Thursday, August 30, 2007


Coming back from the “Summer of Love” show at the Whitney the other day, on the subway with our friend Nance and my nine-year-old son, we’re riding in one of those cars that got taken over by a single advertiser, so that everywhere we looked there was an ad for a new TV show called SEXY DIRTY MONEY.

When I point that out to Nance, my little boy says “There’s a show on MTV called SEXY DIRTY CANCER.” I smile at what I take as his need to contribute something original to the conversation, and patiently try to convince him to give up this obvious fabrication. But he insists, so I let it go.

At home, later in the evening, he wants to watch something on the TLC cable channel, which runs “educational” shows, but on topics usually not approached in school. Sometimes very necessary topics, and often exceptional.

The show was about “the tallest woman in the world” who lives in rural China, and her travails. It was moving and, I have to admit, educational. When it ended they had an ad for the show to follow, showing clips from it, and called CRAZY SEXY CANCER.

So he got the network wrong and one word in the title, but he was right, and that was educational for me as well, once more. We watched it, with him disappearing to draw amoeba like shapes on a fringed leather cowboy style vest, adding it to his outfit of tie-dyed tee shirt, metal peace sign hanging from a leather shoestring around his neck and anything else he could find to look like the hippies in the photographs and films and artwork we’d seen earlier at the Whitney show, where he was mesmerized by the ‘60s light show films playing in dark cubicles throughout the exhibit.

CRAZY SEXY CANCER turned out to be another documentary to add to the list of favorites. Made by Kris Carr—a young woman, in her early thirties, if that—and professional actress, who found out she has twenty-eight (28!) tumors, in her lungs, her liver, throughout her body, on Valentine’s Day 2003 and started a video diary that turned into a documentary on becoming consumed with cancer and how best to respond to it, including ignoring it completely and getting on with life with so much determination and beautiful vitality I couldn’t help falling in love with her.

She ends up focusing not just on her own case, but on the cases of several other women as well, including a young mother and her sister, and an older playwright. Their courage, honesty, and all the other clichéd but nevertheless true attributes that many people display under similar circumstances, is not only poignant and heartening, but also devastating.

It’s difficult enough to deal with one’s own mortality, but watching such lovely women deal with it so seemingly prematurely is tough. Especially Kris Carr, who is so adorable, while still venting her anger and disappointment and sadness and fear and vulnerability and depression and tenacity and determination to not let it stop her life from moving forward, despite the “incurability” of her particular cancer.

It’s a compelling story, and not just because I’m a “survivor.” More importantly because it’s told so truthfully and in the unique voice and perspective of this lovely but real young woman who was able to seize the opportunity to make a statement about her predicament, and that of others in similar predicaments, and do it with artistry and originality.

It’s more proof, if we needed it, that once again Jack Kerouac was prescient, and not just about the literary world, when he wrote::

“I would like everybody in the world to tell his full life confession and tell it HIS OWN WAY and then we’d have something to read in our old age, instead of the hesitations and cavilings of ‘men of letters’ with blear faces who only alter words that the Angel brought them…”


Last Saturday, my oldest son drove down from Massachusetts for a custom car and hotrod show. He picked me up at Penn Station to drive to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where the rods and customs were on display under the BQE (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway), which provided much needed shade on one of the most humid and hottest days of the summer.

As in most of the car shows my son has taken me to, the custom car guys were from two different generations. Some were close to my age or older, many of whom, since their teens, have been retooling early and mid-20th century mass produced American cars into customized hotrods and chopped and decked tanks to make them run faster and louder, and look crazier and sexier, than any car was ever meant to.

Some still slicked their hair back in d.a.s—ducks’ asses, as that style was known in the 1950s. One old guy at a car show in Worcester Mass., which the locals pronounce Wooster, even had a boxcar, a hairstyle I hadn’t seen in decades—crew cut on top, with long hair on the sides combed back into a d. a.—and in his case completely white. All I could think was: Where does this guy work and live that he feels confident enough to continue that 1950s hoodlum hairstyle as an old man?

Not that any of these guys ever look over-the-hill. They all seem ready to rumble still, with their aging tatoos, sideburns and pompadours, 1950s style, or here and there a pre-hippie mountain-man hairdo. And the women with them, though middle-aged, as far from frumpy or settled as any woman could look. They too seem ready to rumble, or at least dance.

Then there are their three-decades-younger counterparts, men and women so covered with tattoos, they’re like walking art books. One young woman at that Worcester show—put on by a car club called The Alter Boys—had a 1940s kitchen scene tattooed on her upper arm, with a woman in a ‘40s dress and perfectly coiffed ‘40s hair, a dog lying at her feet while she cooks over a 1940s range.

At that same show another young woman, a tiny blonde whose elevated shoes still kept her a head below me, had the bones inside one arm tattooed on it, like a permanent x-ray, among an array of tattoos visible on other exposed parts of her body.

A lot of the young men look like my grown son, shaved or closely buzzed heads, with a little fuzz on the chin or soul patch below the lower lip. But a lot also have 1950s style d.a.s, or punk versions of that. And many of them seem to have more tattoos than ink artists, including up their necks and on their faces.

Some cars at the Brooklyn show were a lot funkier than those at other shows I’ve been to with my son. He has a shoebox Ford from 1951 that’s nosed and decked and drags on the ground like the bad boy cars of my burgeoning puberty back when these cars were almost new. There were several versions of that particularly popular car for customizers—now, as then—at the Brooklyn show.

But besides the handful of customized late ‘40s and early ‘50s Fords and Mercurys I’ve seen at these things since guys I ran with first started redesigning them back then, there was a Henry J.—still looking like they did to me as a kid, like an old fat man in pants too short, or like it was hit with a ray and “Honey I shrunk the Cadillac”—and all the Frankenstein mixes of Buick parts with Mercs or Caddy parts on Studebakers et-unpredictable-cetera.

And it all thrilled me, not only because it brings back the cars and styles and kinds of guys I ran around with back in 1950s New Jersey, but to see these old guys still doing it—and young ones too. Not like movie or rap stars collecting estates full of antiques, or over blinged Bentleys or Lamberginis, but like the working-class guys who started this art form, because they just dug the artistry of remaking something so practical into something so insanely impractical. Too low to drive on most roads let alone off road, too loud and fast, too open to the air—in the case of the rods made from 1920s and ‘30s bodies—to not freeze your ass off in winter, or most seasons after the sun goes down.

Peeking inside some of the old guys’ masterpieces, there’s signs on dashboards, or knobs on the gear shifts, that either give a permanent finger to the world or thumb a nose, or moon or somehow say fuck you I ain’t giving up! And when they take off—the best part of these shows really—the car club, or gang, pulls out from their parking slots and heads for the exit like a mini parade of coolness you can’t fake, and when their tires hit the pavement of the street outside the exit, they peel out, lay rubber, and the urban jungle roar of these man made moving works of art echoes down the river of concrete under the BQE like the sound punk bands were trying to emulate when all that noise began, the sound of fuck you freedom on the run.

I wished I wore my pointy-toed boots, which I still have after more than forty years, but was glad I had on a short sleeve shirt to expose my little spade tattoo that people have taken for a fish or a blemish, but at least is older than most of the crowd at the show.

My son’s lucky to be a part of this world, where his ’50 Ford sedan is much admired—the exact replica of the car I was in when a driver played chicken with a similar customized Ford on a highway in Jersey one night in the summer of 1956. A car I begged for a ride in, and then almost wet my pants when the teenage driver headed straight for a car coming in the other direction, not turning until the last second.

I loved cars as a kid. But grew out of it once the 1950s were over and they no longer seemed like another kind of art but, instead, like another kind of corporate compromise. The street I grew up on, only a block and a half long, started at the top of a slight hill and dropped down to where Valley Street crossed it, and then dead-ended at the Lackawana railroad tracks.

The part of Valley Street that connected my street with the center of my hometown was lined with car dealerships. You could get any make or model on that mile-long strip, even Henry J.s and Kaisers and Packards and Willys and other obscure brands that I’ve since seen at these shows, either stock, as they looked when I was a kid, or transformed into something so unique, the person who did it should have a show at the Museum of Modern Art, at least.

