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Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Brendan Constantine, Poet, Educator, and Performer, interviewed by David G...


(photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)
source: www.brendanconstantine.com

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Brendan Constantine, Poet, Educator, and Performer

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Brendan Constantine’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your poems remain imaginative on the page, but the performative nature adds an extra dimension to the content. Why, in your view, is it just as important to develop presentation as much as craft?

BC: Being able to perform one’s poetry certainly isn’t a ‘rule.’ Indeed many poets write specifically because they’d rather not say these things aloud. Further, some contend that poetry is at its purest when left unvoiced, thus allowing the reader to make their own associations.

Personally, I love to listen to poetry, and I believe that if I’ve been invited to read, this makes me a guest of the listener. It’s simply good manners to make my recital as expressive as possible, without of course, upstaging the text.

I try to make eye contact with my audience, annunciate clearly, and offer at least as much emotion as I would if we were old friends catching up.

DG: Let’s stay with presentation and craft for a moment: “The Opposites Game,” was first published in The American Journal of Poetry. The piece begins with Emily Dickinson’s famous gun metaphor, then concludes just as resoundingly. The animated film published on the Ted-Ed platform adds yet another visceral element. Can you talk about the development of the film—more specifically how the process of creation and viewing it changed your perception of the poem on the page?

BC: Credit where credit is due—the first adaptation was done by filmmaker Mike Gioia for his Blank Verse Films project and I encourage folks to check it out.

The Ted Ed version is entirely to the credit of poet Sarah Kay. She has been such a steadfast supporter of my work and, indeed, the work of many other poets. A true sister for ‘the cause.’ It was she who helped to promote the poem online and then suggest it as a candidate for her collaborative project with Ted Ed, ‘There’s a Poem for That.’ Thus, ‘The Opposites Game’ is now part of an online anthology of poems, all adapted by different artists and animators.

When I was first introduced to my interpreters, filmmakers Lisa LaBracio and Anna Samo, I assured them that I wouldn’t ‘helicopter’ their efforts. “Run with it,” I said, “This is your poem now.” I’ve been fortunate enough to have a good deal of my work adapted by other artists and this is always my policy: stay out of their way, let them do whatever they need to do.

In this case, Anna and Lisa insisted on sharing their notes and sending me ‘dailies’ as the film evolved. Only once, I think, did they ask if I found an image forced or too “on the nose.” Needless to say, they nailed it. And yes, my understanding of the work changed, as it always does after passing through another mind. The experience is always humbling.

DG: For many years you’ve been a key figure in bringing verse to the so-called “real world.” You’ve worked with the homeless and those affected by traumatic brain injuries. Indeed, not just poets, but all of us rely on the mind’s imaginative power to solve problems. How has the effort of bringing poetry’s creative force into larger society helped you better understand the community in which you write?

BC: I think once you’ve decided to make a career of art, it’s very easy to lose sight of why you started in the first place. Whatever your medium, be it painting or dance or acting or making poems, you’ll find that your most conspicuous and immediate audience will be—or at least appear to be—other artists in the same discipline. When I began to seek out poetry readings, I quickly became accustomed to seeing only poets there and this resulted in a kind of myopia.

But the whole reason poetry ever occurs in most cultures is to have higher communion with the world. Yes, every artist should be working for themselves, but we’re also supposed to be contributing to a greater community, to promote an emotional vocabulary. I won’t say ‘dialogue’ because so much art is clearly declarative, not inquisitive. But, ultimately, once you go public with your art, it’s for everybody. And that means everybody gets to make their own, too.

I know some would insist that art be “left to the professionals,” but who exactly are the professionals? We could argue endlessly over that one. People are doing it now, loudly. But can you imagine going to a party, separating all the couples, and saying, “I’m afraid you aren’t qualified to dance.”

Let me add, emphatically, that when I’m working with the writers you specified in your question, my admiration for their work is totally unqualified. I’m never thinking, “Not bad for an amateur.” Some of the most compelling and urgent poetry I have ever experienced has been the work of people who have no desire to make careers of it. The “real world” is full of poets.

DG: Let’s return to opposites in a slightly different way: You organized a very interesting online workshop for Beyond Baroque in 2020, titled “The Art of Getting It Wrong.” Your philosophy: “Sometimes, in order to strike gold, you must dig through lots of mud. You must accept that no matter how skilled and experienced you may be, your worst writing always lies ahead of you.” In addition, you state that “any job worth doing, is worth doing badly.” With so much success behind you now, has this process of creative destruction become easier or more difficult over the years, when there’s arguably more to lose?

