Ambushed by Poetry: The Brick Project (Update: 3/7/15)

Back in 2012, as part of my Poet Laureate project called Ambushed by Poetry, Mike Nelson and I went around Portsmouth NH and recorded me reading 40 different poems at 40 different locations. All of these recordings can be found by searching for John-Michael Albert, YouTube.

The first set of 20 poems, recorded on Children’s Day, is comprised of classics from The Classic One Hundred, the 100 most cited English poems in anthologies in the last century or so. The second set of 20 poems, recorded on Market Square Day, is comprised of patriotic poems, culled from anthologies of my parents’ generation. (Someday, Mike and I will get out there with another 20 poems on a different theme–perhaps poems about New Hampshire.)

I’m very pleased to report that there are now 4,164 hits on these poems, representing an increase of 1,444 over last year (3/8/14). I hope you’ll be interested in sampling them, and if starting with the more popular is your thing, here are the top dozen:

01. Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome (321)
02. Johnson, Song to Celia (321)
03. Babcock, Be Strong (288)
04. Thaxter, The Sandpiper (275)
05. Lovelace, Going to the Wars (265)
06. Suckling, Why So Pale an Wan, Fond Lover? (242)
07. Bennet, The Flag Goes By (240)
08. van Dyke, America for Me (209)
09. Dowson/Horace, Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae (162)
10. Donne, The Good Morrow (117)
11. Holmes, God Save the Flag (108)
12. Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (105)

Random Thoughts About Shakespeare (7 Stages Shakespeare Company blog)

[292] Shakespeare’s Weaponry. In the Elizabethan age, the Sumptuary Law forbade anyone carrying any weapons, except for noblemen, aristocrats, and those in the military—and those who play them on stage, actors. It should come as no surprise that Elizabethan English is stuffed full of slang terms for every imaginable weapon on earth, military and personal. And in those days of international warfare and a thriving printing industry (just 150 years old), those terms might be borrowed from French, German, Italian or even Greek and Latin. For instance, a “bodkin” is a short stick on which a weaver winds thread; it’s very close to our word “bobbin” which survives in contemporary sewing machine lingo. Metaphorically, it becomes a short dagger in Hamlet’s “might his quietus make (might bring his life to a close) with a bare (unsheathed) bodkin (short dagger).” A different sort of wordplay appears in King John. The Bastard (son of Richard the Lion Hearted) makes a weak joke in reference to a Spanish-looking word, “bastardo.” With the historical novelty of gunpowder and weapons that used it, inventors (like da Vinci) were crazy to invent the “ultimate weapon.” There was a plethora of new weapons and a plethora of new names for them, borrowed from any and all available languages. If you consider warfare from the standpoint of the victor, any weapon of the enemy might be considered an “orphan-maker.” It would rob the heirs of their father, but not of their inheritance. But from the standpoint of the vanquished, a particularly deadly piece of artillery would be a “bastard-maker.” It would rob the heirs of their father and of their inheritance through his defeat. They’d have nothing to inherit, giving each of them the same legal status of the speaker, a bastard.

[293] Shakespeare. Most accurately, we know a lot ABOUT him but we don’t know HIM. Scholars are constantly discovering artifacts about his life, that is, details of the history and culture he lived in. Sometimes, they get very close to him: the will, programs from theaters he worked for and in, various other documents with various spellings of his name (you’ve got to love those Elizabethans and their craze for writing things down and saving them), the occasional unattributed poem. Even tell tale names for native plants and colloquial expressions that are still used in the area around his birthplace, in Stratford. But I think, as time goes on and detail after detail is added to the enormous pile of information ABOUT him, the man himself becomes simultaneously more enigmatic and more fascinating. Defining Shakespeare is as tricky as discovering another planet in the galaxy. We can see its effect on everything around it and, conversely, the effect of everything around it on it, but we cannot actually see it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives all of us many degrees of freedom in our personal relationship to the bard. He can be the object of rigorous (and often frustrating) scholarly discipline, and an ale guzzling, horny bar buddy. He can be the keen, cool observer of human behavior as it ranges across ages, sexes, history, social and economic status, and he can be the smart-mouthed wag who pounds at least one sexual reference into nearly every line of text—even the most deadly serious lines. He can be boys playing young women, and men playing older women. He can be boys playing women playing boys. Sort of twists your head around until it’s ready to pop off doesn’t it, Sarah Bernhardt?

