Poem of the Hour

The Poet’s Occasional Alternative

by GRACE PALEY

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie insteadit took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
drafta poem would have some
distance to godays and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in itmany friends
will saywhy in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatershipI do not
want to wait a weeka yeara
generation for the right
consumer to come along

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Chris Thiem, a.k.a. Birdman and Funk Lord of Blue Earth County, is my former high school English teacher, long-time friend, and a long-time good, horrible, pagan, hippie, bad, socialist, positive influence on me. He was born in 1950, raised in Mankato, graduated from the University of Montana in Humanities, and returned to Mankato to teach. Except for annual summer drifting throughout the West, he has been steeped in Catholic education ever since. Now Chris Thiem, who once ran (before his knees ran out on him) a 1:51 800 meters, tells it like it is for the Proust Questionnaire:

What is your present state of mind?

That of a man who has escaped.

What is your idea of happiness?

Time to work on my journal, receiving mail, and going birding.

Who are your favorite fictional characters?

Sal Paradise, Queequeg, and Francis Crawford of Lymond.

Who are your favorite people in history?

Artists, explorers, and naturalists.

Your favorite artist?

Joseph Cornell.

Your favorite musician?

Bob Dylan.

The quality you most admire in a man?

Saying the unexpected.

The quality you most admire in a woman?

Compassion and cooking.

What do you most value in your friends?

Spontaneity and a willingness to go on meaningless quests.

Your favorite way to spend time?

Wandering, reading, answering the mail, and drinking coffee.

Your most marked characteristic?

Daydreaming and indolence.

What is your principle defect?

Lack of ambition.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Conservative Christians.

Where would you like to live?

Near the sea.

What is your favorite color?

Faded blue.

Your favorite flower?

The Trillium.

What is your favorite bird?

Out of the 1100 birds on my life list you expect me to choose ONE?! They are all miracles, right down to the starlings with their weird inter-galactic voices!

Who are your favorite prose writers?

Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Shakespeare.

Your favorite poets?

Keats, Dylan, and Jack Gilbert.

What are your favorite names?

The names of women.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?

The ability to fly.

How would you like to die?

As a sacrificial offering.

Who/what do you want to come back as in your next life?

A Wandering Albatross.

What is your motto?

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

Pat Dennis Live in Concert: Hotdish to Die For (laugh ’til you hurl!)

Ah, sweet, sweet summer solstice. The time of year here in Minnesota when the thumb-long zucchini in your garden grow into something the size of baseball bats overnight. The time of year when the pretty college student working at the movie theatre lets her friends in for free when no one’s looking. Your son loses yet another Little League game, mosquitoes descend upon you like a biblical plague, and neighbors up and down the block exchange batches of homemade wine, the kind of wine that takes the enamel off teeth. After a swig of it, you’re afraid to exhale for fear of starting somebody’s garage on fire.

For Pat Dennis, mystery writer and stand-up comedienne extraordinaire, summer is great, but in Minnesota, hotdish is a year-round phenomenon. Tuesday night she performed at Once Upon A Crime bookstore for KSMQ, southern Minnesota’s PBS channel, in town filming a documentary tentatively called, Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story.

Pat hails from Chicago but has lived in Minnesota for 28 years. “Which makes me a newcomer,” she says and we laugh.

“Do you trust me?”

“No!” we shout.

Pat hadn’t heard of the term hotdish until she arrived in Minnesota. By her estimation, the heartland word for casserole contains a can of soup, a can of veggies, I-got-it-on-sale meat, and rice. It’s then baked until all the moisture’s been sucked out of it.

“Hotdish is the sensible shoes of fine cuisine,” she states. This from a woman who uses a leaf blower to clean her house.

She has also been a hotdish judge where she once had to taste 80 different hotdishes. Besides deciding which one tasted best, she wanted to give out awards for, among other things, most dry, most burnt, and most calories, but thought better of it.

After her very funny performance, KSMQ wanted to get more laughter from another camera angle, so there was this magical moment where we’re all laughing on purpose while they’re filming us and it got so ridiculous we sincerely could hardly stop. The hotdish documentary is scheduled to come out on PBS sometime this fall.

In Pat’s collection of mystery short stories, Hotdish to Die For,  the weapon of choice is of course hotdish. The book has sold well everywhere except in Grand Rapids where it has been banned for containing cuss words. Knowing that, whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall, how can anyone NOT want to live here?