During World War Two car companies switched to making tanks and military vehicles. So when I was a boy, after the war, and new car models started being manufactured again, it seemed like the beginning of the future. Each year’s designs were bolder and more unique than the year before, until the wave of fins in the 1950s that got more and more outrageous.

These shows have brought back that childhood enthusiasm for the beauty of what was once mostly a U. S. phenomenon—original and beautiful designs. At least in cars, though a lot of other stuff too. Nowadays everything seems to be made for the profit and convenience of the one percent of the population that doesn’t have to drive to work or fly commercial or any of that plebian stuff the rest of us have to do and live with.

I don’t know what they do for music, but you know if they had to open a shrink wrapped CD those things would have been redesigned ten years ago. Now it doesn’t matter as even CDs are going out, and why not, they’re not exactly art objects themselves, though more so than cassettes were.

But at this show the old “American” ingenuity seemed as alive as ever. In these hot rods and customized cars and motorcycles. Even bicycles. There was a 1950s Schwinn there that made me think how I was living in L. A. a decade ago when I read about the last Schwinn produced in the USA. It broke my heart.

I understand life is change, and nothing, or very little, remains the same for too long, but when I was a kid that mostly meant things got better. Now…some things still do, obviously, but it seems to this old soul that not as much in this country do.

There were custom motorcycles at this show too, including several built in the style of the custom bikes created by a guy known as Indian Larry—who died a few years ago. How surprised I was to see his giant obituary in The New York Times. At first I thought it was a mistake, that this middle-aged man with long graying hair could be the Larry I knew. But then I read the article and the history was the same.

Back in the 1970s, when he first came to New York City to stay a while, from his home in upstate New York, he was trying out a relationship with a man. I have a photograph of him from back then, kissing another friend of mine from way back when, Bobby Miller. It’s on a postcard, because it was taken by Robert Maplethorpe and became an icon of his transgressive subject matter, maybe because it's one of his tamest. It’s called “Larry and Bobby Kissing.”

Bobby introduced me to him. He was from rural upstate New York and looked like a tough biker, but was a gentle, kind and generous man. I was living in a loft on the corner of Duane and Greenwich Streets in what became known as Tribeca. The loft was an illegal rental, but had been illegally rented for decades before I moved in with my son and my girlfriend, Rain.

Larry needed somewhere to store his motorcycle while he worked on it. We had almost two thousand square feet of space, for two hundred a month, with very little of it used for Rain’s darkroom—which became my daughter’s bedroom after Rain moved out and my daughter moved in—a little alcove where my son slept, a small kitchen with a bathtub/shower in it, (the toilet was out in the hallway) and an office I used as my bedroom and writing space.

The rest of the loft was open space, where we hung laundry or my kids roller skated or I threw parties. In one corner of that space, Larry kept his motorcycle. He pushed it up the two flights of stairs to park it there. He came by when he could to work on it, while my son and daughter watched curiously.

He was always kind and tolerant to them. He had a winning smile and spoke softly. He’d explain what he was doing, and ask about their lives. He was a really nice man. I hadn’t seen him since those days and had no idea he became famous for his motorcycle rebuilding ingenuity. Until there he was in that huge obituary in The New York Times and another in Time magazine, looking like an older and tougher version of the man I had known. And a longer haired one.

When I mentioned his death to my grown son, he was startled to learn that the same man who spent many afternoons repairing his motorcycle in our Duane Street loft back in the 1970s was “Indian Larry,” who my son held in high esteem having seen him rebuild motorcycles on the kinds of car shows he watches. It turned out “Indian Larry” was one of his heroes, and he had no idea he knew the man. We both were sorry he didn’t have the chance to get to see him and talk with him before we had to learn who he was from his obituary.

Thinking of Maplethorpe, I remember the first time I could hobble to the bathroom on my own, after my cancer operation. I stopped to look at myself in the bathroom mirror. What a joke. Here I was, almost sixty, unable to eat or even drink anything for several days until a post-operative problem cleared up, so I was skinny as a little kid, my almost six-foot frame carrying maybe a hundred and thirty pounds. Despite or because of that, I seemed to glow.

With my lanky arms and legs, all the bruises on my arms and chest from needles and suction pads, the newly minted bright red scar, with the staples still in it, running from my navel to the base of my "thing"—as we called it as kids—with the bright blue tube of the catheter hanging from the tip of it, the I.V. curling from my skinny arm to the tube hanging from the metal contraption I pushed and leaned on to get there, all I could think as I took all this in, in the mirror, was: where’s Robert Maplethorpe when you need him?

Monday, August 27, 2007


I didn’t see the movie they made from PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, despite the many actors in it I admire. It just didn’t seem very appealing to me.

I don’t read the books Garrison Kiellor writes, though I’ve bought a few, usually for my brother the priest, who loves them.

I always referred to him in my writing as “my brother the priest,” along with “my brother the cop” because that’s what they were to me as a boy and still were when I left home.

And also because it’s part of the whole stereotypically predictable make up of my Irish-American family, with a priest, a cop, a teacher, a sister married to a cop, another sister married to a teacher, and me, the black sheep poet, with our politician father and housewife mother.

One of the reasons I wanted to write as a boy was to confront those stereotypes with real people, like my brother the priest who is so much more than the Irish-American cleric, in fact a Franciscan friar and theologian who spent almost his entire adult life in Japan, as well as an accomplished musician, or my brother the cop who went on to become a postmaster and invited restaurant workers from Mexico and others who had no place to go for the holidays into his home to share Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with his wife and four kids and more from our vast clan, and who has a great capacity for telling a joke better than most professional comedians, and is a voracious a reader, as me and most of my siblings are, even if of different books.

Or my brother the teacher who was a professional musician teaching music in public high schools while playing with the likes of Sammy Davis Junior in Washington DC nightclubs and also attending night classes over many, many, years until he got himself a PhD in education and eventually became a high school principal.

And my sisters and mother were so much more than “housewives” identified by their husbands’ jobs. The sister married to a cop was an “executive assistant” to a highly successful lawyer (who represented authors among other high profile clients). She had more class than all of us, as well as a love of Broadway plays and world travel. The sister who married a machinist-turned-shop-teacher was a medical assistant and paramedic, among other jobs she had over the years, and an accomplished musician.

And our mother was not only our father’s secretary in his various businesses and jobs, as well as the one who paid the bills and took care of anything he needed written, but she also loved Manhattan and the old Paramount where she would take me as a little boy as her companion to watch movies or old vaudevillians do their thing. She was a terrific writer as well, as copies of her many letters and diaries revealed to me, unfortunately after she had passed on, And everyone in the neighborhood, related or not, went to her for advice and solace.

But the point of this post isn’t my family’s story, though it’s part of it. The point is that the right-wingers are forever questioning the patriotism of those of us who don’t agree with them, as well as our love for the U.S.A. It’s a tactic they wield very well and that has gained them some followers in recent decades among people very much like my family (though most of my brothers and sisters remain supporters of the Democratic Party, no matter what criticisms they may have of individual Democrats).

I always hated that charge of not loving my country just because I was against policies of official racism when I was a boy and young man, or of sexism or legal prejudice against people from certain ethnic groups or sexual or gender preferences or because I believe our country, the wealthiest in the world, should be able to afford health care for all, since so many countries not as rich as us can, and should be able to care for the poor and support public education including paying teachers a wage that reflects the importance of their job (among other professions that are the most important but often seem the lowest paid).

Or because I also care about people in other nations, even those that some in our government, or leaders of our political parties, call our “enemies.” I always got, even as a kid, that it was mostly the leaders of governments we were fighting against, not the people. Most citizens of most countries have the same goals as most citizens of our country, to make a decent living, to care for their loved ones, to be free to think and say what they want, to worship as they wish, to be protected by their government from those who would take these things away, or harm them and their loved ones in any way, including by refusing them health care because of their lack of enough funds to pay for it.

Except when their fear that these things will happen is exploited and an enemy is named as the one who wants to do the harm and then these same citizens, or too many of them, can be manipulated into hating people more or less like them, out of fear of losing what they have or being kept from getting what they feel they need.