BC: Thank you so much for asking this. I’m actually about to offer the workshop again, this time for the Fine Arts Work Center and 24 Pearl Street. It will start on Halloween and run daily for a week online!

OK, end of shameless promotion. Ahem …

I believe all art is imprecise. A perfect poem would be unreadable and make no sound. A perfect painting would explode its gallery. And the only perfect dancer is fire itself. A fellow artist says it another way, “Failure is not an option. It is, in fact, always the result.”

I often tell my students that the measure of poetry is akin to the measure of diamonds. On a jeweler’s scale, the ultimate diamond is a thing comprised entirely of light. It is therefore unattainable. Likewise, the great joke played upon every poet is that no matter the size of one’s language, mortal self-consciousness cannot be described. Too much is lost in the expression, no matter how deft or prescient. The best we will ever achieve is a poem that produces a brief (indeed fleeting) physical understanding. What is a physical understanding? A feeling—the poem that speaks to you has embodied something ineffable.

If that sounds fantastic, it is. In my opinion, poetry is the art of saying something unsayable. Perhaps more remarkable is that even after the poet has had their say, it remains unsaid.

So, has it become easier or harder to recognize my limitations as a poet? Depends on when you ask me. Today, it’s no problem at all. I’ve spent the morning looking at poems by Francesca Bell, Patricia Smith, and Kaveh Akbar. I’m not even born yet.

DG: Risk is something inherent to your work—even the risk to be light-hearted. In your 2009 collection, Letters to Guns, published by Red Hen Press, there’s a poem called “Unsung Cheeses.” Yet, upon first reading, what appears to be something light is really a serious reflection on the state of our society: “O cheeses that languish in books like the lyrics of lost empires, / this mercy, this forgiveness, these hands describing love.” Can you talk about how the poem came about, perhaps in relation to the context in which it was composed?

BC: The poem is actually an homage to the great Donald Hall, former Laureate of the US. He has a wonderful poem called ‘O Cheese’ in which he lavishes praise on his subject, confessing both love and a sense of unworthiness. The poem was rather cathartic for me, a permission giver as it were, so I crafted a response. I later sent the piece to him and received a kind letter encouraging me to share it.

The catharsis I mentioned is one I continue to experience and it is given, or perhaps detonated is a better word, by anyone who reminds me how young poetry is. That is to say, as old as it may be in years, it’s still quite fresh with possibility. This is because languages are always growing, always expanding. And so long as we keep making new words (and technological means/contexts in which to share them), there will always be new poetry, new forms, fresh light.

DG: Along with your creative efforts and work in the community, you’re also a well-known educator. How have your endeavors in teaching, specifically at the Windward School, affected your development as a writer?

BC: I‘ve been teaching for a little over twenty years and I think I’m almost prepared for it. Teaching scares the hell out of me and it always has. I’m terrified of wasting anyone’s time, especially the young.

In many ways, my previous answer to your question about my work with people in recovery also applies here. Teaching is vital to me precisely because it keeps me guessing, frightened, fascinated, teachable. And it reminds me that everyone’s reason for making art isn’t the same. I forget that, too. Despite a routine of caution and (I hope) humility, I can still make broad assumptions about what a poem is, what it should do. So, I work in many different classrooms, with emerging writers, returning writers, people living with various constraints, even people who deplore my ideals. I teach because everyone has something to teach me.

If I may linger on this point just a bit longer, I’d like to share a story: A friend and colleague once gave me a book of poems, describing it as “brilliant” and “essential.” I trusted my friend and was truly curious what had provoked the endorsement. In the end, it sucked. It wasn’t just bad, it sucked, sucked in a literal sense: it drew air from the room, depleted reality. At least, that was my first impression.

But then it was also my second and third response, my fifth and tenth. Why, I wondered, why on earth would anyone bother with these poems? What could possibly have induced someone to actually write them when there were so many other pursuits—breaking your knees with a hammer, setting fire to your money, screaming into a box and mailing it to yourself—all of them equally deserving of effort.

My disdain became almost erotic in that it caused me to move and make things. I’d deliberately grab the book from time to time, open to a random page, be appalled again, and then race to write a refuting poem, a poem that contradicted this poet. I played the Opposites Game with a vengeance.