[274] Shakespeare restores my faith in the English language. I read a lot. I read many kinds of literature. I try to stay neck deep in a river of ink every day of my life. I read newspapers, E-mails; I write personal and business letters, essays, memos, stories, and poetry; I read history, biography, fiction, and poetry of all types. And nothing crosses my line of sight that isn’t examined critically. Ink, neck deep and, sometimes, over my head. Drowning is a serious thing. You lose focus, your lose your sense of down from up. All the things you go through life trusting that they’ll always be there and take care of themselves each suddenly demands your full attention: breathing, walking, certainly all the senses. That’s what it’s like for me when I go under in a river of words. And I know exactly where to turn to, not only regain my balance, my full sense of being, but also to regain my sense that language is MINE, it is MY tool to do with anything I choose. That’s Shakespeare. And it has been since my late teens. By opening him just about anywhere I have my faith in the English language restored. His use of language is not a pretentious assertion of propriety, of manners, of moral rigidity. It’s a celebration of the visual voracity of English, its ability to view anything as a subject and form it now as high art, now as casual conversation, now as earnest self examination, now as overt political persuasion. Each of those approaches jostling the others like a crowd of school children mobbing an ice cream truck.

[287] What role did Shakespeare write for himself in each play? It’s hard to imagine someone involved in every step of the promotion of his career. We imagine a writer as the creative hub of a great support team that includes an agent, a publisher, booksellers, and possibly a theater owner, director, and actors. And yet, most of those describe Shakespeare. He was part owner of the theaters. He was the author-in-residence of the company of actors, a member of the company, and acted in his own plays. It’s clear that certain roles in Shakespeare’s plays were written to specific actors’ strengths. (Shakespeare wrote the lead roles of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear for Richard Burbadge—who was also honored with the leads in Johnson’s Volpone, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.) If Shakespeare wrote the plays and acted in the plays, which roles did he write for himself? Probably not the big roles, the starring roles. Those were for actors with well-established reputations, actors who had box-office drawing power. He was part owner of the theater; he didn’t want to do anything that would diminish the take. But it seems there is at least one role in each play of a thoughtful character, standing off to the side, gluing things together, thinking things out, a standout from the crowd, but a member of the crowd all the same. I’m nearly certain he was Mercutio: minor character, really smart, great lines, in and out. Do you think he’d be Iago, or is it more likely he was Cassio? Mercutio and Cassio would both give him a chance to step out to the pub mid-play and get back in time for the bows. Strong argument.

[275] Alternative titles. In King Charles I’s copy of the First Folio, which he took with him to The Tower, he has struck through the titles of several of the plays and suggested his own alternates. Shakespeare started it. The Moor of Venice and Prince of Denmark are obvious subtitles; foreigners need to be told who Othello and Hamlet were. What You Will is not so obvious; it’s Twelfth Night. Some Shakespeare plays were redubbed posthumously. The late 17th century version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is called The Fairy Queen (editorial hatchet job by Nahum Tate, music by Henry Purcell); and in the 19th century, Berlioz jettisoned all the pretense hidden behind Much Ado About Nothing (a title very close to What You Will in meaning) and called it what it is: Beatrice and Benedick. That puts it in line with other “lover plays”: Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra. Othello is harder to re name: Othello and Desdemona is probably too long for the handbills; Othello and Iago seems closer to the heart of the play. Some of the plays, especially the history plays, are obviously named after their historical subject but actually feature a solid, dramatic arc of one of the other characters. 7 Stages Shakespeare Company recently did a production of MCBTH that clearly featured the dramatic rise of Macduff. There’s my alternate title (although The Scottish Play is just too cute to supersede). I recently had the rare opportunity to study and see King John. In the 20th century sense of complex and evolving characters, it should be called The Bastard, hands down. Now there’s a title people will remember.

[295] Romeo and Juliet is not a tragic summer movie about teenagers in love. That high school approach seriously trivializes Shakespeare’s feats in writing. It trivializes the hybrid play structure—comedy in the first half, tragedy in the second half. It trivializes the unusual array of social and economic status of the characters in the play. R&J is a philosophical analysis of the many species of love in Renaissance England and the powerlessness of each before the amoral forces of history and politics. We start with the hormonal cases: the gang of young men, wandering the streets, making fun of their member, Romeo, who was just dumped by his girlfriend, Rosaline (the ideal “beautiful rose”). Their testosterone overload is burned off in gang warfare. Then there are Juliet’s parents, committed to love in the form of political marriages, the preservation of wealth, social status, and the line of inheritance. There’s also the nurse, who is a poor person, unlikely to marry into anything, unlikely to get anything out of love except physical pleasure and a good time. And there’s the presumably celibate friar, drunk on the ideal of heavenly love as mirrored in an idealized form of earthly love. And none of these loves—including the historically tenuous suggestion of “love at first sight” between our rebound boy, Romeo, and our reclusive, teen-romance blinded Juliet—is effective resistance to the primal gears—hatred, vengeance, suicide, and gang warfare—of this “nasty, brutish, and short” life. Absolute power, the supreme, God-given virtue of the Duke, is the only solution to it all, and it is exercised by fiat through the two simple weapons of the Old Testament God, reward and punishment. But I admit, at this point in the history of the play we wouldn’t dare present that version.