And the same thing happens here. Those who would manipulate as many of us as they can into feeling fearful that someone is out to harm us and then naming an entire country or people or way of life or belief as our enemy, exploiting the resultant outrage to their benefit and branding those who question them or their tactics as “traitors” as “America-haters”—as certain right-wingers did to us during Vietnam and have been doing ever since 9/11.

They believe that this is a country that should be run by people of only one faith, and even more specifically by people who believe in the tenets of one relatively recent faction of that faith, and they believe that their limited taste or comprehension of what makes up the diverse cultural richness of this country is the only taste that should dictate what the nation’s culture should be, because they have fond memories of earlier decades when blacks and women and gays and other groups were kept in their place—kept down that is, and out of sight or removed from any possibility of power whether in the actual positions of power in government and corporations or in the power that comes with cultural impact, and those of us who don’t share their viewpoint are unpatriotic and don’t love our country.

But interestingly, and the reason I mentioned Garrison Keillor at the start of this post, is that despite my lack of interest in the movie made from his NPR radio show, or the books he has written, I do listen to the show when I come across it on the car radio, and I do enjoy, even love, much of the old fashioned love of country and fellow man it projects.

I suspect that the audience for that show, both at home and in the live venues where it is recorded, would not identify as “right-wing” though many may be Republicans, or as fundamentalist Christians, though many might identify as Christians.

These are people who thrill to the sound of old time country music performed by experts of that genre, as well as to other forms of music from not only the USA but around the world. Who anticipate with glee and applaud just the announcement for Keillor’s shaggy dog stories about Lake Woebegone, the mythical version of the kind of small Midwest town he grew up in and even those of us who didn’t, still miss in many ways.

We too love this country, the good people in it who are sometimes too humanly judgmental or fearful, but who help each other out, who volunteer for risky jobs including defending the country, only to be misled into defending the interests of a particular political party or the corporations that bankrolls it.

When I was an enlisted man in the service, I used to feel very emotional every time I was on flag duty, watching it be raised or lowered to the sound of a bugle, thinking of my two oldest brothers who served during WWII, or my "brother the cop" who served during the Korean War, whether they saw combat or not, and even of the John Wayne WWII movies I loved as a boy, or the promise this land held out to my Irish peasant granparents. I felt so much love for this country at those moments, and so many others. And so does everyone else I know, who the right-wingers consider "unpatriotic" or "traitors" for not agreeing with them.

In fact, we are the people who embrace ALL of what this country is, all of the culture, from old style country music and the blues and folk and pop and jazz and classical and experimental and rock’n’roll and punk rock and hip hop and disco and rap, and all kinds of art even some that offends certain sensibilities, and all kinds of people, even strange ones and odd ones and ones that are so unique there’s no category for them.

And we are equally accepting of those folks who just want to associate with their own kind and practice their own brand of their own chosen religion or only listen to the kind of music they can tolerate; we just don’t want those people dictating to the rest of us what we should like and do and behave like and believe.

That’s why we’re called “tolerant”—we’re willing to tolerate a lot of differences, because that’s what this country is about. And if you think we’re TOO tolerant, because we are willing to allow others to believe and act and say and write and perform anything they want to, as long as it isn’t hurting others, except maybe their sensibilities, then it’s you who doesn’t love this country, because that’s what this country’s all about.

And if it isn’t, then what are those women and men in uniform defending?

(PS: And I know there are bad guys out there, I’ve known some of them, maybe been one of them here and there, that’s why we should pay cops more, make it a high class profession with college graduates who understand the law in spirit and fact, and who are schooled in the social skills required for dealing with the public and with emergencies as well as with criminals and psychos. And we should have agencies of the federal government whose own culture isn’t one of competing with local police or superceding them, but of supporting and helping them to catch the bad guys, whether individuals, gangs, or international syndicates, which in truth is what Al Quieda is, not an army to throw bombs and bullets at, but a syndicate of co-conspiritors in a criminal activity that should be confronted with all the police tactics our best minds can come up with, as for the most part has been happening in New York under Bloomberg’s administration. But I suspect we’ll bomb Iran instead, a country where a majority of the population loves the USA and would like to be more like it, but after we attack it will hate us for generations.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007


"Human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap, it is one inch. One inch is a small jump, but that jump is everything. You can go way out and then you have to come back—to see if you can move that inch." —Philip Guston

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I’ve been watching Christine Amanpour’s documentary GOD’S WARRIORS on CNN (a three part series that looks at Jewish extremists, Islamic extremists, and Christian extremists) the past three nights which got me thinking about documentaries.

Meanwhile, Ray DiPalma suggested I do a list of documentaries, and sent one of his own to me, Doug Lang, and Tom Evans, who all in turn made ones of our own, and a lively e-mail discussion of documentaries ensued.

So there was no way I wouldn’t fall asleep last night making an alphabet list of my favorite documentaries, as I could recall them (with the help of those lists and e mails in my memory):

ATOMIC CAFÉ, THE (great half-campy ‘50s collage) and AMERICAN DREAM (great “recent”—’80?—labor documentary)
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and BROOKLYN DODGERS: THE GHOSTS OF FLATBUSH (both of these films are heartbreaking to me)
CRUMB and CHARLIE MINGUS: THE TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG (two uncompromising looks at two uncompromising geniuses)
DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS (the favorite documentary, most days, of me and both my sons, about the origins of modern skateboarding in Santa Monica, where my older boy went to middle and high school and surfed and skateboarded, and where my little one was born and lived briefly on the street used in the first slalom style skateboarding of the 1970s shown in the film, it’s incredibly well done and in your face and possibly the only documentary to have footage of, and interviews with the still living creators of, an “art” form as it was being born! You have to see it!) and DON’T LOOK BACK (the first documentary on Dylan, that caught him in at least one scene being the not-so-nice guy I encountered in the Village before he was famous, but whose musical geniuss I eventually acknowledged, admired, and was inspired by and still am)
GOD’S WARRIORS and GIMME SHELTER (the death of the spirit of “the Summer of Love” came in December 1969 at Altamont Speedway where Mick Jagger’s deal with the devil was paid for—uh, maybe that’s too harsh, but it didn’t seem like it at the time)
HUBERT SELBY JR.: IT/LL BE BETTER TOMORROW (too many celebs and talking heads that didn’t really know him that well, but several who did and share great takes on him and his work, but more important, are the precious sequences of Selby reading his work—including in a weekly reading series I co-ran in L. A. (uncredited) that he religiously read at every week along with other regulars—and being interviewed or just doing his laundry, it captures what made him so unique, and—full disclosure—I’m in it for a few seconds) HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL (the Chuck Berry documentary Keith Richards thankfully got made)
JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY (a great black and white look at some real people in the 1950s, as well as some great music, including that amazing solo by Anita O’Day I mentioned on a very early post about her passing) and JAZZ (the Ken Burns documentary that’s mostly great, with a few exceptions, including leaving out the young Bing Crosby who even Louis Armstrong admitted had a clear impact on early jazz)
KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, THE (The Who documentary)
LIFE OF JACKIE ROBINSON, THE (this came out when I was a kid and Robinson was still playing for the Dodgers; I was so impressed with his dignity and heroic perseverance in the face of the widespread and often legal racism of those times, it changed my life, literally, headed me in a direction there was no turning back from (I wrote about that in the poem “Sports Heroes, Cops, and Lace” in CANT BE WRONG) and LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. LEONARD COHEN (a 1965 black and white documentary about Cohen when he was still just a poet, that also changed my life: it helped me make the decision to stop playing music professionally and concentrate totally on my own poetry!)
MONTEREY POP (like I said in a previous post, full of mostly terrific music and a great take on the real “Summer of Love”) and MAN IN THE WOODS: THE ART OF RUDY BURCKHARDT (great documentary on a friend and great photographer and filmmaker, directed by poet Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt)
NO DIRECTION HOME (I wasn’t entirely crazy about Scorcese’s take on what made Dylan tick in his heyday, e.g. there wasn’t much focus on the effect certain drugs had on him although watching the footage from the period it was clear how great a role those drugs played in his development, or lack of it)
OCTOBER/TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (Russian Revolution, obviously)
PARIS IS BURNING (an amazing take On African-American men who dress up as women and “vogue” at their annual ball in runway competitions, etc.—it inspired the Madonna song and craze, but the real thing is so much more poignant and, well, real)
ROGER & ME (what can I say, I love Moore’s movies)
SORROW AND THE PITY, THE (in my opinion this black and white documentary about participants in World War Two by Max Ophuls is the greatest documentary ever made, but then I saw it on the big screen when it first came out, and I was born at the beginning of that war and had two older brothers in the service during it) and SEVEN UP! (a black and white documentary by Michael Apted that began the series which follows the lives of a group of British school kids, checking in every seven years—SEVEN AND SEVEN, 21 UP, 28 UP, etc.—to see what effect class and family background has on the ways their lives unfold; the series is like an unending film, as close to watching your own kids grow up as any work of art has ever been, and as such it is often uncomfortable to watch, but also fascinating and, I find, more rewarding than any other film I can think of in the long run, these people have become an integral part of my own life through this amazing ongoing lifelong documentary), SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY (great Gospel documentary) and SICKO
THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER (as close as we’ll ever get to the real Monk, outside his music, and in my estimation he is the singular most original genius of jazz music), TO LIVE AND DIE IN MADRID (I’m pretty sure that was the name of a black and white documentary I saw in the 1960s about the Spanish Civil War that had a great impact on me, especially the scenes, real footage, of huge crowds of citizens of Madrid greeting the Loyalists with their closed-fist salute at the beginning of the film, and at the end—as Franco’s forces march into the city—similar crowds of citizens lining the streets to greet the Facists with their stiff-armed, hand-extended, palm-down salute, it made me wonder how many of these people were the same ones) and THIS IS ELVIS (a mixed bag but worth it for the early Elvis footage, as well as the sad late stuff)
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO KEROUAC? (a documentary by the poet Lewis MacAdams about the man), WHEN WE WERE KINGS (great documentary on Muhammed Ali when he was becoming the most famous man in the world) and WOODSTOCK
Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (about the channel I, and most people working in Hollywood, watched to see movies before videos and hundreds of cable channels became common)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Have you been watching John Stewart lately? The faux correspondent, I think his name’s something like Rob Rickle, an actual veteran who served in Iraq, is reporting from Iraq—really, not faking it like they usually do—with real troops in the field, and revealing more truth about that folly and what “support our troops” really means than any “real” news report or rightwing supporter of this war ever has.

