Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dana Gioia, California's Poet Laureate

     Dana Gioia has been appointed the California Poet Laureate.  If you recall, Dana wrote poetry's Goldstein Diary, "Can Poetry Matter?", in May of 1991.  This tongue-in-cheek satire featured the most hilarious statement in the history of literature:

     "Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet."

      Each "argument" for this conclusion is funnier than the last:

1.  "There have never before been so many new books of poetry published..."

     ...none of which have sold.

2.  "There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching..."

     ...but none in poetry, which involves writing and performing.  Not teaching, per se.  

3.  "Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states..."

     ...not that any of these people "earn a living" for their efforts.

4.  "There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry..."

     ...almost none of which would be recognized as "criticism" when poetry was alive.

5.  "...it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals," having disappeared from more successful media.

6.  "No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year" because no one attends them.

7.  "With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade" whose failure proves that "professional poets" is an oxymoron.

8.  "Not long ago, 'only poets read poetry' was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy."  One assumes he means "proven failure as a marketing strategy."  Were he serious, we wouldn't wonder why he is no longer working in the private sector.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #123
9.  "Or it might never be reviewed at all."  Reviewed for whom?  An imaginary readership?  Can you say "cart before horse"?

10. "Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it..." or write endless blather about its content.  Obviously, this article predated Facebook poetry groups.

      When he speaks in earnest Gioia makes a number of points we echo here at Commercial Poetry.  He writes this of the Watermelon Problem "The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors."

      Of poetry's solipsism he comments:  "Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author."

      While we may quibble, his "six modest proposals" held promise:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.

     Agreed.  We have reservations about the next three words:  "Readings should be..."  Perhaps they shouldn't exist.  Perhaps they should be replaced by poetry performances.  Why promote what even the author cannot remember?

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.

     Ayup.  As Shakespeare did.  As bards and raconteurs did.  As Leonard Cohen does.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.

     Heaven forfend!

     Let audiences speak.  Even their silence, owing to their non-existence, says infinitely more than the usual self-promoting spam from poets.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #166
4. Poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.

     This is the problem, not the solution.  Again, anthologists should present poems audiences¹ genuinely admire.

5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

      We agree wholeheartedly on the value of performance, though obviously not on the definition and import of analysis.

6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #175
      This treatise was written in 1991, just before the world wide web relegated radio--other than NPR--to breaking news, talk shows and programmed music.  More to the point, poetry was never an aural medium;  it is and always was an audiovisual one.  This is one reason why, almost a century ago, poetry was replaced by music (which is an aural medium) on the radio.

      Will Dana Gioia be a good poet laureate for California?

      In his capacity as National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia brought "The Big Read" initiative to the U.S. from Britain in 2004.  Two years later he instituted "Poetry Out Loud".  Thus, Dana has already done more for poetry than all previous laureates--state or federal--combined.

      We have observed an inverse relationship between one's value as a poet versus laureate.  Even if this doesn't remain true, Dana Gioia rates to be the greatest poet laureate ever.

      Watch this space.



Footnotes:

¹ - Or would admire, if such audiences existed.



   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Chapter II - Mother

     Even though most of us were alive at the time, few can believe what life was like in the decades before Kemla stepped onto that stage.  Who can accept that in the first two decades of the 21st century fewer than 2% of anglophones could recite a single line of contemporary poetry, or that most new "poetry" books didn't include a single verse?  Who can accept that the average English graduate didn't understand how meter worked?  Who can accept that poetry magazines never discussed technique?  Who can accept that for more than a century it was illegal to perform poetry without the author's explicit consent?  Or that poetry didn't produce a single successful writer or performer for more than a generation?  Who could expect those defending the abandonment of centuries of experience and science to be taken seriously after decades of total failure?

     Who could imagine poetry dead?

     Such was the status quo as Kemla finished reading that first stanza.  It would remain so for sixteen more seconds.


Grasshopper from Earl Gray on Vimeo.


     We have the exact timeline from the four cameras trained on the stage.  The Closed Circuit Television one saw the action from behind the podium, looking out into the audience.  It allowed us to count and identify the 43 people present.  Maude's event camera recorded all the performances head-on from across the room.  (With the artist's consent, these videos would be posted online.)  Auden's auction camera caught Kemla from the left at a seventy one degree angle. 

     At the two second mark Rick entered the room from the kitchen and saw Auden filming the performance.  Thinking this unusual, the waiter turned on his cellphone and waited for it to power up.  Standing at 23 degrees to the speaker's left, Rick took a few still photos before switching over to video. 

     At the four second mark Kemla, still looking down, folded the placemat containing the poem she was reading and set it aside.  (A month later this scrap paper would be auctioned off online for $155,000.  It was resold the next day for twice that.)


     At the seven second mark, still without looking up, Kemla switched off the microphone.  The click resounded about the room.  Later, the world.

     At the eleven second mark Rick's phone-cam became fully operational.  He pointed it onstage just in time to snap the most famous photograph in human history.  (It would adorn bedroom walls, posters and memes, in addition to serving as the default wallpaper for 73% of the computers and 62% of the smart phones sold over the next twenty years.)