[273] Whose Shakespeare is it? In my 30’s, I was watching Pentimento in a movie theater with some friends. A crucial late scene takes place backstage at a theater in Moscow. I congratulated myself for recognizing that it was the graveyard scene from Hamlet, and I was titillated that it was in Russian. But the idea gnawed at me. You often read memoirs and letters by great authors from foreign countries who count Shakespeare among their greatest influences. That means either they read him in English, which wouldn’t be surprising but would make me wonder how he influenced them as writers, or they read him in translation. (The great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was one of them; she read him in English.) As it happens, ten years earlier, I went to school with a Comparative Literature major named Geoffrey von Schlegel.  I looked at him with a raised eyebrow when he used his full, very elite, German name. He said, “Yes. Descendent of August Wilhelm von Schlegel. When Goethe and Schiller read Shakespeare, they read von Schlegel.” Later I discovered that the person Russians are quoting when they quote Shakespeare is none other than Boris Pasternak, who spent his time in official disapproval creating the classic Russian translation of the bard. (Akhmatova and he were friends, and wrote under similar circumstances.) I know there’s a classic French translation, but haven’t discovered the name of the (great?) translator yet. Makes me wonder who the great translators of Shakespeare are in Chinese, in Japanese, in Arabic, and Persian. I know he’s loved and performed in those languages, but whose Shakespeare are they quoting?

[276] Shakespeare and classical music. Shakespeare’s plays are full of musical vocabulary, song texts, and musical cues. Having read music instruction books from the period, I can assure you he’s absolutely correct at every turn, even when he’s being oblique or metaphorical. Each subsequent age has produced new music inspired by the plays by its best composers. In college, I adapted Henry Purcell’s score for The Fairy Queen, a slice-and-dice version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to a production of the original. Mendelssohn’s 19th century incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is extremely well know. It does the Italian temperament full justice that the first Shakespeare play to be made popular in Italian was Macbeth. And guess what young opera composer recognized the great career opportunity that landed in his lap when that translation came out: Giuseppi Verdi. Later, when the aging composer found the right librettist, the young poet/composer Arrigo Boïto, he also wrote two undisputed masterpieces, Otello (no H in Italian) and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor), and was sketching ideas for a King Lear when he died. There are three great Romeo and Juliets, Tchaikovsky’s intense Fantasy Overture, Gounod’s opera, and Prokofiev’s breathtaking 20th century ballet. Shostakovich wrote for both film and stage versions of Hamlet and King Lear, and wrote an entire song cycle of 10 songs on lines by the fool in Lear. The 20th century has also given us William Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V. And that’s just touching the surface. If you ever wonder what the word ekphrasis means, you need look no further than the relationship between Shakespeare and classical composers.

[288] My Mother and the play MCBTH. Watching the recent 7 Stages Shakespeare Company production of MCBTH, I was struck once again at how familiar my mother was with the play. She was educated in a country high school that was all about basics; no fancy college prep. Afterward she served as a Candy Striper in a Catholic hospital in Cleveland. After that, marriage to a World War II veteran. There was no clue where she obtained an actor’s familiarity with MCBTH, but she quoted it all the same. She had a wry sense of humor about it. “Is this a dagger I see before me” was a call from the kitchen when she misplaced a knife. “Out, damned spot, out,” was her way of commanding my siblings and me to get out from underfoot. (“Fly, Fleance, fly,” served the same purpose.) And nearly all the witches’ lines were about cooking from the Betty Crocker Cook Book. “Out, out brief candle,” as you might guess, was her hitting the light switch and telling us to go to sleep upstairs, “until the crack of doom,” which she led us to believe meant dawn. “Sleep that knits the raveled sleeve,” wasn’t at all about sleep; it was a reference to her incessant knitting. It sometimes included sweater sleeves, which are tricky apparently and had to be unraveled to pick up dropped stitches. And if she were introducing her brood of five, she’d call us “All my pretty ones” who were, of course, “full of sound and fury.” I didn’t make these connections until later in my life, after she left it and Shakespeare entered it, with a vengeance—but she’s still here, regretting her marriage to my father with an “unsex me here!” from the other room.