And tonight Stewart had on Barak Obama, who impressed me more than he has in a while. I’m beginning to believe, even if I still have some doubts that he can actually do it.

But it’s the reports from Iraq that are scoring, that and Stewart’s bit tonight on “America to the Rescue” and how we had to give all these billions in and for arms to the Saudis to balance the power of the Iranians, “because twenty percent of the 9/11 suicide attackers were not from Saudi Arabia” so nothing to worry about, and that rattled the Israelis so we’re increasing our military largesse to them by billions, and then he went into the enemies we now have and how we did the same things for them, like supplying weapons to Iraq to balance out Iran in their war, to supplying Bin Laden and the Taliban with weapons to fight the Russians.

He could have gone back even further, to our government supplying Iran with weapons after overthrowing their democratically elected leaders back in the 1950s. In fact, he could have gone on all night tracing back all the mistakes made in foreign policies helping dictators and oligarchies that eventually fall and are replaced by regimes that hate us for our support of these dictators and oligarchies and end up with the money and weapons we supplied the previous regimes with, etfuckingcetera.

I wish you had seen it, if you didn’t. But they’ll replay it and it’ll probably be available on the web pretty quickly. Check it out tomorrow night if you can, I’m sure they’ll have another report from Iraq that’ll tell some truths nobody else is addressing, or at least not addressing realistically. In fact all the humor tonight was in the honesty of the report, our troops in the field saying how “happy” they were about the Iraqi politicians taking a month’s vacation, getting to spend more time with their families, etc. while the troops stay and as one soldier put it “hold down the fort, because this actually is a friggin’ fort.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Summer’s almost over, which means commercial exploitation of the 40th anniversary of “The Summer of Love” is almost over too, though not commercial exploitation of 1967, or “the sixties” or…

I remember as a kid how pissed off I almost always was by the depiction in the media, especially in movies, of things I thought I knew about—Irish-American clan life, juvenile delinquents, rock’n’roll, etc.—which was a big part of the motivation for my writing a lot of the stuff I ended up writing.

It’s great that there’s documentary footage of what people looked like, and sounded like after “talkies” came in, but most people get their sense of any 20th century history from movies, and movies almost always fuck it up.

I was thinking of that the other night when my 9-year-old and I were looking for a movie to watch and on one of the channels we were surfing HAIR was just starting. I didn’t like the musical or the movie at the time, because I thought it was exploitative and getting it all wrong, as usual, so I wanted to look for something else, but he was fascinated and insisted we watch it.

Seeing it this many years later with a little boy who wanted to know if that’s what people really looked like and acted like, I had to say some of it was accurate, but a lot of it wasn’t, at least not in my experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any movie capture the decades I lived through the way I experienced them and saw them and tried to express them.

I remember when FORREST GUMP came out and the ‘60s political activists in that flick were portrayed as sexist and intolerant and all the things the 1960s activists I knew were fighting against! It seemed so fucking rightwing to me. HAIR wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t real the way I knew it.

Then I got an e-mail from my friend, the poet Robert Slater, in which he was telling me how much he was digging Rolling Stone magazine’s issue on “The Summer of Love” and he said:

“I realized that in 1967, 40 years ago would have been 1927 & the whole wash of time made sense--as did the comment you made in an e-mail last week about dealing w/ ‘lots of ghosts.’ And there I was, 5 years old,in my grandparent's house, brushing my mother's hair.”

Not that he was 5 in 1967, he’s close to my age, but that the interaction of memory and time does strange things, many of them beautiful.

Which surprisingly many of the actors in HAIR weren’t, except for John Savage, who would have looked much more like the “hippies” I knew if he had been the one with long hair. Maybe I just didn’t get Treat Williams. Not that he didn’t do a good job, I just didn’t buy him as any “hippie” or especially as a hippie leader kind of guy.

But hey, it’s just one version of that time, made several years later. The movie that really captures what was beginning to happen nation wide that summer is the documentary MONTEREY POP. The music was mostly great, and there were a few kids interviewed that were closer to what was really happening to kids then, the way I saw it happening.

Then of course there’s the documentary of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont where that whole “love” dream died, for many. And in between (only a few months earlier in 1969 actually) there was Woodstock, the orgasmic peak, in many ways, of the spirit of the summer of '67.

I’m gonna have to do a list of films that I think got the times, and often the experiences, that I lived through right, or at least more right than most other films.

But in the meantime, in the spirit of Slater’s observation I’ll share this: my father was born at the end of the 19th Century, I was born at the start of World War Two, and my youngest child, my little boy, was born at the end of the 20th Century. How amazing.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Ever since I first saw him in a British TV movie about Quentin Crisp (one of the first, or at least most notorious gay Englishman to totally "come out”) called something like THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, and then in one of my all time favorite movies about the Irish, THE FIELD, let alone as THE ELEPHANT MAN, John Hurt has been one of the film actors I admire most.

Just to see the three entirely different characters he plays in the films mentioned above is enough to mark him as extraordinary. And he keeps going.

I was reminded of that when my friend “K” (from the jimsonweed blog) and more recently Doug Lang (douglangsdcpoetryblog) recommended the Australian “Western” THE PROPOSITION. Hurt has a secondary role in the flick, and totally kicks ass in it as an aging, Irish-hating Brit bounty hunter in the outback.

His performance is mesmerizing. He completely rivets your attention, or at least he did mine, every second he was on screen—this little mousey looking guy with the high raspy voice uses his size and physical qualities to invest the weaselyness of his character with a disarming kind of reverse charm that totally works.

You can Google him for his other credits, but the films mentioned here, especially if seen back to back over a period of successive days, will convince anyone, I think, of John Hurt’s prowess as a screen actor.