     At the twelve second mark Kemla did the unthinkable.  She looked into the crowd.  Not at her text, as all readers must.  Not above the attendees' heads.  Not blankly into the space between them.  She peered into their eyes, one by one.  It was not searching.  It was neither defiance nor boldness.  It was not timid.  It was the intimacy of a friend sharing sorrow.  It was the plea of a child being abandoned. 

     The flash from Rick's camera phone caused many to flinch as if tased.  A lady in the front row gasped.

     Four seconds later Kemla spoke with them.  Not over them.  Not down to them.  Not at them.  Not in the monotone of the soporific academic or the Screaming Me-Me.  Each listener became the departed heroine.  With rising urgency and pace, Kemla's tone moved from scolding to exalting, from interrogating to witnessing, from reporting to begging for one more audience.

     "When you died and the bees did not mourn, did the crickets...hesitate? Did they draw long blue chords on each thigh?  Did they speak? Did they say 'She is gone. Face that fact.'?"

      In the space of mere moments her angry tone became one of resignation, then inspiration:

     "It's the truth but, in every other sense, it's a lie!"

      Her volume rose, as if she were speaking to the deaf.  Or the dead.

     "You remain, sui generis, one light that beams as the guide of my passing..."

      Only now did Kemla release the crowd from the grip of her gaze, turning it upwards and into the distance.

     "...and mother to my dreams."



Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel






Monday, November 30, 2015

Greatest Poet Of Our Time

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     What the word "poet" means to us can be very revealing.  And very convenient.

     Producers say a poet is someone who shares that avocation.  That is, at best, tautological and, at worst, presumptuous.

     Prosody geeks assume we're talking about those who exhibit superb technique.

     Performers think of their fellow YouTubers, slammers or open mikers.

     People who read or listen to poetry don't exist. 

     On the rare occasions when the public speaks of contemporary poets, it is usually in reference to those who bring us popular song lyrics.  For example, some might describe Elton John as a poet without knowing or caring that Bernie Taupin wrote the words to his tunes. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #156
     Naturally, Content Regents, regardless of their level of sophistication, rate and categorize poets according to their material.  Rebels love Charles Bukowski, romantics turn to Maya Angelou, and "critics" blurb an endless list of p[r]osers who can't write verse any better than they can.

     To be successful, one must appeal to all of these constituencies.  A great poet would be a modern Shakespeare whose audiences appreciate themes that stir blood and brains in language that survives its utterance.

     We don't have any of those.

     In order to produce a great poet we would need, in place and in sufficient quantity and quality:  education, performers, directors, critiquers, venues, networks and, above all, audiences.

      We don't have any of those either.




Sunday, November 29, 2015

Infasia

John Prine
     No, it's not an Oriental tourist advisory.

     The cause is information overload, the constant bombardment of trivia--"data smog"--emanating from television, radio, print and Internet sources.  The effect we call "information aphasia" or "infasia", a declining ability and desire to retain details.

     We ask ourselves:  "Why commit to memory what we can web search at will?"

     This facility of research and fact checking, coupled with the difficulty to perform on our feet, leads inevitably to a processing paradox.  As Pearl says:  "We know everything and nothing."

     Everyone understands that poetry was replaced by song lyrics in the 1920s and that copyright law was the coup de grace.  The casual sharing of work on the Internet has all but solved the latter problem.  The former might be overcome by education and expertise in verse writing and presentation (e.g. performance, multimedia, networking, integration, et cetera).  Presently, the greatest challenge facing poetry is infasia, a problem that promises to get worse long before it gets better.

     The good news is that the cure is simplicity itself.






Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Bad Poetry Good For Poetry?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #187
     We know what poetry is:  speech worth retaining (even in preliterate societies).  Prose is everything else.  What, then, is "bad poetry"?  An oxymoron?  After all, why would anyone commit poor writing to memory?

     By definition, doggerel is bad verse, the classic example¹ being William McGonagall's "The Tay Bridge Disaster".  Obviously, people might learn and repeat it for the same reason most bad verse is preserved:  as song or, in this case, humor.  It won't have the value of a Shakespearean comedy or an opera but it is no less useful than a television sitcom or catchy pop tune.

     Free verse is too scarce to be consequential.  Almost all prose poetry is the former, not the latter.  Again, regardless of whether it is rhythmic or not, speech that no one, including the author, cares to memorize and perform isn't poetry of any sort, good or bad.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
     All of this you already knew.  Now things get interesting.

     Bad verse is fun because it is immediately and universally apparent as such.  It encourages both the consumption (e.g. top 40 charts, parodies) and production ("Hell, even I can do that!") of verse.  "Bad free verse"--prose posing as poetry--has the opposite effect.  Those who try reading it wonder why anyone is writing it.  Those who try listening to it feel like they're being machine-gunned with tranquilizer darts.  Rather than attract entertainment audiences and serious practitioners, it drives them away.

     This leads us inexorably to a question that defies theory, let alone answer:  After three generations of abject failure, why do universities and foundations ignore rhythm² and performance in order to concentrate on p[r]ose "poetry"?