[443] Shakespeare Blog: Enginers, Petards, and Breeches. During the 7 Stages Shakespeare Company’s productions in The Press Room this 2014-2015 season, we have a rare opportunity to enjoy the two plays in which the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon uses the word “enginer”—accent on the machine, the “engine,” later to be spelled “engineer” in English, accent on the one using the machine, the “-eer”—and thereby hangs a tale. In Troilus and Cressida (II:iii, 6-8), the “deformed and scurrilous,” blaspheming and cynical servant, Thersites, suggests that if Achilles as a metaphorical “enginer” undermines Troy, it will inevitably fall; otherwise, time alone can bring down its walls. More famously, in Hamlet (III:iv, 202-209), Hamlet discovers his uncle Claudius’s plot to have him executed by the King of England, and compares Claudius to an “enginer” who has created an explosive device (“petard”) to explode the metaphorical walls of Hamlet’s life and inheritance. Hamlet muses on what sport it would be to reverse the outcome of this plot, effectively undermining the under-miners and blowing Claudius and his two co-conspirators, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “to the moon”—the meaning of the famously weird expression, “hoist on their own petard.” In both cases, the metaphor is the medieval siege technique of digging a mine or tunnel under a seemingly impregnable city’s wall, planting explosives, and blowing the wall up (as vividly portrayed in “Part II, The Two Towers” of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). This allows a breech through which the besieging army can enter and destroy the city. In Renaissance England, urban legend dictated that Welshmen were genetically predisposed to mining. England got much of its coal and tin from Wales. So, we’re not surprised to find Welsh “enginers” (although they’re never called such) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, offering a bit of comic relief through their accents (and the shtick about, Pistol, the loser of a bet to a Welsh soldier, Fluellen, eating a leek, the botanical symbol of Welsh nationalism). But it all has serious military purpose: Welshmen were assumed to be “enginers” by nature. Who better to dig mines under the walls of Harfleur and plant explosives to create a breech for the English to enter the city in Henry V. Perhaps even more curious is the exclusive association, in Renaissance England, of the profession of the “enginer” with mining, fortifications and weaponry. Mining was such a specialized occupation and required so much technological innovation over the millennia, that it was only after Shakespeare’s day that the term enginer/engineer came to be used in all human occupations involving ingenious (a word which shares its etymology with engineer) builders and the ingenious machinery they use.


What to Expect at a Modern Poetry Reading

My dear college friend, Wesley, wrote me twice on the same day (trying to cover his bases):

[E-mail] “Frank Sherlock is our new PL here, and we were trying to have a slightly broader understanding of the types of poetry (genres, if you will) that have been expressed in the last 100 years or so. Any thoughts or overviews?  Let me know!”

[Facebook] “My little club (The Franklin Inn Club) was going to host our recent poet laureate.  I was wondering if you could give me a run down on styles of poetry and poets these days. Even more to the point, what is Frank Sherlock’s style? Our older members are sort of out of touch…”

And this was my response:

Trends in poetry over the past century. My Lord, that’s a whole shelf worth of books. I turned immediately to Facebook to see what else I might learn about your question—and there was nothing there. BUT…first thing this morning, there was your note.

I understand that your committee might have certain set ideas about what is and isn’t poetry. I run into people like this all the time. They expect rhyme and meter. They expect elevated language, archaic syntax and diction that suggest something sacred, if not outright holy. They expect a certain “arms length” tone in the poem, something that allows them the privileges of the “objective observer.” They expect a certain timelessness of the subject—no contemporary references, no artifacts that might help someone in the future my use to date the poem, and certainly no slang, weird modern spellings, or informal grammar.

There are a couple reasons they can be forgiven for making these assumptions about real poetry. First of all, if they grew up going to church on Sundays (as many of our generation did), they have the very special model of hymnody which, in many respects, has not changed for millennia. Through both design and necessity, hymnody fulfills all the expectations I listed in the preceding paragraph. And it’s a powerful model.

We also have the example of how poetry was taught in schools when we were young. If hymnody conforms to a huge list of expectations and conditions, then it follows that poetry, to merit our attention, must do so also—with the single exception of the inclusion of more secular concerns as subject matter, however elevated they are in their aspiration to approximate the sacred. Most of our school anthologies, therefore, represent selections that illustrate those aspirations. It’s no surprise that modern teaching methods, based on quantifiable performance, would focus on the quantifiable aspects of poetry (such as rhyme and meter). It comes as a great shock, then, when people discover that the vast majority of poetry in the past (except for song or hymn lyrics) did not rhyme, and much of it did not have a fixed meter. Poets they remember from high school or college as the supreme examples of all that is great about poetry turn out to be the greatest examples of violating all those rules.

