I wish I was better-versed in how to read and understand poetry. Part of that longing emanates from a place of loss and grief—Mark was a poet—as well as being an activist, a performance artist, and one special human being always in search of his better self. His writing and poetry was part of his process.

The Tragically Hip had a song called “Poets.” When I was thinking about this post while making like a fish in the pool this morning, the song was in my head (and has been much of the day). I’m sad to say that we lost another poet and always-evolving human when Gord Downie “shuffled off this mortal coil” a few weeks back.

I was stricken with The Hip the first time I heard the opening chords to “New Orleans is Sinking.” Then, I went to Canada, their homeland where they were rock gods. Mark was probably five at the time. Downie’s poetic ruminations, framed by a rock and roll backbeat captivated me for more than a decade. So maybe I was more familiar with poetry than I thought. Perhaps Gord and Mark are somewhere reading together.

Last week, I was at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. Now that the power has been restored in Brunswick-proper, the library has resumed it normalcy, which for me is mainly, a place where people come to find and check out books. I found Stephen Burt’s the poem is you: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them perched on the new releases shelf. “This is the book for me,” I thought. I was right.

A book about poetry.

Burt includes 60 poems, collected from 1981 forward. Interestingly, the featured poets were all “shipping” their work across the approximate span of Mark’s lifetime (he was born in 1983, the year after my better half and I tied the knot).

The first poem, John Ashberry’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” was published in 1981 and the final one, by Ross Gay, “Weeping,” was released in 2015.

When Mark realized he was a poet, he also came to terms with the landscape where his writing would be living and breathing, I felt like this was when his work was destined for bigger and better things. Of course, little did I know what lay ahead.

Burt, who now is known as Steph, is an intriguing figure within the realm of poetry and literary criticism circles. There are those who don’t care for his “cheerleading” for poets. Of course, we live in such a cynical world obsessed with tearing others down that being accused of “indiscriminate positivity,” “blurbing good cheer,” and “comprehensive enthusiasm” seems destined to get you disliked and even hated. Whatever.

Mark was of good cheer, too. Because of that and some of his own unorthodox ways, others have directed their hate and vitriol his way via YouTube, and other social media platforms, too. Fuck the haters!

I read another one of Burt’s selections and poets this morning: a woman named Lucia Perillo. Her poem, “Viagra,” was a “funny poem” that takes its title from a well-known pharmaceutical that inflates flaccid penises. You’ve probably seen one of the commercials.

Perillo was a person with a disability. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 30s. She wasn’t shy about taking on the issues affecting people like her in America. Sadly, I learned this morning while doing research to write this that she died just after Mark began his walk last October. She was only three years older than I am when she died. I keep coming across these poets lately and I wish I could ask him about them, if they were people he was familiar with and had read. But of course, I can’t.

As I make my way through Burt’s fantastic book (see, his cheerleading is rubbing off on me), I’m learning that poets like Perillo and many others did other things besides just writing poetry. She had been a researcher for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to earning her MA in English from Syracuse University. A.R. Ammons studied chemistry and biology at Wake Forest. He then worked for a biological glass company for twelve years while honing his chops before his poems shaped by his math and science skills began to get noticed by the poetry community.

Mark worked in a library as a content management specialist. He was an activist, and he also took time to put his feet on the ground to traverse this wide and surprisingly diverse nation of ours. He was writing poems as he walked. He was teaching those of us paying attention that the more you get out and about, the more you begin to realize that while we’re the same in many ways, we’re also different, too.

Rugged individualism plays well in some corners (mainly conservative talk radio), but in much of the real world, we all need (and rely) on others. If we don’t, we become bitter, twisted, and just plain lonely, I think. Or your world becomes darkened by fear and hatred of “the other.”

I’m still finding my way forward with poetry, but Burt’s helped me along and I’ll continue to grow my understanding of the genre. I also now recognize that the poems and poets I was made to read in high school and hated are no longer required in adulthood. Plus, the palette of flavors is much broader than I ever imagined.

Less Dreck

When you begin your journey hosting a blog, the experience is a heady one. You—just a solitary individual armed with a keyboard—think the world and your readership will sit at your feet and hang on each and every word. Actually, you probably don’t have quite those lofty aspirations, but there is a certain confidence (arrogance) that what you set down for content matters. It usually doesn’t.

The start of a brand new run through spring, summer, fall, and then, the close of yet another year, offers a chance to revisit how/why you do things. I’m reconsidering my own blogging schedule and what passes for content.

For awhile now, posting twice a week—on set days at that—seemed like the best plan. I’m not certain that convention is necessary any longer. Since I no longer really care to serve as anyone’s paragon of a writer these days, self-imposed deadlines have become a bit of a drag. Continue reading

Trash It

I had a political screed ready to publish on Sunday, prior to the freak show that now serves as the template for our presidential debates. After listening incredulously to both candidates, I scheduled it to publish on Columbus Day morning—then I put it in my WordPress trash bin. Later, I pulled it out and set it to publish again, before finally deep-sixing it once and for all.