Footnotes:

¹ = In truth, "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is not the worst verse ever written.  Hell, it isn't even the worst William McGonagall's poem about that area!  This dubious distinction belongs to "The Famous Tay Whale".  No, really.

² = "Rhythm" refers to meter and that rarest of birds:  free verse.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Facets

     In another thread a typical content regent intimated that great poems must be strong, compelling, assertive, imaginative, passionate, intelligent, moving, philosophical, thought-provoking, cultural, unassuming, vital, beautiful, transcendental and visionary.

     Two questions spring to mind:

1.  Wouldn't we want to see these things in a speech, too?

     Assuming the answer to that is "Yes" we then inquire:

2.  If both poems and speeches must be "strong, compelling, assertive, imaginative, passionate, intelligent, moving, philosophical, thought-provoking, cultural, unassuming, vital, beautiful, transcendental and visionary" what is the difference between verse and rhetoric, between poetry and prose?


Friday, October 30, 2015

Intruder




     The song ends with "I am the intruder."

      How often do we allow things--even otherwise important things--to intrude on our message?

Love is the price of smiles.

     Above we see a typical Facebook-style anonymous photomeme:  a platitude pasted onto a schmaltzy picture.  For better or worse, the message is direct.  The reader can proceed immediately to interpreting and/or appreciating the words.

"Love is the price of smiles."

     When we put quotation marks around the text we create a distraction.  People wonder:  "Who said this?"  If the author isn't identified the default assumption is that one is quoting oneself.  As we squirrels say, it is "vanity without the vanity."


"Love is the price of smiles." - Earl Gray

      If we introduce the author's name readers may wonder whether "the point is the point" or if it is an effort to highlight the writer.  If that happens to be the poster (as here) we might add "shameless self-promotion" into the mix.  If one is quoting someone else proper etiquette may seem to demand attribution.

"Love is the price of smiles." - from "Love is a Weakness" by Earl Gray

      Mentioning the source text merely adds another distracting dimension.  Are we to concentrate on the sentiment, the publication or the writer?

      Clearly, if we want people to focus on words [and pictures] we should present nothing but words [and pictures].  If these are someone else's does this constitute plagiarism?  No, because we aren't signing the meme, suggesting we wrote the aphorism.  Is it copyright infringement?  Not if the original work is significantly longer than the meme itself (which is almost always the case).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #71
     If nothing else, this "authorial intrusion" is one reason why people are more likely to read Facebook or, to stretch a point, blogs rather than novels and treatises.  It may be why some of our best poets use pseudonyms.  It also explains why more and more articles are being published without the author's name in the byline (e.g. all those published here, "staff writers", et cetera).

        And, of course, it also underscores Rule #71. 



      “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

                  - attributed to Pablo Picasso

     "A wit is always ready with a clever word. A half wit is always
  ready with a clever word of someone else's."

                 - "Leanne" (Freewrights, 22-04-2008)



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel



     

Monday, October 5, 2015

Context

     "The first time Sir Winston Churchill said 'Never before...has so much been owed by so many to so few' he was talking about London bookies."

       - Comedian James Lamb



      As with humor, poetry can often benefit from contexts...and the more the merrier.  Let me cite an example of dual contexts provided by the author.
 
      If you haven't already done so, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with this video from the novid "Love is a Weakness", where open mic poetess Kemla says goodbye to her lover and friends:



     Once you've experienced it as a goodbye, consider its genesis.

      Kemla originally wrote this as her wedding vow.

      Try re-reading it now.

      Oh, and did you recognize it as a sonnet?



Love is a Weakness

You showed me how to wait in Capistrano.
You showed me love is a weakness stronger than power. 
You showed me grace is the present tense of sorrow
but what time can take from us was never ours.


---------------------------------------------------------------

You showed me home is a person not a place.
I watch the time collapsing in your wake.
My hands retrace your touch across my face,
along my breast, toward the next mistake.


---------------------------------------------------------------

You said there cannot be a little candor;
the truth, once trimmed, can never last.
You swore you'd never flatter, never pander.
I promised you an unregretted past.
If chance is kind you'll understand this vow,
this wish, a thousand happy nights from now.



Monday, September 28, 2015

Eratosphere

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #182
     In a CBC Radio parody, the fuddy-duddy Duddley Do-Right has tracked his quarry, Pierre La Puck, to an orgy.  As the two men confront each other the francophone fugitive expresses his surprise:

Pierre La Puck:  "Hey, English, what are you doing here?"

Dudley Do-Right:  "Nothing."

Pierre La Puck:  "That figures."




Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
     In "A Brief History of Time Online" we got a peek at the evolution of critical forums online.  In the beginning there was the unmoderated Usenet rec.arts.poems newsgroup, the first worldwide gathering of poets, critics, and innumerable TORLLS (sic, i.e. illiterate trolls).  When the web developed in the 1990s a few experts, including master trollfighter Gary Gamble, formed Poetry Free-For-All.  To this day the differences between PFFA and Eratosphere (or Gazebo) reflect the Usenet experience.  To wit, Eratospherean staff will show more patience with grousers within critical threads while PFFA closes fewer general conversation threads.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #80
     Compared to Face To Face ones, online workshops have a lot of conveniences and, yes, a few problems.  As an example of the latter, bad software virtually destroyed Gazebo and the Poets.org critical forums.  Regional and national disparities can crop up.  In any event, the commitment to honesty and improvement is what distinguishes this tiny community from the blurbosphere that constitutes the rest of the poetry world.  When their staff members tell us "PFFA isn't for everyone" they are well aware of the comic understatement.  In fact, very few are interested in learning how they can refine their poems, fewer still in helping them do so--especially if their "reward" is to be pointedly ignored or countered with defensive arguments.  Also, given what is being published, why bother?

     In a recent topic on Eratosphere, "State of the Sphere", members discussed the decline in traffic on that workshop.  In truth, "fewer dynamic discussions, less engagement, less energy, less creativity" has been the trend across all of the boards for more than a decade, resulting in these sites falling off Alexa.com's radar.  Why the drop?  Various causes are suggested:

1.  the rise in social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) offering a "better" showcase;  members who "only wrote for [their own] pleasure" or are "marched off this workshop" [by the unvarnished truth];

2.  fewer "posts about poetry than about people’s self-promoting interests";

3.  "a number of journals of not accepting any poems that have appeared anywhere online, if they can be found by searching";

4.  "occasional blowups of accusations and insults on the boards";

5.  "mediocrity";

6.  Gresham's Law;

7.  "shy folk";

8.  "the workshop as a showcase";

9.  a "convoluted double-somersault-with-a-reverse-twist approach to making a simple point."


     Here is our response in a nutshell:  People leave workshops for the same reason they come.

1.  Those who write for their [Facebook] friends and family don't want, need or appreciate critique.

2.  The 99+% who wish to discuss poets, not poems, will be better served elsewhere.

3.  Journals that exclude serious critique exclude serious poetry.  Ignore them.

4.  As we observed earlier, in conversational subforums various sites will treat disputes differently.  The most common administrative error happens after these exchanges occur in a critical thread.  Moderators who say "Settle down, you two!" should reconsider the disparate value of poets and critics in a critical environment.  Whiners are a dime a dozen, critiquers willing to contribute their time and expertise are gold.  If you think the poet-critique dynamic is a chicken-and-egg scenario involving equally valuable contributors explain why such forums have to place maximums on poems and minimums on critiques.

5.  Given that the idea is to improve the poems, mediocre would seem an appropriate, if not downright fortunate and propitious, place to start. 

6.  Ideally, a workshop is about driving out the bad, not the good.  Those who think "the bad" or "the good" refers to poets, not verses, are misguided, if not misplaced.

7.  Some gravitate to online workshops seeking anonymity, only to discover that having one's work examined by strangers in public is not a dream shared by many introverts.

8.  Workshops are not vanity sites.  They are not 'zines for finished products.  The critiquer's concern is the verse that emerges, not that which arrives or remains.

9.  Pedantry in technicians can be annoying.  Pedantry in ConPoets and Content Regents is unbearable.

      Why is this decline worrying?  Eratosphere is one of only two thriving sites where poets can come to get an expert opinion of their work.  These may be the only two gatherings in existence where the average denizen knows whether "Prufrock" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" are metrical or free verse.  As for past glories, we'll close by paraphrasing a poem that appeared originally on a less fortuitous venue: 

      This was the only place where verses could whisper their true names.


Friday, August 28, 2015

The Novid

     Do you know any young, aspiring actors or actresses who would be interested in auditioning for a feature film?




Earl the Squirrel's Rule #72
     We don't know if it was the writing, the idea, the format, not being among today's "admirable websites" (whatever that means), or a question of relevance (i.e. a novel on a poetry blog), but response to the first chapter of our wholesale script-tease, "Love is a Weakness - Chapter I", was tepid.  We were about to abandon the demonstration when something happened.

     "Kemla's Farewell", slapped together for the tale's finale, was released on social media.  It didn't go viral but it was very well received, even by those who didn't know the back story.  For this we are very grateful.  Among these responders was a film producer who, if funding can be found, might want to turn the project into a movie.  (The irony here is in prose intended to resuscitate poetry being resuscitated by poetry.)

      Assuming this movie doesn't come about, we've thought of the "novid" (pronounced "NAW-vid"), a multimedia novel paralleled in whole or part by a video.  Typically, the text would be a complete novel with embedded videos of key scenes.  For example, when the key characters, Todd and Kemla, perform onstage the online reader would have the option of clicking on videos of performers depicting this.

      Actors wishing to play the role of Todd can post their rendition of "Studying Savonarola" to a site like YouTube or Vimeo.  Actresses vying for the role of Kemla can do the same with her departing message (below).  If they start the title of their entry with the title, "Studying Savonarola" or "Kemla's Farewell", as appropriate, interested producers will have no difficulty finding them.

      This modest speech is what revived interest in "Love Is A Weakness":


Kemla's Farewell from "Love Is A Weakness" here on Vimeo.


You showed me how to wait
in Capistrano.

You showed me love
is a weakness,
stronger than power.

