Fellow Travelers, Comments on the Texts

[Please Note: Fellow Travelers, by Michael Annicchiarico, will be premiered on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, at 8:00 pm, Johnson Theatre, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.]

Fellow Travelers (2012-13), by Michael Annicchiarico, for flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass, percussion, and large chorus
Comments on the Texts by John-Michael Albert

Whether it is as catastrophic as Oedipus meeting his father at the crossroads, recounted in Sophocles’s play, Oedipus the King, or as devastating as the wedding guest meeting the sailor on the road in Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” encounters with strangers are the source of major, unexpected changes in our lives. In his 2012-13 work for flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass, and large chorus, Fellow Travelers, Michael Annicchiarico has selected three poems on this theme from two of my books, The Bird Catcher, New and Selected Poems (Moon Pie Press, 2012) and Cardamom Cravings, Notes for an Autobiography (Sargent Press, 2012).

“Dharma Bums” (July 2007) began when I was invited to dinner at the home of a wealthy, sophisticated friend in Portsmouth, NH. We shared very little except our common origins in Ohio, poetry, a sense of ironic humor about the world, and a pleasure in each other’s company. When I arrived, I was completely outwitted by the security on his condo complex and could not get through the outer gate. An hour later, I gave up trying. With a couple hours to kill before the next bus home, I dropped into River Run Books for something to read. Reflecting on the recommendation of my friend, Sivan, I picked up a copy of Dharma Bums instead of On the Road for my first exposure to the writings of Jack Kerouac. It included a story of the poet, Gary Snyder, hitchhiking with a truck driver from San Francisco, up the U.S. West Coast, to Washington State, where Gary was going to spend the summer living in a fire tower as a forest ranger. Long rides with strangers invite detailed confessions, the story of which is in my homage to Snyder’s poetic style.

“Sight Unseen” (June 2008) recounts a haunting experience I had wanted to write about since it happened to me in the early 1990s. At the time, I was listed as the music director and contact man for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston. A stranger, interviewing for a job at the Galveston Medical Center, found my address in a local newspaper and wrote to me, asking if I would tell him about the area—the sights, weather, entertainment, the character of the people, ease of travel, politics, and such. I wrote back, starting a lively correspondence that continued long after he decided to move to Sacramento, CA instead of Galveston, TX. Then, typical of these stories, there was a sudden silence, later followed by a haunting letter of explanation from his mother, which is recounted in the poem.

“Sputnik, Fellow Traveler” (May 2011) is the final movement of Michael’s work, and the source of its title. For years I have served as one of the judges in the annual Dover Public Library K-12 Poetry Contest. In 2011, on the day of the award ceremony, I realized I had not selected an appropriate work of my own to read—an honor the library offers the judges by way of an introduction. I went to Dos Amigos Burritos for a quick supper. There, I searched my memory of childhood for a time when I shared something with potentially life-long impact with my parents. With two hours to go before the ceremony began, I suddenly recalled that magical night the Soviets sent Sputnik up and my entire neighborhood in Dayton, OH went outside in the pre-dawn hours to see it. I scribbled the poem down on a napkin, blurring it with changes and corrections before walking over to the Library. I wanted to remind the young poets and their parents that we have nothing to fear from strangers because we are strangers to them as well. On the other hand, being open to chance encounters with strangers always yields great stories—if we pay attention.

Their Emancipation, for Juneteenth 2014

Their Emancipation, for Juneteenth 2014
June 19, 2014

When I moved to Texas in 1968,
I found that Texans had two* unique holidays:
The first was the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo.
On a given Friday in February,
Houston’s highways were closed to traffic
to make way for trail riders.
These were people who left their ranches
across the state, and traveled for up to two weeks,
in covered wagons, on old cattle-drive trails,
to Houston. On that day,
they flowed into the city and met at the Astrodome
to raise money for scholarships for ten days.

The other Texas holiday was Juneteenth.
In 1865, two months after the Civil War ended,
General Gordon Granger
and 2,000 armed US troops landed in Galveston
to enforce the two-and-a-half year old
Emancipation Proclamation.
You can visit Aston Villa, where he read the order.

But I didn’t have to go on pilgrimage
50 miles down I-45 to celebrate Juneteenth.
7 years after Galveston played the reluctant host
to General Granger and his friends,
Houston’s black community leaders pooled $800
and bought 10 acres of open land outside the city
as a place to celebrate Juneteenth every year.
“Emancipation Park”
was a short walk from my Houston apartment.

At the University of Houston,
I was personal assistant to the Director
of a new research center.
The collection of research laboratories
grew so quickly that the University decided
we needed a manager.
They hired a newly minted MBA for the job.

Summer at the center
was devoted to writing funding proposals.
In one of our first weekly staff meetings,
the new manager naively set several deadlines
for the end of the third week of June.
The staff members were polite.
They didn’t say anything.
But the new manager knew something was up.
We spoke in her office after the meeting.