And THE PROPOSITION is worth seeing for itself, as well. If you can surrender to the slow rhythm of the film, as well as its stark style, you will be rewarded. And like I said, it’s worth it just for Hurt’s small role in it. (Guy Pearce, Ray Whitstone, Danny Huston and Emily Watson are no slouches in it either.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Poet Ray DiPalma suggested I do an alphabet list of Italian films after he saw my French film one (he made the same suggestion to Doug Lang, check out Doug’s film blog for his), as usual I did mine lying in bed (this time up in the Berkshires, having trouble falling asleep after a SoCo “dirty choclate” ice cream cone), so here ‘tis, as far as I got (with their English titles in many cases, under which I first saw them) and of course these are just my own favorites, most of which I first saw in my early twenties in the early 1960s, or whenever they came out after that:

ARMACORD (the bicycle seat scene alone was worth the price of admission)
BICYCLE THIEF, THE (poignant the first time and I suspect still)
CINEMA PARADISO (still heartwarming for me) and THE CONFORMIST (Bertolucci is one of my alltime favorite directors, and this was one of the first films of his to overwhelm me with its texture and langorous sensuality)
DEATH IN VENICE (morbid and a downer but beautifully filmed)
8 ½ (the first “foreign” film I saw for strictly artistic and intellectual motives, and dug totally)
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW, THE (stunning black and white literal represenation of this most realistic of the Gospels, starring non-actors—I heard “Jesus” was played by an engineering student who had never acted before—it was directed by Pasolini, the supposedly most “decadent” of directors) and THE GARDEN OF FINZI-CANTINIS (still works for me)
IL POSTINO (heartbreaking performance by the actor who played the mailman and died shortly after filming)
JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (Fellini’s homage to his wife, Giulietta Masina)
KEEP WALKING (pretty original)
LA STRADA (I know it should probably be under “S” but in Italian it seems so much more than “the”—my first encounter with Fellinni and his wife, Giulietta Masina, one of the few references in Frank O’Hara’s poetry I got the first time around) and LOVE AND ANARCHY (my introduction to Lina Wertmuller and her greatest asset, in my opinion, Giancarlo Gianinni)
MIRACLE IN MILAN (another heartwarming one)
NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (a great flick with wonderful performances, not to be missed) and 1900 (another Bertolucci masterpiece, the uncut version, long but totally worth it, interestingly the weakest link, for me, is DiNiro, but Burt Lancaster vs. Sterling Hayden as aged adversaries! It doesn’t get any better than that, but it does because there’s also Gerard Depardieu and Dominique Sanda! But you almost have to see it on the big screen as it is like watching a great Impressionist painting come to life)
OPEN CITY (shot on the streets of Rome as WWII was ending, with German soldiers still there! Talk about neo-REALISM! One of my alltime favorite U. S. flicks, ON THE WATERFRONT, I felt owed a lot to OPEN CITY. And Anna Magnani impressed me as the greatest actress I’d seen at the time)
RIVER GIRL, THE (Sophia Loren at her most stunning) and RED DESERT (I’m not crazy about Antonioni, too slow for me, but if I had to choose one of his flicks, this is the one)
STEALING BEAUTY (another Bertolucci masterpiece to me, and Liv Tyler has never been more lovely)
THREE BROTHERS (one of my alltime favorite flicks period, if you haven’t seen it, you must, the faces alone are worth it, and ones you will never see in a Hollywood flick)
UMBERTO D. (another De Sica neorealist masterpiece that could never have been made in Hollywood)
WIFE FOR A NIGHT (Gina Lollobrigida was to my young eye and heart the most beautiful and seductive of all the Italian screen beauties, I went to all her movies—before I could appreciate them as “art”—only for the glimpses of her gorgeous features and voluptuous body and searingly deep dark eyes, and this was the first—I was later lucky enough to meet her, one of the few “celebrities” I was still impressed by)

After the above was posted, Ray sent me (and Doug Lang) this erudite explanation for my alphabet troubles with this list:

Dear Michael & Doug,

You wouldn't have found--or been able to think of--any Italian films with Italian titles that began with the letters J, K, W, X, or Y because [like Hebrew] the Italian alphabet has only 21 letters & those 5 letters listed are the ones that are missing. I wanted to be certain of this so I double-checked with Paul Vangelisti when he phoned today & he confirmed that is indeed the case. Of course, English translations of Italian titles are another matter. He added that the letter X is occasionally used in southern Italy as a consonant, but only in the middle of some words.

Under 'V' I would recommend VULCANO--a very heavy film--[with Rossano Brazzi & Anna Magnani] which I was taken to see by my grandmother Rosa when I was 10 [and who also took me to see BITTER RICE shortly thereafter]. Also under 'V' comes I VITELLONI--Fellini's 2nd solo directorial effort-- a truly wonderful film that in its own way points to the later AMARCORD--which can be viewed in part as a kind of prequel to I VITELLONI

All the best,

Thursday, August 16, 2007


And a third great artist has passed.

Max was to jazz drumming what Charlie Parker was to jazz saxaphone blowing. He changed it forever.

He was also a very beautiful man. I only encountered him a few times back in the day, but always dug him, up close or from afar. Thank God he left us with so many great recordings, and made it to eighty-three. One of the last of the original beboppers.

I quoted him in one of my early posts on this blog, and it's worth repeating:

"...if you're a humanitarian, which most artists are, instead of getting in a fight or breaking something up, you take it out on yourself. In fact, I would say that most creative people who are self-destructive are trying to protect other people from their outrage. If you live long enough, though, you learn you have to be a humanitarian with yourself as well as with everybody else."
—Max Roach in The Village Voice, Dec. 1979


Another great artist has passed.

Liam was only fifty-seven, an age that seems young to me now.

I first knew him in Washington DC in the 1970s, when he was going by his given name of Ron. He was one of the younger poets who were part of the alternative poetry scene in DC back then.

He had a vitality for life that was hard to match. And he wasn’t afraid to embrace experience and to challenge accepted ideas and standards, nor to speak the truth as he saw it.

Back when I first knew him, I remember reading an article about the statistics of life expectancy and occupations. It turned out, orchestra conductors had the longest average life span of any job.

They explained that it was probably due to several factors, including the natural aerobic exercise they got from conducting a concert, or even rehearsals, the mental exercise they got from having to re-interpret scores for different orchestras, or new scores for the same orchestra.

And the natural satisfaction they got from having achieved their goal of being a professional conductor and from completing concerts and receiving not only the applause of a live audience, but good reviews, prestige in their field, recognition, etc.

And, the job was safe, almost accident free.

On the other hand, the occupations with the shortest life spans, I remember noting at the time, were taxi drivers and poets.

Back then, in the ‘70s, taxi drivers were being killed, in robberies, more often than miners in cave ins or cops in shootouts or firemen in fighting fires and rescues. So the idea of driving a cab being a hazardous profession in the 1970s and ‘80s made sense.

Unfortunately, so did the idea of the hazards of being a poet. First of all, in my experience, poets are over sensitive, it’s what makes them “the antennae of the race” as Pound put it, more or less.

And because of that over sensitivity to the inequities and mysteries, let alone miseries and general unfairness of the world and life, the “lack of tenderness in the world” as Lawrence Durrell put it in JUSTINE, they suffer—at least emotionally and mentally, if not physically—more than a lot of folks in other occupations do (e.g. many doctors and nurses have a tendency to harden their hearts, to some extent, in the face of all the pain and death they encounter).

So when this article pointed out that the reason the average life span for poets was so low was because of all the suicides, I assumed it was because of the over sensitivity.

But in fact, a lot of the poets I know who have died too young (at my age, death at any age seems too young, but I’m talking about dying before middle age) died of “natural” causes—Ed Cox, James Haining, Tim Dlugos, et. al.

Although a probably equal amount took their own lives either quickly—like Ralph Dickey—or slowly—like so many who died as a result of their drinking and drugging, which is often just a slow form of suicide.

Not that this is any comfort to those left behind. But it is to me, in what some might see as a perverse way. Because I believe, though it seems irrational, that these poets who passed too early knew somehow their destiny, and it's what made them such fine poets, their sensitivity either a result of knowing somewhere in their DNA that their lives would end too soon in the world’s terms, or vice versa.