You showed me grace
is the present
tense of sorrow

but what time
can take from us
was never ours.

---------------------------------------------------------------

You showed me home
is a person
not a place.

I watch the time 
collapsing
in your wake.

My hands retrace your touch
across my face,
along my breast,
toward the next mistake.

---------------------------------------------------------------

You said there cannot be a little candor;
the truth, once trimmed, can never last.
I swore I wouldn't flatter,
wouldn't pander.
I promised you an unregretted past.

If chance is kind you'll understand
this vow, this wish,
a thousand happy nights
from now.





Background:  Having revived poetry through her performances, Kemla composes her wedding vows.  Later, and with no apparent reason, she announces her departure to her friends and, especially, her lover...using the same words. 



Monday, August 10, 2015

Love is a Weakness - Chapter I

Chapter I - Meetings

     "Stop staring, Audy!" chided Maude.  "It's impolite."

      The old man ignored his friend.  It was a full minute before he turned to Maude, nodded towards the object of his fixation, and observed:  "She's got a book in front of her but isn't turning pages.  Her eyes aren't moving.  She's come to a theme restaurant dedicated to meeting new people but she sits alone.  Her coffee is untouched.  No food.  No purse.  Bag ladies wouldn't wear those clothes.  She has the marks on the bridge of her nose but isn't wearing her glasses.  What does this tell us, Watson?"        

     "You know I don't like this game."

     "Play along, please, Maude.  It's important."

     "Well," sighed the lady, "I guess she has a lot on her mind."

     "Exactly," concurred Auden, "and nowhere else to take it."

     "So...?"

     "So we have to help her."

     "What do you mean 'help her'?  And when did you become a philanthropist?"

     Auden's tone moved from insistent to pleading.  "She needs us.  Maude, this may be the most important thing we ever do.  Please!"

     "But why her?  Why now?  Why here?"

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973)
     The old man turned toward the girl.  After a pause he muttered  "...about suffering the masters were never wrong."     

     "Stop quoting your namesake," sighed Maude, "and tell me what's so different about this girl."

     "Don't ask questions you don't want answered."

     "I do want it answered.  That's why I asked."

     The man scratched his pointed nose, then folded his arms in front of him and cleared his throat before delivering the verdict.

     "She's The One."

     Maude's eyes popped open and her hands flew up.

     "Oh, my God!  Not this again!"

     Her friend nodded.

     "Have you lost your mind?  Again?  Don't you remember what happened last time?"

     "Well, that didn't work out well..."

     "Audy, Chernoble 'didn't work out well.'  The Hindenberg 'didn't work out well.'  The Titanic 'didn't work out well.'  This was a cataclysm!"

     "We can't let a little setback--"

     "A 'little setback'?  That's like calling World War II 'those last unpleasantries in Europe.'  You lost your job, your house, your wife, your friends.  This is the first time you've been out in almost three years!"

     "This isn't about me."

     "Then make it about you!  Forget this wild goose chase.  Sit back.  Enjoy things for a change.  You've retired.  It's time to start acting like it."

     Auden smirked, shook his head, leaned toward his companion and said "You know that isn't going to happen."

     Maude sighed.  Auden gave her a few moments to process and accept the inevitable before adding that he'd need her assistance.

     "Well, there's a surprise," she muttered.

     "Okay," he continued conspiratorially, "now we need someone with enough grace and charm to get her to join us."

     "Preferably someone who hasn't been staring at her for half an hour, you mean?"

     "Exactly.  Got anyone in mind?"

     "Well, I could get my son.  Todd would--"

     "No," Auden interjected.  "I said with grace and charm."

     "Nope.  Can't think of anyone."

      The old man looked indulgently at his friend, waiting for her to relent.  Eventually, she exhaled sharply and nodded.

     "I suspect she'll need a place to stay," Auden prompted, peering expectantly at his peer.  "Not mine, obviously."

     "Who would guess that a young woman wouldn't want to go home with a sloppy, leering sixty year old geezer from a café?"

     "And his sarcastic sidekick, let's not forget."

     "It's funny that you think I'm the sidekick here."

     "Touché."

     "Of course, if she stays with me Todd will have to move in with you."

      Auden winced.  "Hmm...maybe I haven't thought this through..."

      Maude approached the girl's table and invited her to join them.  The girl raised her gaze slowly, pausing to take in the aerated bluejeans, the shock that people could still find beaded belts, and every disturbing surprise in the woman's printed shirt.  On hearing a response, the lady turned around for a moment, laughing in Auden's direction.  When she recovered, she pointed to the wall clock while mentioning something.  With no luck so far, the woman leaned forward to make one last plea before retreating.

     "How did it go?" asked her partner anxiously.

     "Well, at first she said she doesn't do threesomes.  When I stopped giggling I told her we weren't even a twosome.  I mentioned the open mic in half an hour and how they'd need all the tables fully occupied.  She said she'd move on.  I asked her to stay, that we had a job that might interest her.  She wasn't sure...and I don't see her budging yet."

     "So...no go?"