Poem of the Hour

my father

by Charles Bukowski

was a truly amazing man
he pretended to be
rich
even though we lived on beans and mush and weenies
when we sat down to eat, he said,
“not everybody can eat like this.”

and because he wanted to be rich or because he actually
thought he was rich
he always voted Republican
and he voted for Hoover against Roosevelt
and he lost
and then he voted for Alf Landon against Roosevelt
and he lost again
saying, “I don’t know what this world is coming to,
now we’ve got that god damned Red in there again
and the Russians will be in our backyard next!”

I think it was my father who made me decide to
become a bum.
I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich
then I want to be poor.

and I became a bum.
I lived on nickles and dimes and in cheap rooms and
on park benches.
I thought maybe the bums knew something.

but I found out that most of the bums wanted to be
rich too.
they had just failed at that.

so caught between my father and the bums
I had no place to go
and I went there fast and slow.
never voted Republican
never voted.

buried him
like an oddity of the earth
like a hundred thousand oddities
like millions of other oddities,
wasted.

We Who Are About to Die, Salute You!

Last night’s Literary Death Match, held at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis, was far from your typical literary reading. Goth girls, kids who play with matches, musicians, and several nods to the recently deceased Ray Bradbury were on hand in what proved to be a wild gladiator fight of words because we all know, the pen is indeed, mightier than the sword.

The scene was bursting with the subversive, raucous energy of its contestants: photographer Jeffrey Skemp, who released his first collection of poetry and music album, Spent, last year; Pete Hautman. winner of the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for his works Godless and The Big Crunch; Stephanie Wilbur Ash of MPR’s Electric Arc Radio fame, who has written for numerous publications and companies, and Juliet Patterson, author of The Truant Lover and the forthcoming Threnody, who has won many prizes and fellowships for her writing.

Literary Death Match series founder–Opium Magazine editor Todd Zuniga–set up the rules. The four writers were to be faced off in seven minute readings of their work, with each piece adjudicated according to its literary merit, the quality of the writer’s performance, and the most mysterious category, “intangibles.” Novelist Marlon James was the judge of literary merit, cartoonist Danno Klonowski the judge of performance, and Dennis Cass for intangibles. All were hilarious.

The first fight was between Patterson and Hautman. Patterson had the crowd cheering “love!” every time it was mentioned in her poetry, but died after Hautman read from his novel, Invisible, and emerged the victor of the first round.

Juliet Patterson

Pete Hautman

After a brief intermission, Skemp took the stage in his fight against Ash. There was an awkward moment of dead air before Skemp’s back-up guitarist got in tune but the wait was worth it. Everyone in the pub loved his whiskey husky voice. Alas, it could not compete against goth mom Ash, who had four members of the Prairie Fire Lady Choir to back her up while she read and won round two.

On to the grand finale between Hautman and Ash, which involved unscrambling letters to spell out famous authors’ last names. Hautman got hung up on the author Plath and Stephanie Wilbur Ash emerged as the victor of the night. What did she get as a prize? Bragging rights, of course. Some mighty fine bragging rights.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash, Literary Death Match winner

Todd Zuniga, Literary Death Match founder

The Literary Death Match in Minneapolis was presented by the Loft, and produced by Sarah Moeding. The Literary Death Match series takes place around the world. For more information, visit Literary Death Match

Quote of the Hour

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.”
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
–Shakespeare, Act II, Scene I of As You Like It.

You Have Given Me the Light

Across the decades, dozens of interviewers have tried to get a grasp on the source of Bob Dylan’s far-out creativity, his lyrics, music, poetry, and his art. The guy is at once tender, topical, absurd, romantic, and profound. Everyone wants to know what his influences are, who he reads, who he talks to, listens to, and who he admires. Whether or not he’s always walking around out of his mind with inspiration.

In her 1978 Rock Express interview with Dylan, Karen Hughes, still looking for a satisfying clue to explain his breadth and depth, asks him, “Do you find that most things come from within?” and Dylan, in one of his usual wandering-shaman moods, simply replies, “Most things come from taking chances.”

Dylan’s philosophy comes up now and then at our Open Voices writing group. We admire writers who take chances with their work. We admire how they explore a difficult subject, try a new vantage point, a new style or genre.

I recently saw my old friend Bart Sutter at the Laurel Poetry Collective Reading, giving his hearty applause to every poet standing at the microphone. He would agree that Dylan takes a lot more chances than the average bloke, but Bart has flung himself into many a new territory with his own writing. He’s an essayist, poet, short-story writer, and playwright. He is the only author to win a Minnesota Book Award in three separate categories.

Wait a minute here.