Either way, I am grateful for the work they leave behind as some form of consolation at least for those who like me experience art that way

In fact, usually in their work you can find a prediction of their own demise, some last will or words, or wish for ways for those left behind to console themselves, or at least to understand.

Here’s only one of many that Liam wrote (thanks to Terence Winch for pointing this one out to me):

The Remarkable Objectivity
of Your Old Friends

by Liam Rector

We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

We called other friends - the ones
Your mother hadn't called - and told them
What you had decided, and some said

What you did was right; it was the thing
You wanted and we'd just have to live
With that, that your life had been one

Long misery and they could see why you
Had chosen that, no matter what any of us
Thought about it, and anyway, one said,

Most of us abandoned each other a long
Time ago and we'd have to face that
If we had any hope of getting it right.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I just want to acknowledge the passing of a great artist.

Elizabeth Murray was an acquaintance, and the wife of an old friend, the poet and poetry entrepreneur, Bob Holman, owner of The Bowery Poetry Club.

From the first time I encountered Murray and her art, back when we were neighbors in “Tribeca” in the 1970s, I dug both.

Like her art, she was one of a kind. The term “strong woman” could have been coined for her, and talk about commitment to the work. She never seemed to waver, even when diagnosed with cancer.

You can read about her on the web—all the accolades and awards, the “MacArthur Genuis grant,” one of the only women artists to have a solo restrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, etc.—I just want to acknowledge her strength, and her example, which was inspiring to me, as was her work.

My condolences go out to her husband and children and extended family and friends.

And my gratitude goes out to Elizabeth Murray, for the work she created and left behind for those of us who didn’t know her well, or at all, to experience and share.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Robert L. Nardelli was hired last week to head Chrysler, a corporation with financial troubles, at least the way they tell it.

He had previously headed Home Depot, which gave him 210 million bucks when he left, after that corporation, under his direction, lost money, its stock price fell, and in general was a lot worse off than it had been before they hired him.

Nardelli knew nothing about the Home Depot business before they hired him, of course, and knows even less about the automobile business. But at Chrysler the ultimate size of his enormous paycheck will be tied to Chrysler’s success, and God knows that’ll be an incentive for the poor man.

Oh, and by the way, before his fiasco at Home depot he worked at General Electric with a few of the guys who now run the private equity coporation that bought Chrysler. See how nicely it all works out!

It’s just like the rightwing Republicans say all the time, work hard, do a good job and you can make it in this country, not like other places where it’s all about who you know!

Monday, August 13, 2007


Another alphabet list, my favorite French films, under their titles in the U. S.:

AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (just for Bridget Bardot to experience the sexiness that made her famous) and AMELIE (some found this a little too sweet, not me)
DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, LES DIABOLIQUES (with Simon Signoret, one of my all time favorite movie stars) and DIVA
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (great Miles Davis score)
GRAND ILLUSION, THE and GOING PLACES (first time I saw Gerard Depardieu and was knocked out by his screen presence, in a movie that some called “Beat” though it’s more like black comedy)
NAPOLEAN (Abel Gance directed what many consider the greatest silent film, with Antonin Artaud, the infamous creator of the” theater of cruelty”) and NIGHT AND FOG (one of the all time great documentaries)
ONE DEADLY SUMMER (Isabelle Adjani gives one of the greatest, sexiest, saddest, most beautiful and most revealing performances ever on film)
PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, THE (Carl Dreyer silent film with Antonin Artaud)
RULES OF THE GAME (considered by many critics to be the greatest film ever made) and THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE
TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, THE (one of the best animated films ever)
UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (tour de force musical where every word is sung and with another favorite movie star, Catherine Deneuve)
ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (this 1960 flick was the first foreign film I saw as an “art film” thinking I was now an “intellectual” by watching it, even though I’d seen Bridget Bardot movies before this, but only for the sensual thrill of her screen presence, and a few Italian films for similar reasons)

Sunday, August 12, 2007


“…in the year Mr. Bush promised a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a RAND Coporation study.” —today’s NY Times

So let’s see, Clinton’s administration was able to help Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, after they erupted in conflicts including civil war, “ethnic cleansing” and terrorism, and there was no bragging or comparisons to WWII victories and plans.

But Junior’s administration ignored the advice of their generals (early retired them instead) and professional diplomats and made big promises but didn’t follow through on them, and the result is the rise of the Taliban, suicide bombers, and terrorism in conflicts Junior actually started and then left the people most directly affected hanging!

Saturday, August 11, 2007


He was the front man for the Plimsouls back in the early ‘80s I guess it was.

Not long after he went solo, mid-‘80s, we met and became instant friends. He even lived for a while with me in the house I was renting in Santa Monica at the time, in one of my kids’ bedrooms while they were away at college.

The first night we hung out at home—where I had a rented upright piano in the dining room—he pulled out his acoustic guitar and we jammed on some tunes we both knew, including, if I remember correctly, our own version of the sung “Our Father”—which as I remember it came out of a deep discussion about our own fathers.

I loved the music we made together that night, and I loved the guy who brought that music out of me with his superior talent.

Since that time, he’s put out several solo CDs, which remind me of the best outlaw or “alternative” poetry books from small presses that thrilled me when I first discovered them as a kid and gave me that bohemian boost that I needed to have faith in my own efforts back then.

His latest CD is LET US NOW PRAISE SLEEPY JOHN, partly an homage to the great bluesman Sleepy John Estes, but mostly an expression of Peter’s enormous creative talent and wit, as well as spirit and heart.

I can’t do him justice here. You have to hear him. So here’s a link to a video of him walking down Pico Boulevard in L. A. at night, strumming and singing a couple of numbers from the new CD.

The video is the kind of art object I wrote about in my post Ray DiPalma and My Matchbox Madeleine, it’s so uniquely individual, so peculiar to this one unique happening, it transcends all the copycat motions of any “industry” trying to make a buck and instead expresses the purity of creating out of necessity, and a deep belief in and commitment to the power of “art”—any art—to bridge the gap between pain and redemptive release (if that isn’t too abstract).

Ah, just check the video out or go to iTunes and download some of his songs and hear for yourself.

Friday, August 10, 2007


"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business—to keep the channel open..." —Martha Graham to Agnes deMille

Thursday, August 9, 2007


Here’s a different kind of list I made for myself to get back to sleep the other night. I thought of writers I love and have tried to read every book they ever published or anyone ever wrote about them.

But I soon realized I’ve actually done that with hundreds of writers, so, I decided they had to be dead and I had to be still re-reading the books they wrote, as well as still pursuing any new books about them, or re-reading old ones about them.

I know I know, but what can I say? I’m an intensely compulsive person. Better books than some other things.

To limit the list even more, since it was still pretty long, and since I think in threes so much, I thought I’d make a list of thirty-three writers whose every published book, as well as books about them, I have read (in English, which means for those who wrote in another language I have tried to read every English translation) and continue to read and re-read.

29. D. A. LEVY

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


Discovering Doug Lang’s DC poetry history blog, led me to my contribution to a similar project done years ago.

I stuck my contribution up there to the right in the little selection of some sites my work or comments about it appear on.

At the time I wrote it, the only history of the poetry scene that included some of the years I was in DC, left me out. So that’s why I took what might seem like a self-serving perspective.

Now that Doug Lang has created his own blog about it and included his entries to the same project, which I hadn’t seen before, but certainly give me more than enough credit, my entry is almost redundant, except for the pre-DC history and early days there, which I think are a useful addition.

I also think my entry must have been cut, because I remember mentioning lots of poets who were a part of the scene, including the actress Karen Allen who hadn’t quite chosen between writing and acting at that time, and the poet/singer/musician who became John Doe after he left the DC-Baltimore area for L. A. and started the band X.

What’s most important for me about Doug’s blog and the DC poetry history project in general, is that it documents one of many poetry scenes that were overshadowed by New York and San Francisco, and that I hope are being equally documented and get their due as part of what I experienced as a lively international poetry scene in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Let me know if you uncover any other blogs or sites about these alternative scenes, will ya?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


Here’s three more books I just finished reading (or rereading):

1. DANTE by R. W. B. LEWIS
2. WALT WHITMAN The Song of Himself by Jerome Loving
3. BACK ON THE FIRE Essays by Gary Snyder

All three of these poets—Dante, Whitman and Snyder—were early influences on my work.