      Before Maude could answer, her buddy saw the girl flip a page in her book, pretend to read the last page in that chapter, close up, get up and trudge toward them.  Spotting this movement, Maude batted her eyes and drawled theatrically:  "Audie, do you know anyone able to resist me?"

     "No," Auden conceded, rising to pull out a chair for their visitor, "but I know hundreds who wish they had."

     "Your gratitude overwhelms."

      Only as their guest come close to earshot did Auden whisper:  "Thank you."

     "Bite me."

      As Auden got the newcomer settled Maude made the introductions:  "Kemla, this is Professor Auden Willard Niloc.  I am Maude MacKinnon.  My son, Todd, will be arriving later, once he's done with his lesson."

      After an awkward lull, she expanded.  "They call us 'The Odd Squad':  Aud, Maude and Todd."

     "'Kemla', is it?" Auden wondered, eying the tome she was carrying.  The girl nodded.

     "Can I ask which of your parents is the book collector, Kemla?"

     "Both," replied Kemla, blushing.  "How did you know I brought this from home?"

     "You don't find that book in libraries," the Professor asserted.  "Or book stores.  Have you read it?"

     "Yes."

     "What's your favorite part?"

     "When she turns the priest away, saying 'My life is epilogue.'"

     "Am I missing something here?" Maude interjected.

     "It's nothing," Auden assured her.  "Kemla, please, tell us about yourself."

     "Not much to tell, really.  College dropout.  No job, no prospects."

      The Professor continued peppering her with questions. 

     "Live at home?"

     "No."

     "Boyfriend?  Girlfriend?"

     "Like I said, 'no prospects'."

     "Cowboys or Seahawks?"

     "Chiefs."

     "Beatles or Stones?"

     "Who?"

     "You mean 'The Who'."

     "No, I mean 'Who?'"

Actor Avery Brooks as "Captain Cisco"
     "Okay.  Shatner or Brooks?"

     "That's a choice?"

     "I mean Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, or Captain Cisco, played by Avery Brooks."

     "I know.  And those are my choices?"

      Auden thanked her and asked Maude if she had any questions.  No.

      After a moment's rest the girl brought up the offer of employment.

     "When will you be interviewing me for the job?"

     "We just did," came the response.

     "Really?"

      Auden nodded.  Maude shrugged her shoulders.

     "Did I pass?"

     "Like a Beamer behind a boat."

      Kemla turned to Maude, whispered "Is that a yes?" and was answered by two thumbs up and a wide-eyed nod.

Margaret Ann Griffiths, born May 23, 1947
     "Listen, it's May 23rd.  We're celebrating the birth of an old friend.  Will you join us in a traditional bowl of Butterbean and Bacon soup with leeks?  We can order our main course after the open mic."

     The girl seemed about to decline when her host applied a full court press.  "The chef here prepares it only once a year, especially for us.  It would be a shame to waste it.  This may be your only chance to taste it.  And everything is on the house."

     "Okay, then.  If you insist."  After a moment, Kemla inquired about the person being honored.  A young waiter appeared, carrying the coffee she'd left behind.  It had grown cold so he offered a refill.  Maude suggested everyone switch to tea because it was "more British".  She smelled baking and inquired if the latest batch of buns was ready yet. 

     "Just out of the oven now," the boy responded.  The woman convinced everyone to "cheat" by having dessert after the soup and well before the entrée.  She ordered daily special soups, tea with crumpets, and fresh cinnamon rolls for everyone.  The waiter, "Rick", left. 

      Maude observed with a smirk that the chef had the hottest buns in town.  Her companion was more serious, though.

     "Kemla, can you describe the server who was just here?" he wondered.

     "Polite.  Efficient.  A kind voice."

     "Physically.  Can you tell us what he looked like?"

     "No," she confessed.  "He was behind me.  I didn't turn around to look."

     "We'll work on that," the old man declared.

     "Speaking of 'work'," Kemla countered, "what exactly would I be doing for you?  I really don't have any particular skill--"

     "You have a talent," the old man interjected.  "It'll be our job to make it a skill."

     "And what talent is it that you think I have?"

     "You really don't know, do you?" Maude asked.  Kemla looked back blankly.  Auden could only shake his head in amazement.

     "We'll see soon enough," he assured her.

      Suddenly the older woman stood up, waved her right arm and shouted:  "Todd!  Over here!"  A young man let the door close behind him and joined them barely long enough to announce that he was going to sit at a greenie instead. 

     "A 'greenie'?" Kemla wondered.

      Maude explained how, here at "Meetings", stations with red placemats were for old acquaintances;  if interested in making new ones a person sat at a table with green placemats.  They had poems on them.  The reds catered to the less adventurous with maps, news, stories and jokes.

      Maude introduced Todd to their new friend.  The young man said "Pleased to meet you" before excusing himself.  He stopped after a few steps, though, returning to warn Kemla:  "In case you're wondering, no, they don't have filters.  Or 'OFF' switches."  Then we was gone.

      Embarrassed by her offspring, Maude joked that Kemla was forbidden to fall in love with him.  Auden snorted as the two companions continued to tease each other.

     "That shouldn't be a problem.  He has the sex appeal of an Edsel."

     "That's my son!"

