke Wendell Berry again: give ourselves away.

We are taking down the tree today. It may be some time before I can retrieve the outside lights, as they are frozen under a significant mantle of snow and ice. But that’s fine, they represent the last vestige of Advent during the dark hours of winter.