Some of us mere mortals may not be ready to take the chances Bart or Dylan do. Not this red-hot minute anyway. Shoot, most of the members in my writing group won’t even take a chance and sit in a different chair when we meet. They gotta sit in the same spot month after month. I like murder mysteries and poetry, but I can’t even fathom where I chucked the car keys last night never mind suddenly conjuring up the inspiration to write Bovine Hoof Trimming for Dummies or something, and I certainly don’t hear myself saying, whoa. I feel a screenplay coming on.

As writers, however, I do think we are always taking the chance–regardless of where we are with our writing–that readers will not dismiss our words but be moved by them, and that we’ll reveal a truth or two as Bart does in his poem,

ROCHESTER

My senior year we did Jane Eyre.
Rita Johannsen was Jane,
And I was Rochester.

The way the story goes
I’ve got this crazy wife,
And I keep her locked away
In a distant wing of the house
Because I’m rich as hell.
In the end she burns the house
And burns herself, as well.
That’s how I get to be blind
And marry the governess.

Of all the lines I memorized
I only remember one.
It’s at the end, I’m blind,
And I turn to Jane and say:
“You have given me the light.”
Blackout. Pause.
Thunderous applause.

When I think about it now, I feel
Rochester was cheated, kind of
Castrated, you know? I mean
At first he’s sort of ornery
And makes these sharp remarks,
But in the end he’s whipped
And tied up with his governess.

The audience just loved it,
The way that he was tamed.
I get so mad to think of it
That I’ve thought up
This version of my own
In which, I call it Rochester,
What happens is Jane Eyre
Dies of influenza. Rochester
Is forced to learn to love his ugly wife,
And they’re unhappy ever after

Because women think we’re dumb.
They think we can’t feel anything.

They think that we can’t see
The sneaky way they run things.
But I can see, and I
Don’t hesitate to lie. Say
Some woman lights my cigarette?
I’ll use that line, I’ll tell her:
“You have given me the light.”
She laughs but half believes it,
And half is good enough.

Or say she wonders how she looks,
And I see grey and wrinkles
And feel for both of us.
You think I tell her that?
I tell her: “You
Just look terrific.”

They like to think we’re blind.
That audience believed I was
When I was Rochester,
But I was just pretending,
And they were in the dark,
Applauding and applauding.

This was years ago,
But I can close my eyes
And still see everything:
My parents, sitting separately,
The faces of my friends.
I’m Rochester,
And Rochester sees everything:
Rita’s mouth and teeth,
Delicious little ears,
And how the silver sweat runs
Trickling down her neck.

***

Bart will be reading from his new poetry collection, The Reindeer Camps Friday, June 1st, 7pm at the Loft.

Coffee House Press Biblio Bash Nothing Less Than a Literary Blast

Yeah, the title of this posting is a mouthful, but that’s what kind of evening it was. The literary carnival and benefit for CHP was held this past Saturday at the Grain Belt Bottling House where readers interacted with authors and books, interpreted poetry, danced, and played games.

People enjoyed music, food, beer, wine, “page turner” cocktails, and role-playing with the encouragement of Bedlam Theatre (long live Purple Rain!). Throughout the bash, all sorts of activities kept the night exciting:

Allan Kornblum demonstrating ye old printing press

Charismatic CHP founder, Allan Kornblum, who was recently given the Kay Sexton award for his life-long contributions to Minnesota’s book community, remarked, “from clay tablets to e-books, there has been a continual effort” regarding the creation of books. It’s all good, but the best of the well-written books, he believes, will still come out in print as will poetry. “There’s an electricity to the printed page” he said, a requirement of poetry that e-books cannot give.

aerialist from Xelias wowing the crowd

Witty author and soulful musician Dylan Hicks, whose recently released CHP novel, Boarded Windows, made a fine appearance, singing songs from his character’s repertoire. Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene is the companion album to his book.

Dylan Hicks singing “Sorrow Has a Basement”

Other attending authors included Lightsey Darst, Sarah Fox, Steve Healey, Ed Bok Lee, Chris Martin, David Mura, Bao Phi, Sun Yung Shin, Yuko Taniguchi, and Wang Ping who were on hand for us compete against in Scrabble and Bananagrams.

As part of the fundraising effort, many items from vacation getaways to expert literary advice were up for auction for people to bid on:

Kassia serving up veggie pita sandwiches

And here we are, dancers and poetry lovers all, non-verbally interpreting one of Chris Martin’s poems from his book, Becoming Weather as it was read line by line:

The point of the evening wasn’t just to raise money, but to engage readers with books, songs, theater, and authors. In a time where it’s all too easy to sit alone while reading–whether from a book, laptop, cell phone, or Kindle–this event was created to allow us to actively participate with the genius of language and with each other. Meeting lovely, wonderful people along the way is one of the extraordinary benefits of supporting Coffee House Press and our literary community.