“No one asked me for June 19th off,” she insisted.
“And they won’t,” I replied.
“But you should know when Juneteenth is,
just as you know
when Independence Day and Veterans’ Day are.
We’re in Texas. Juneteenth happened here.”
“But it’s not a real holiday,” she countered.
“Besides, this has nothing to do with you…”
“But it does,” I said. And I made two points:

When I was a little kid in school,
every month had a “construction paper” holiday:
First Day of Autumn, Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Washington and Lincoln’s Birthdays,
St. Valentine’s Day, Arbor Day, May Day,
Memorial Day, Flag Day;
and we’ve added others since then,
like Martin Luther King Day and Patriots Day.

From this, the little, 1950’s me was to learn that
what we are as humans, is all about memory.
Our humanity is about making something positive
from the good things and the bad things
that speckle our long history on this earth.

In the end, it is hardly relevant to our humanity
if the historical event actually happen to us:
if we were actually slaves in Egypt,
and have a right to celebrate Passover;
or if we were actually slaves
on cotton plantations in Civil War Era Texas,
and have a right to celebrate Juneteenth.
They are as much a part of our history
as they are anyone else’s;
so they are as much our holidays
as they are anyone else’s.

The Manager said,
“But it has nothing to do with you.
Why would you care?” And I told her:
“In terms of my humanity,
Who I Am is as black as he is white.
Their experience is our experience.
When they’re happy, we’re happy.
And their emancipation is as good as mine.”

In 1980, the Texas Legislature reluctantly
made Juneteenth a “partial staff holiday.”
Ten years later, the new manager of the center
experienced her first “partial staff holiday”—
except for her, the office was empty.
Here’s hoping she’s celebrating
her 25th Juneteenth this year—
with her entire staff.

* When I was delivering this at the Portsmouth Juneteenth Celebration, I realized that I omitted a third Texas holiday, San Jacinto Day, April 21. It commemorates the battle of San Jacinto between Texas and Mexico in 1836. Afterwards, Texas became an independent republic.

AMBUSHED BY POETRY: The Brick Project (update 3/8/14)

Ambushed by Poetry:
The Brick Project

(poems on YouTube get 2,720 hits)

For those of you who want a nostalgic look at Portsmouth when it’s not wrapped in the glories of winter, you might want to check out my two poetic tours of Portsmouth on Children’s Day and Market Square Day in 2012. The ever patient Mike Nelson did the recording. At each site, I stopped and read a different poem from the classic American and English canon. The most viewed? Johnson, Song to Celia (232), Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome (203 hits), Lovelace, To Lucasta (199), Bennet, The Flag Goes By (196), Thaxter, The Sandpiper (181), Babcock, Be Strong (148), Suckling, Why So Pale and Wan (144).

  1. Babcock, Be Strong (2:22) 148
  2. Bates, America the Beautiful (3:49) 19
  3. Bennet, The Flag Goes By (2:55) 196
  4. Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad (3:01) 52
  5. Bunner, The Heart of the Tree (3:22) 37
  6. Byron, So We’ll Go No More a Roving (2:36) 43
  7. Coleridge, Kubla Khan (5:11) 19
  8. Coleridge, Kubla Khan (5:15) 52
  9. Cook, How Did You Die? (3:14) 51
  10. Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass (2:50) 25
  11. Donne, The Good Morrow (3:20) 91
  12. Dowson/Horace, I’ll Always Be Faithful to You in My Fashion/Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae (3:58) 90
  13. Emerson, Concord Hymn (3:09) 18
  14. Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome (2:30) 203
  15. Herrick, Upon Julia’s Clothes (1:44) 60
  16. Holmes, God Save the Flag (2:54) 45
  17. Johnson, Song to Celia (2:14) 232
  18. Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride (8:27) 18
  19. Longfellow, The Children’s Hour (3:15) 4
  20. Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith (4:03) 31
  21. Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars (1:55) 199
  22. Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (2:53) 54
  23. Marvell, To His Coy Mistress (4:02) 43
  24. McCrae, In Flanders Fields (2:52) 24
  25. Poe, To Helen (2:04) 65
  26. Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (3:02) 65
  27. Riley, Knee Deep in June (5:45) 29
  28. Shakespeare, O Mistress Mine (2:00) 29
  29. Shakespeare, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (2:58) 50
  30. Stanton, Keep a-Goin’ (2:37) 14
  31. Sucking, Why So Pale and Wan, Fair Lover? (2:01) 56
  32. Suckling, Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? (2:16) 144
  33. Thaxter, The Sandpiper (3:12) 181
  34. Thayer, Casey at the Bat (6:27) 28
  35. van Dyke, America for Me (3:38) 85
  36. Waller, Go Lovely Rose (2:28) 83
  37. Whitman, O Captain! My Captain! (3:55) 22
  38. Whittier, Maud Muller (8:20) 24
  39. Whittier, The Barefoot Boy (6:45) 16
  40. Yeats, Leda and the Swan (2:02) 99