That trashed post is a product of being sick and tired of all the self-righteous posing that people that I once considered friends (and some, acquaintances) have taken to Facebook to spout about almost every day. Your moral superiority is an ugly look.

Here’s a snippet of what I had planned to post, but finally decided to delete

One thing I am positive about. I’m done reading anyone’s either/or equivocation. We’re as fucked with Hillary at the helm as we will be at with Trump. Both are pathetic excuses for a leader.

Don’t like my opinion. Well to hell with you! I’m still entitled to holding one until that right gets stripped away by whoever we end up with for our next president.

Speaking of opinions, The Baffler isn’t afraid to show you theirs. Whether you are a fan of their far left progressive takes, or not, at least they haven’t resorted to listicles (yet).

The fact that they actually still publish long-form articles by writers trumpeting autodidacticism is reason to at least consider their ideas. Not sure what that is? I touched down on the topic back in 2013. A lot of good self-learning has done me. But that’s a topic for another post I’ll probably write but not publish.

As much as I still want to like The Baffler, however, they lose me with articles like this one. I’m sorry, but promoting the idea that all we need to fix the problems facing America is come to “grips with womb-based womanhood,” as in, “let’s return to the womb,” is politically-correct nonsense.

I doubt anyone tacking an autodidactic route would offer up this kind of poppycock, straight out of woman studies 101.

Can women save us?

Can women save us?

A Lack of Words

I’m up to my elbows in outdoor projects right now. Having a house requires seasons when all your spare moments are devoted to home improvement activities.

Apparently, America is under some siege from Creepy Clowns. That’s an apt descriptor of Maine’s gubernatorial situation, as we have a clown in the Blaine House, and when he’s bullying some group or person he disagrees with, he acts like a creep, so that would make him creepy.

Obviously, I have little to write of any substance today. Actually, it’s less a case of content and more a situation of time.

Because I’ve had little time and energy to devote to fitness endeavors, I’ve been trying to swim twice weekly and today was my swim morning.

I hope to deliver something next week about a wonderful book I’ve been reading about Jeff Buckley this week. “Grace” has been in heavy rotation, too.

Happy Friday! Watch out for clowns that appear creepy.

Maine's creepy governor.

Maine’s creepy governor.

Writing Questions

I’ve been writing for a long time. Well, it seems like that to me, and for most people, 14 years isn’t anything to sneeze at. That’s a quarter of my life.

If you’ve been a reader of my various blogs, then you are somewhat familiar with my story. If you haven’t heard it before, here it is in a nutshell. At the age of 39, after dabbling with writing on-and-off for a couple of years, I got serious about my craft. Much of this newfound motivation was a result of reading Stephen King’s well-known book about writing, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I followed his advice in establishing a routine and adopting discipline. About a year later, I had an essay published. Three years later, my award-winning first book, When Towns Had Teams, came out. That was in 2005.

I continued on through two Moxie books, the period I called “the Moxie years,” and in 2012, decided it was time to move on to something more personal—a book of seven essays touching down on my life experiences, with several centered on my hometown of Lisbon Falls. That book was a failure from a sales standpoint, even though it contained my best writing to date.

During the last decade-and-a-half, I’ve also spent extended periods freelancing for local newspapers, regional magazines, alt-weeklies, and a few websites. I’ve gathered a file of clips, with my most recent ones posted here. Continue reading

A Bit More About John Gould

[I’m “off the air” for a few days, holed up at an undisclosed location. It’s what guys like me call “vacation time.” While I’m away, I’ll leave you with the transcript of my talk on former Lisbon writer, John Gould, held at the Lisbon Historical Society, Wednesday night.–the j(b)e.]

John Gould is one of a handful of Maine authors that once were known statewide and beyond for their literary contributions. Today, few people outside of a demographic that is likely to be weighted towards card-carrying members of the AARP know who Gould is.

So, who was John Gould?

A thumbnail bio reads like this:

  • Between 1942 and 2003, he wrote more than 30 books.
  • He also maintained a weekly syndicated column for The Christian Science Monitor that ran for 62 years, which makes him America’s longest-running syndicated columnist.
  • He wrote a best-selling book, the book that put him on the map for many, Farmer Takes a Wife. That book reached best-selling status 71 years ago.
  • Gould’s final work, Tales from Rhapsody Home, or What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, was released when Gould was 92-years-old. For his efforts to put the spotlight on how many seniors were being mistreated in the twilight years of their life, and paying for that “privilege,” he and his wife Dot got booted out of the home where they were living at the time.