     "Everyone has their cross to bear."

     With this the man stood up, pulled his wallet out and placed his credit card on the table.  He explained that the position didn't involve a salary, per se, but she could put whatever she needed on his card.

     "Hold on," the girl sputtered as she paused to process the offer.  "Do you normally give out your plastic to strangers you've just met in a café?"

     "We aren't strangers anymore."

      Auden pulled out his cell phone, announced that he needed to run off a page, and asked to use Maude's printer.  The woman pointed down the street and bellowed "Kinkos!" to no avail, as the man was already closing her office door behind him.

     "You're the manager here?" Kemla inquired.

     "Floor Manager and co-owner, along with the chef, Lucy.  I'm also the Events Coordinator, as you'll see in a few minutes."

      The waiter returned with their soup.  Seeing the credit card on the table he asked if they were paying for everything now.  His boss shook her head but changed her mind, muttering that "it'll serve the bastard right."  Pointing to Kemla she added:  "Give her the card when you're done."

      The girl stopped sipping her tea and soup, gestured toward the empty chair and asked:  "What's his story?"

      "Nothing special.  He's 62...no, 63 now.  English professor.  Retired and divorced three years ago.  Bit of a nerd."

      "Does he always act this way?"

      "No.  He's never this excited.  Hasn't been out in years.  Running into you was an incredible fluke."

      "I still don't understand what he sees--"

      "Don't worry about that.  He's made a lot of mistakes in his life.  I'm beginning to think this isn't one of them, though.  I may not see it.  Hell, you might not see it, but he does...and if he's right this time the world may see it soon enough."

      Maude stopped, put down her tea and spoon, and wrung her hands together thoughtfully.  She turned to Kemla and spoke gravely:  "Don't worry about breaking his heart.  That is inevitable.  Just know that you've made an old man happier than I've seen him in years."

      "That is him happy?"

      "Oh, yes.  When you decided to join us he was beaming like a lighthouse.  He's usually not this sympathetic."

       Auden returned, complaining about the printer.

      "You jammed it?  Again?"

      "I had to write the text in freehand on the back of a placemat."

      "Poor baby!"

       The Professor ignored the restaurateuse. 

      "Kemla, I need to ask a favor."

       The girl nodded.  Setting the sheet down, he continued.

      "Will you do this poem at the end of the open mic?"

      "What?"

      "It's an elegy, commemorating--"

      "But I've never done that before."

      "I understand.  We're hoping everyone will take part, though."

       When Kemla hesitated Auden pushed the sheet toward her and pleaded:  "Humor an old man?"

       Before the girl could answer Maude rose and proclaimed "Showtime!"  Upon confirming readiness with a tall lady at the next table, she strode onto the tiny platform in the corner, turned on the microphone, checked the volume, and thanked everyone for coming.  After a few announcements, she introduced the guest speaker, Caroline Marek, who would be reading from her latest poetry volume, "Dead or Alive, Get Me Out of Here".  As usual, her biography made her sound like the next Elizabeth Bishop.  The towering woman was waved onstage and welcomed with polite applause.

      These readings were sponsored by the regional Arts Council as community outreach, featuring grad students and teachers from the local university mingling with the masses.  Maude and Auden saw it the other way around:  an opportunity for instructors to learn the value and basics of presentation.  Needless to say, both sides failed miserably but the process invariably yielded a few laughs.  For example, everyone remembered the academic who, after anaesthetizing his audience by "monodroning" gibberish for half an hour, asked the dozens of experienced performers there if they had any questions about writing or presenting poetry.

      As always, the speaker overexplained everything before delivering it with a voice, enunciation, pausing, pace and accenting that was peculiar to poetry readings of that epoch.  The material itself was also typical:  self-absorbed, artless, whiney text that could have been written as email from rehab.  Half the crowd, including all of the smokers, braved the cool evening air while the others stayed slouched in their chairs, waiting patiently for the ordeal to end.  The poet's three attending students clapped much more enthusiastically than others.  (The rest of the college faculty let their absence speak for them.)  To her credit, this particular guest did stick around to watch some of the open mic before slinking out at halftime.  The only thing these "townie" and "Ivory Tower" artists had in common was the pride they took in having nothing in common with each other.

      As MC, Maude called for a fifteen minute break with her trademark phrase:  "So mingle, already."  Meals and drinks were served.  Habitués conversed.  The open mic commenced after collecting the "smokers, tokers, evaders and evokers" from outside, herding them back to their seats.

      Maude thanked the speaker not just for the reading but for donating two copies of her latest publication.  As she gestured toward the bookcase against the rear wall, the MC explained that one copy would be featured on the top shelf, along with those of other guest authors in chronological order, while the other would be for customers to enjoy.  She then pointed at the two cameras, a closed circuit one behind her and an event camera directly in front of her.  She explained that anyone who didn't want to be included in the video of the open mic should put an "X" beside their name on the signup sheet.

     Then she introduced the theme of the night.

     "Tonight we celebrate the birthday of  Margaret Ann Griffiths, whom we know as 'Maz' or 'Grasshopper'.  We honor the life of that great poet with a first-ever performance of her signature work, "Studying Savonarola", by my darling son, Todd MacKinnon."