1. Dante’s early book LA VITA NUOVA, with its mix of prose and poetry, influenced the kinds of books I wanted to write. His “DIVINE COMEDY” I dip into various translations of now and then to remind me of the magnitude of his accomplishment.

But despite that, and the fact that I love The Penguin Lives Series of biographies—even did a post about them—I hadn’t really read the one on DANTE by R. W. B. Lewis. That is, I read it while standing in a bookstore but never brought it home and lived with it the way I do with books I really dig.

Interestingly, I’d read and dug years ago Lewis’s EDITH WHARTON: A BIOGRAPHY (she’s another writer whose work I fell in love with early on).

When I wrote the post about the Penguin Lives, my friend Ray DiPalma recommended the DANTE, so I picked it up in a used bookstore and this time brought it home and was glad I did.

Lewis writes of what is known of Dante’s life, and somewhat of what has been speculated or can be surmised, always clearly denoting where he is imagining what is highly likely from all the evidence.

His recreation of a time when poetry mattered to the general populace and not just to other poets, and when poets not only were often respected, even revered, but also when they exchanged poems freely, responding to each other’s work, even touting their own work ala the rap poets of today, made Dante’s life and world extremely real to me.

And Lewis’s own observations are individual enough and smart enough to keep me interested in his perspective as well, necessary to the enjoyment of any biography.

For instance in his discussion of the “Paradiso” section of LA COMMEDIA, when at a lower level of the celestial realm (actually “in” the “moon”) Dante encounters a woman he knows and asks her how she can be so obviously contented at not being on a higher level of heaven, and it becomes clear to Dante (and here I quote R. B. Lewis’s text):

“’…everywhere in Heaven is Paradise.’ Piccarda Donati [the woman] follows with the finest single line in the Pradiso (iii 85): ‘His will is our peace.’ It is a line that seizes the mind at once and repays long meditation: ‘la sua voluntade e nostra pace.’”

2. Whitman’s love of litanies reverberated with the Catholic liturgy in the Latin Mass of my childhood, and matched my own love of lists which became a recurring device in my poetry, as did the long breath of his long lines, and his embrace, at least in his writing, of all experience and all types of humans.

Though not my very favorite biography of Whitman, Jerome Loving’s is one of my favorites, and I am always reading or re-reading Whitman’s poetry and prose and/or a biography of him, and this summer I chose the Loving.

He disagrees with the authors of my other two favorite Whitman biographies—Justin Kaplan and David S. Reynolds—on some of the details of Whitman’s early life and publications (the period before he became the masterful poet we know and was still a journalist and political essayist and fiction writer, as well as a more conventional poet),

But otherwise it is a story I am more than familiar with, and yet it never bores me.

I suppose that’s just a matter of taste and personal history, or maybe it’s just my own compulsiveness, but whatever the origins, I find Whitman’s life emblematic of the history of the U.S. and of “modern” poetry and writing in general, and his spirit—despite the critical perspectives of his biographers and the differences between his times and opinions and mine—I find his spirit and beliefs, as avowed in LEAVES OF GRASS and SPECIMEN DAYS as compatible with mine as anyone I’ve ever read or encountered.

To me, Whitman is the Dalai Lama of poetry and spirituality, the non organized-religion kind of spirituality that satisfies my soul.

4. I knew of Gary Snyder before I fell in love with his work. That happened in 1966, after I was discharged from the service. My first wife and I were living in Brooklyn Heights, where the only patron I ever had was putting us up in a fancy apartment while paying me to write “the great American novel,” which she was sure I would.

My wife became jealous of the patron, and then my mother passed, creating a reason to abandon the patron and the apartment and the income to move to Jersey to care for my father until other arrangements could be made

It was there, on his TV, I watched a series of educational black-and-white half hour films on contemporary poets—fifteen minutes devoted to each of two poets.

I remember Frank O’Hara being one of the poets profiled, and being amazed as he wrote a poem while talking to whoever was behind the camera filming him and then answering the phone and talking to a friend while continuing to write the poem, which after the call he pulled fresh from the typewriter to read to the camera!

I was already into O'Hara, had been infleunced by him without admitting it yet. Charles Olson was also profiled. I can’t remember anymore who else. I dug them all, but the poet who impressed me most was Gary Snyder, just sitting on a stool reading to the camera. He seemed to be reading directly to me in a way that was an epiphany.

It wasn’t that he was doing something incredibly new, I could see the impact of another of my early influences—William Carlos Williams—on his direct speech and concrete subject matter and so on, but I felt this connection to the stories in his poems, even though I was an East Coast guy with an entirely different set of experiences and reference points.

The connection may have been working with our hands—something I swore I would no longer do after I left home, wanting to make my living by my wits and creativity, not by the manual labor I grew up doing in my father’s home maintenance business where I worked for free after school and Saturdays and the other jobs I had at night and on Sundays to make my “pocket money.”

The idea of work is central to Snyder’s first book, and the one I instantly ran out and bought after seeing that film, RIP RAP, about working in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. I wasn’t an outdoors kind of guy, more city oriented, but I worked with older guys on ancient Victorian mansions—painting, and window washing and replacing, and leader and gutter cleaning, climbing ladders, carrying ladders, hard work in the open air, like Snyder’s poems referred to. Maybe that was the connection that caused that epiphany.

I’m not sure where he was filmed reading his poetry, since he didn’t return to the USA from Japan until 1968, not long after which I met him (working by hand on the first, limited edition of one of his best poetry collections REGARDING WAVE, I was the “printers devil” who set the movable type and worked the old Washington Press and creased the pages with a decades worn piece of bone and helped hand sew the folios together and cut the pages and hold them open for him to sign).

He disappointed me by insisting that the smartest thing I could do for my poetry and my family would be to move to the land Snyder owned in the Sierras and build a house for myself and my wife and our little girl and the second child she was expecting. Snyder couldn’t fathom why I would want to live in Manhattan, or any city.

It was tedious talking to him about it, unfortunately, as are some of the paragraphs in this collection of essays BACK ON THE FIRE that contain the same kinds of West Coast Pacific Rim chauvinism I encountered when I first met him.

There always seems to be an anti-European bent in Snyder’s essays, if not his poetry, that I used to share, from a different perspective, Jersey Irish etc., but which now just seems like another kind of provincialism.

I know enough, and did then, about Japanese history and culture, as well as other Asian societies and their histories, to feel they deserve no special dispensation for their crimes and follies, anymore than European societies do.

Any nation, any society, any ethnic group or so-called “race” or religion or “sexual orientation”—any kind of human category—is just as capable as any other of atrocities toward other living creatures and to the earth itself. No one gets off that hook, including ancient “civilizations” and “pre-historic” peoples.

Yes, some are worse than others in specific instances, but given the right motivation and opportunity, it seems every society can produce some evil along with the good.

But despite that huge caveat, I always love to read Snyder. He’s a terrifically clear writer, who always makes me think and consider, or reconsider, my perspective on whatever he’s writing about.

In BACK ON THE FIRE it’s mostly ecological matters, but also poetry. His mini-essay on the passing of Allen Ginsberg is almost worth the price of the book. And there are other thoughtful and thought provoking pieces in this collection of published essays and forwards and afterwards and fragments of poems and etc.

Here’s an example from “Writers and the War Against Nature”—the longest piece in BACK ON THE FIRE:

“Later it came to me, green plants doing photosynthesis are the ultimate working class. Nature creates the first level of value, labor the second.”

Bet you hadn’t thought of that one.

But if you don’t know Snyder’s work, the best introductions are his two slim volumes of poetry and prose: RIP RAP and EARTH HOUSEHOLD.

If you do know him, you might dig a lot in this collection.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Doug Lang is one of those not to be overlooked or underrated poets and writers and creative treasures of our universe.

He’s a Welsh guy who ended up in Washington DC back in the early 1970s when I was still living there. He had written a novel, FREAKS, which I read around the time I met him, and that I’m sure he’s gonna be pissed off I mentioned because as far as I know he kind of disowned it. But at the time, and ever since, I found it one of the truest depictions of “the sixties” (which actually were 1964 to 1974) in any book of fiction back then.