You could say that Gould was the Garrison Keillor of his time and generation. His wry observations, mixed with a contrarian streak, offered a portrait of small-town Maine that few others have been able to capture—Ruth Moore (another forgotten Maine writer) is someone that comes to mind. Ironically, Moore’s book of letters contains several between her and Gould, as he was also fond of corresponding in a fashion that once marked how we kept in touch, long before social media made button pushing the bomb.

Nice turnout at the Lisbon Historical Society to hear about John Gould.

Nice turnout at the Lisbon Historical Society to hear about John Gould.

Continue reading

Using New Words

I am fascinated with words. That goes with the territory of being a writer, as we’re “arrangers of words.”

When I was in elementary school, Mondays were when my classmates and I would receive new spelling words for the week. We’d have to copy them down, and then, define them. Sometimes we’d be asked to use them in a sentence.  I’d always go home at night and ask my mother to query me to make sure I knew how to correctly spell my words. I took pride in knowing my spelling list when we’d have our spelling quiz on Thursday.

Dictionary.com offers a daily email. They send out their “word of the day.” I’ve been able to add new words to my vocabulary on the strength of their emails. Reading regularly also contributes to having a healthy vocabulary, too.

I don’t recall where it was this week that I ran across the word nadir. Something about the look of the word (the “ir” at the end also adds to its appeal) and the fact that I never hear anyone in my life using it only adds to the word’s mystique.

Nadir means, the lowest level; a low point; rock-bottom. As in, “the United States still has a ways to go before reaching its political nadir.”

An antonym of nadir might be, zenith.

Go ahead and look it up. Feel free to use it in a sentence, too.

Fewer Words

Blogging regularly requires finding a subject and crafting a post about it worth reading. The subject can be something significant and newsworthy—or it can also be mundane and personal. As my sister commented the other day, “there is almost no topic that can’t be worked into an interesting post.” That’s what it takes to keep creating content, consistently.

When I got serious about my writing, I realized that writing regularly was part of the process required to develop my craft. Actually, Stephen King shared that secret with me. Since then, my blogging track record dating back to 2003 (although some of that blogging is no longer with us, at least not on the interwebs) demonstrates that commitment.

While I’ve continued to build narratives of 500, 1,000, and upwards of those word counts, the world seems to be moving in a minimalist direction regarding communication. How many words does it take to tell a story? I’m not sure. Probably 400 or 500 would be on the lower end. I’m a firm believer that it takes more than Twitter’s 140 characters to communicate effectively. And I’m no fan of communicating by emoji via Facebook. That probably identifies me as old-fashioned.

No one writes letters these days. People can’t even be bothered to email.

Then there are days like today when life gets in the way and there’s not enough time to tackle something larger. I’ve been ruminating about things I observed during recent work-related travels through western Maine that I can’t do justice to today, so I’ll hold off ‘til a later date.

The Land of Confusion

It’s Saturday (not Friday). I’ve been consistent about posting on Tuesdays/Fridays. I’ve remained steadfast about that schedule, because that’s how self-imposed deadlines work.

As a freelance writer, I’ve always been proud of delivering on (and prior) to agreed-upon deadlines. Occasionally, I’ve had to ask an editor—usually someone I’ve developed a relationship with over time—for an extension. I guess blogging and self-imposed deadlines allow some flexibility, too.

Questions about content?

Questions about content?

Continue reading

Laughing and Raging

I don’t pretend to know what a writer like Jonathan Franzen’s (or Stephen King’s for that matter) life is like. However, there are glimpses into a writer’s mind offered by others.

In the case of Franzen that look-see comes courtesy of Phlip Weinstein in Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage, a new book that proposes to be a “critical biography,” joining elements of a biography with those of literary criticism. Franzen may be a writer of fiction mainly, but his fiction emanates from his life. Weinstein unpacks elements of that life—his family and Midwestern upbringing being just two examples—and offers up themes and the motivation for Franzen’s critically acclaimed novels and nonfiction work.

Weinstein developed a friendship with Franzen when the latter returned to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, to teach creative writing seminars. These seminars took place just prior to publishing what would be Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion.

This period in the 1990s was just prior to Franzen’s move to become arguably America’s best-known literary figure (as opposed to merely, America’s best-known, best-selling writer) at the end of the 20th century and entering the 21st. It was also before Franzen dropped what would become his coming out work, The Corrections, released in 2001.

There’s been a lot written of and about Franzen, from his well-publicized dust-up with Oprah (whom he was critical of), and the invite to come on her show; he ended up being dis-invited as a guest, This was right after The Corrections came out. I mean, who the hell disses Oprah, right? Weinstein details this and some of Franzen’s contrition that came later. I think this and a great deal of other things that he’s written—like his essays for The New Yorker, as well as his stellar nonfiction—has elevated Franzen as a prominent and important cultural player.

Making the cover of Time Magazine.

Making the cover of Time Magazine.

Continue reading