Studying Savonarola (by Margaret Griffiths) from Earl Gray on Vimeo.

      The young man stepped onstage to warm applause, announced the full title and began the poem.

Studying Savonarola, he considers his lover as kindling


With your amber eyes, yellow and red
of you, sun-sign heart like a blood orange
suspended in a porcelain cage, say you burn

in a courtyard and your ichor drips like honey
on the firewood, on the branches bound in fasces,
flesh fumed in the air, dark as molasses,

     Todd struggled slightly during these opening strophes, as the writing does, but from here on his pace and passion continued to rise to the crescendo at the end.

but what you are hovers as mist, as the spirit
of water is invisible until steam makes the sky
waver. Say you die, scorched into ashes, say

you pass from here to there, with your marigold
eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long

blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
the bright stem of you still a living stroke

in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.

     As soon as he finished shout-whispering "unconsumed" enthusiastic clapping began, especially from longtime patrons who hadn't seen him perform in years.  One yelled "Good to have you back, Toddler!" 

     Ms. Marek might have felt upstaged or ambushed, but any hard feelings would have been assuaged when the MC retook the stage, shook her head at her son and teased:  "Geez, child, you could have mailed it in."  The gathering chuckled. 

     Maude announced the first name on her list and the open mic began.  When she returned to the table only Auden and his credit card were still there.

     "I'm sorry, Audy," the woman whispered.  "I know how much you were hoping--"

     "It's okay.  She'll be back."

     "Did she say she would be?"

     He tried changing the subject, asking why Rick hadn't cleared the table yet.

     The open mic was the usual parade of regulars, the "Three Minute Men and Women", along with an occasional newcomer.  Every aspect of the spectrum was well represented:  droners, slambasters, messiahs, corazoners, thumpers, whiners, and narcissists.  One of the two comedians was actually funny.  A girl with a guitar showed up.  No one had the heart to tell her that Monday, not Tuesday, was Music Night.  Maude let her play a song, handed her a schedule and graciously invited her back in six days.  There was a 15 minute intermission at half time.

Margaret Ann Griffiths (1947-2009)
     As the names dwindled, Maude turned to her old friend and asked if he would do the elegy for Maz at night's end. 

     "No," he answered.  "Kemla will."

     "But she's gone."

     "She'll be back.  You just call her name, okay?"

     "Alright, but if she's not here I'm calling yours next.  Got it?"

     "She'll be here."

     At the evening's end, the MC spoke about Ms. Griffiths' untimely death in 2008 and how the next speaker would do the elegy.  At Auden's insistence, she called out Kemla's name.  Once.  Twice.  Pause.  Three times.

     "Well, in her place we have another volunteer--"

     Suddenly, a voice from the entrance called out:  "I believe I'm the girl you're looking for."

     "Kemla!  You made it!  People, let's give warm 'Meetings' greetings to a first time reader:  Kemla!"


Grasshopper from Earl Gray on Vimeo.


     At this point the Professor switched on his old, 1080 dpi camcorder and focused it on the girl mounting the stage.  Kemla approached the microphone timidly.  Stopping in front of it, she looked down and began to read from the placemat she'd been given.  The girl spoke in a tentative, wooden voice, similar to that of Ms. Marek.

The world won't change for one so small
that teardrops wound with gravity.
We braced ourselves with weights and walls.
You faced strict winds with levity,
with your coat buttoned tight, still green
and brown with Dead Sea mud and kelp.

     The crowd became boneless in their seats, sprawling as if to avoid detection.  They shaded their eyes to avoid witnessing the train wreck onstage.  As the girl finished the first stanza, some patrons glanced at each other and grinned indulgently.  Others rolled their eyes.

When what was whole is lost we lean
on rain, on roots and suds for help.

     What happened next changed the world.




    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Love is a Weakness

Prologue

      In ""Writing The Great Modern Novel?" we discussed "wholesale script-teasing", of which this is a prototype.  It is a multimedia romantic novelette about a young woman who ends a dark age.  Please let us and others know what you think of this draft.  If there is sufficient interest we'll continue publishing chapters.

Chapter 1 - "Meetings"

Chapter 2 - "Ysodorp"

Chapter 15 - "Farewell"

     We can be reached via Twitter ("Earl Gray" @EarlEsquirrel), Facebook ("EarlTheSquirrelPoetry"), email ("EarlGray" at "mail.com") or via comments below.

      Thank you for your participation.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sydney Seau

Tiaina Baul "Junior" Seau Jr.
     Between 1990 and 2009 Linebacker Tiaina Baul "Junior" Seau Jr. (1969–2012) played in 12 ProBowls and 2 Superbowls as a San Diego Charger, Miami Dolphin or New England Patriot.

     On May 2nd, 2012, Junior committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.  An examination of his brain tissue revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative condition associated with concussions.  

     His final wish was that his daughter, Sydney, might introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction, which took place this weekend.




     Relevance?

     Leaving aside the text, compare Sydney Seau's stage presence to those performing poetry or running for office today.



   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1