He’s also a terrific poet who had his own unique take on approaching “the problem of the poem” as someone used to refer to what we poets do. and his early books, some of them one-of-a-kinds, I still treasure.

(Hmmm, the word “treasure” has come up twice in this post already, now three times obviously, which shows what I think of this guy.)

Anyway, I hadn’t heard from him in a while, or seen him in a few years, but got turned on to his art-in-DC blog (dadaville) that I added to my recommended list over on the right a week or so ago.

Now I’ve learned he has a poetry blog and a film blog as well, both of which I’ve also added to my lists—the poetry to the little selection of internet sites I have at the top right, because he mentions me in his posts about the history of poetry in DC as he has witnessed and lived it. I appreciate his honesty and his perspective in all that. (I’m in a few of the photos he’s posted there as well.)

The film blog I added to the recommended sites down lower.

He’s always been an original thinker and an avid scholar of the arts he’s focused on. I think you’ll learn a lot from reading his blogs, and probably about some artists you might not have heard of or know much about.

Check him out, anywhere you see his name, and dig for yourself what a treasure he is. (Four times! He’s gonna despise me after all this gushy shit, but hey, I love what I love, which is a lot, and why not?)

Sunday, August 5, 2007


When I was a boy (the 1940s and '50s) the USA was the marvel of the world, not just for winning the war, but for the Marshall Plan, which included money to help the war torn nations of Europe rebuild their infrastructure. We helped Japan too.

Meanwhile, at home, the USA was becoming a shining example of how a country could improve the lives of its citizens, as well as create the basis for a booming economy that benefited everyone, not just the wealthy.

Part of what made the USA such a shining example in those years (in many other ways it was a lousy example, i.e. racial prejudice, but these were the years when that began to be seriously challenged by the few that by the ‘60s became the many) was its amazingly new and well maintained infrastructure.

By the 1970s and ‘80s, that was no longer the case as things began to deteriorate.

And now, forget about it.

Ireland, which when I was a boy was still pretty much the way it had been for centuries—impoverished and without almost any infrastructure—is now generations ahead of us in that regard, which is a large part of the reason why Ireland has one of the most successful economies in the world.

That these two countries have exchanged places, in terms of infrastructure, would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. But nonetheless, it’s mostly true.

Not to oversimplify, but highways and bridges and tunnels and phone and electricity lines, etc. are to a country what the bones and muscles and nervous and circulatory systems etc. are to the human body.

The USA is like an aging human ignoring her health, and instead of using what money she has on doctors and medications and procedures to keep her alive and healthy, instead she spends it all on lawn flamingos and kitchen gadgets and gives the rest to the wealthy few who already have access to the best doctors and hospitals, and in the case of infrastructure, rarely travel in anything other than their private jets and helicopters.

I wonder if the Secret Service has a list of the most dangerous bridges and tunnels etc. that they avoid whenever Cheney emerges from his cave to address his faithful.

Any true “conservative” would be a staunch supporter of “conserving” not only the environment—including our native plants and trees and animals etc., and all our natural resources, as well as in discovering new sources of energy etc.—but also in maintaining and improving our infrastructure, the engineering marvels that once made us the model for most nation’s futures, but now too often seem to be just crumbling monuments to a past that is quickly becoming the history of a nation’s decline.

Friday, August 3, 2007


It’s still going on.

The real political news gets lost or never reported in most major news outlets because either they are controlled by owners with mostly rightwing agendas (e.g. Fox and the NY Post by Rupert Murdoch) or are easily misdirected (because corporate owners don’t want to offend rightwing forces or powers that be in the administration and elsewhere).

Thus, all the good this congress has done under the historical precedent of a woman leader is either not noted or dismissed or discussed in terms of personal and/or presidential politics, while constantly repeating the administration’s mantra that anything attempted or accomplished against their agenda is “playing politics”!


And with much worse results, if you are anything other than part of the top tier of wealthy citizens.

The fact is, Nancy Pelosi has accomplished many of the goals she set for herself and her fellow members of Congress when she took over as Speaker of the House. Something that should be newsworthy in any case, but particularly since this is the first woman to do so.

But that ain’t the news. The news is that Democrats are “playing politics” and Republicans are just the poor losers who messed up by following Bush down a dead end and are now trying to find a way out.

The news is also always bad, when it comes to politics, unless it’s some artificial situation manufactured by the Republican propagandists to make them seem sympathetic (though this no longer works so well for Bush as he speaks before handpicked crowds of the military, but may for his wife as she flies off to the Twin Cities to offer symbolic solace to the families of the victims of that bridge collapse, which could easily have been avoided if instead of tax cuts for the rich and tax dollars wasted on pork and perks for local projects for elected officials (Democrats equally guilty of the latter) money was spent on the basics necessary to keep people safe and healthy and well fed and housed (i.e. infrastructure, a national health plan, elimination of poverty and affordable housing, etc.).

As I said back when the presidential campaigns were still in the speculative stage, the very fact that so many precedents are being set in this campaign, at least so far, is great political news.

No matter what you think of them, the reality that if any of the frontrunners were to be elected president, it would be a precedent—our first woman president, or African-American, or Italian-American or Mormon (or the long shot Richardson, Latino). All the usual white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male politicians in the race are lagging way behind, even the once popular John McCain, whose Bush ass kissing only hurt him in the long run. (I don't consider the Mormon religion part of the Protestant category, though Mormons might.)

Of course, there's that actor from Tennessee, who fits the WASP male description. He might get into the race sometime in the coming weeks and win the Republican nomination and then win the general election, just because he is none of the precedent setting labels mentioned above, which would be a set back to the historical aspect of any of the current frontrunners getting elected.

But still, just the fact they are seriously in the running should make all of us happy, to see that finally, if not a voting majority, at least a sizable minority (and probably an actual majority) have no qualms about electing someone who only ten years ago would have been seen as an impossible contender.

Anyway, for a really well argued take on one specific case of media manipulation and misdirection, (i.e. the Tilliman cover up) check out this nightlight post.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


"...the second half of life is a long process of getting rid of things..." —F. Scott Fitzgerald in "Three Hours Between Planes"

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


A lot in common these flicks.

Both basically cartoons—highly entertaining cartoons.

Lots of laughs and adventure in both.

The heroes of each are aging bald guys, who perform unrealistically heroic acts, in part to save their relationship with one of their children, who had shunned them.

Both heroes are primitive guys, not big on the heavy thinking.

Both talk as if they don’t want to be bothered helping others and doing the right thing, but in the end can’t help doing it because they’re “that guy.”

Both are faced with pseudo-intellectual megalomaniac villains, who work, or recently worked for, the top levels of the federal government.

Both seem to be the only ones capable of saving the society they live in, but stand out from and don’t necessarily approve of.

The very survival of their city/country is in jeopardy until they save the day.

Which they both do, but only after receiving help from outsiders who have arcane knowledge that the heroes need to fulfill their destiny.

And both films leave you (or at least me and a few million other people) satisfied at the end, having had a perfectly mastered movie escape for a few hours.

Homer Simpson and John McClane (did the writers of the original really base the name on the war hero Senator?).

I used to know Bruce Willis, back before he became a TV star and then a movie star. He tended bar at an actors hangout on the upper Westside of Manhattan, a bar I used to call Grand Central because it was always so crowded and the name of the place reminded me of that name, so much so I can’t remember the real name.

He was a likable, funny, South Jersey guy and I was happy for his success, just sorry to see his rightwing politics later on (another example of how much of a myth that whole “liberal Hollywood” jive is).

This character, the hero of the DIE HARD franchise, is such a cartoon who performs,—especially in this latest flick—the most humanly impossible feats, but has such good one liners and Willis plays him with such cocky insouciance, you can’t help enjoying watching him.

Just as you can’t help but enjoy watching Homer Simpson as he refuses, or is incapable, of being anyone other than who he is.

Which is the real message of both these flicks. You gotta love these guys because they refuse, or are incapable of being anyone other than who they cartoonishly are. God bless’em, in gratitude for the great entertainment they provide.