There’s also a modern side effect of the when we were taught poetry. We associate it as something belonging exclusively to our past, to our childhood and youth. We were taught nursery rhymes by our mothers, taught to recite longer poems by our teachers, studied the thornier aspects of “great verse” under our professors. Now that we’re adults, as with so many other things associated with our schooling, we no longer have any need for it. We reverence it as part of our education, but feel it has nothing more to add to our lives and how we live them as adults. As a result, poetry is ignored by the vast majority of adults in the United States. They do not read it. And they associate it with college professors, effete men and girls, and “blue haired ladies” writing sappy verse about love and flowers, trying to recapture their past.

All that by way of saying poetry is alive and thriving. It is not frozen at some time in the past. All that has to be written has not been written. And modern poetry, even when devoid of end rhyme and strict meter, has a thousand criteria it adheres to that give it form, that give it life, and most important, that make it vital to the poet and the reader. But with poetry as with any other art, there are millions more practitioners than will be remembered in the future, and there are just as many practitioners who never master—may not want to master—this or that aspect of the art.

So, the modern reader or listener is given a variety of opportunities, including sticking with the tried and true, those poems that have been most anthologized (there’s a book of them called The Classic One Hundred, and a subsequent volume called The Classic Five Hundred). And at the other end of the spectrum is diving into the pool of contemporary poets of all stripes—from staid academics to slammers—and hearing them all on their own grounds. To me, it’s a historical challenge. We both know of the difficulty most classical music had when it was first written (check out A Dictionary of Musical Invective). We also know that some of those pieces eventually became the “steak and potatoes” of the classical repertoire.

It’s the same with poetry. I’m okay with reading a hundred poems in a contemporary anthology and coming away with only one poem I want to re-read—and one line, not necessarily in that poem, that I want to commit to memory. It’s the excitement of the hunt, the excitement of being one of the participants in the daunting process that will pass on a few poems from our age to the future. It’s exhausting and frustrating; but also exhilarating.

Philadelphia’s poet laureate deserves to be taken seriously, first because he’s honest. His work is true to itself and true to him and his experience. He has clearly worked hard on it, not only to make it communicate clearly, but for it to exceed its surface meaning and reach for something more universal in both himself, his listeners, and his readers. Very important: much post-WWII poetry shoots for obscurity, tries to beat the reader over the head with the message “I’m smarter than you.” Not Sherlock. He invites you into his poems, makes a space for you, dialogues with you regarding your expectations and his. I also particularly appreciate the “music” of his writing, how it’s not only constructed grammatically to work smoothly on the page, but that reading it aloud adds a whole other layer of meaning through his skillful juggling of vowel and consonant sounds to underline his meaning. He makes the actual sound of the poem part of the meaning of the poem. And I particularly appreciate his honesty in subject matter. He’s not sugar coating anything. This is the world he and we live in as it is, as we have to deal with it. The thing that triumphs in this world is not his ability to obscure the more vulgar or distasteful aspects of it, but to accept it as it is and insist that, in doing so, we always retain our prerogative to acknowledge that we are a part of it and we have a huge array of options to appreciate it and maybe even to to change it.

So, in many ways, Frank Sherlock is anti-academic. We’re having a conversation here; no one is smarter than anyone else. He also has a profound appreciation of both his contemporaries—it’s clear to me that, unlike most modern poets, he reads the work of his contemporaries—and his predecessors. He honors both, but doesn’t feel compelled to imitate them. Wordsworth has many wonderful poems, but the best person to write like Wordsworth is Wordsworth; the best person to write like Frank Sherlock is Frank Sherlock. And as the sole authority on Frank Sherlock, he deserves to be heard.

Ultimately, that’s my point. When you go to a poetry reading by Frank Sherlock (or by me, for that matter), the subject isn’t poetry. “Poetry” is a sort of vague indication of “how” the speaker is going to address his audience. It is best to approach any art with an open mind. Jettison the prejudices the title might suggest to you and go in with the question—whether it’s painting, music, poetry, dance or whatever—what do you want to tell me and how do you want to tell it to me? The subject of any reading, of any lecture, of any conversation, is the reader, lecturer, interlocutors themselves. And the degree to which they can come away with a fuller appreciation of their similarities and differences is the sole measure of the success of the whole enterprise—by which I mean life itself.


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