And then one day something hit me. Who, I asked myself, had caused me to write more poems—my heroes or this one supervillain? Suddenly I saw the experience in a new way—I thought I was angry, but I was actually inspired. This poet got me thinking, kept me off balance, made me work. The next time I looked at this person’s poetry, it made sense, it was beautiful, in fact. It wasn’t my style, didn’t confirm my tastes, and sought a grail I still couldn’t perceive. But it was beautiful. I now look for this author and share their work in my classrooms.

Nope, I’m not naming names and it doesn’t matter.

DG: The unmasked man in the room—if I may use the image to substitute the elephant—is COVID, which has impacted us all. And yet, writing, for better or worse, has always been a rather solitary pursuit. Being a poet who cherishes performance, how did the pandemic affect you, both personally and creatively? Did you produce more or less work, and did, perhaps, your approach to the craft change in any way?

BC: I wrote quite a bit during the first year of the pandemic, and then recovered my non-rhythm! Certainly, the isolation and new inducements (Zoom, etc.) to spend more time at the keyboard were useful. I also taught a good deal more. Happily, that trend continues. The experience has indeed informed my approach to both writing and teaching. I’ve gotten a little more patient with both. Perhaps incidentally, I began listening to music while working. I never did that before. I either did one or the other, but not both. In particular, I discovered the work of Marcus Fjellström, a Swedish composer and artist who passed away five years ago this month. I’ve found that if I play his music at low volume, I can get into a ‘zone’ and work for long stretches.

I missed performing terribly, and while I was grateful for the work-arounds, there was just no substitute. Only in the last month have I started getting anything like the regular invitations I used to receive. I have something on the order of twenty live readings booked between now and the spring.

DG: Los Angeles has been your home since birth, and you’ve committed to helping the arts thrive here. What are some of your favorite poems about the city, places you love to go for inspiration—or perhaps just a cup of coffee? Any reflections about the city are welcome.

Los Angeles truly is a city like no other. For one thing, it can often seem isolated from itself. Because of its terrific size, there are innumerable scenes, seemingly in the same cultural orbit but totally unaware of each other.

San Francisco, Manhattan, London, Paris, Rome can all be crossed cheaply and quickly. But no one seems to know where Los Angeles ends. We’re pretty sure it starts at the sea and then vanishes somewhere outside Kansas. That may sound like a dig, but I delight in the hugeness of my city. There is always more of it, and it’s positively crackling with artists.

Just now I’m living on the West Side, about three miles from the water. There’s a coffeehouse nearby, a Black Owned Business called Good People, where I like to meet friends and even do some writing. It feels like a hangout from my youth. It has that charge. It’s also on a tight stretch of Santa Monica Blvd. where one often sees courier robots on their rounds. Sawtelle Village is a short walk, and there’re art theaters like the Nuart and the Laemmle Royal.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

Reading:

Catherine Lacy’s 2018 collection of stories ‘Certain American States’
UK poet Rachael Allen’s 2019 book ‘Kingdomland’
Poet Donika Kelly’s ‘The Renunciations’ – 2021
Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel ‘The Horse’s Mouth’


Waiting for
:

Poet Betsy Sholl’s new collection ‘As If a Song Could Save You’ – October 2022
Claire Dederer’s forthcoming critique ‘Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma’ April 2023


Working on
:

Just finished a new and limited chapbook called ‘Close Call’ in honor of my friend, LA poet Gail Gauldin Moore who passed away last May. “Everything,” she once wrote, “is a close call.”

I’m looong in the throes of publishing my fifth collection of poems, which as it happens, is called ‘The Opposites Game.’

Finally, a bunch of new poems showed up in the last couple months. They’re rough and I’m not yet sure what they want. So far, they seem friendly. They’ve asked to sleep in my office. Just now I’m trying to see what they’ll eat.

DG: This sounds wonderful and interesting, Brendan. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

BC: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate. And thank you for celebrating California poets.

 

 

About Brendan Constantine

Brendan Constantine is a poet based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in many standards, including Poetry, The Nation, Best American Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Poem-a-Day. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a fifth, ‘The Opposites Game,’ is forthcoming. A popular performer, Brendan has presented his work to audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe, also appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered, TED ED, numerous podcasts, and YouTube. He currently teaches at the Windward School and, since 2017, has been working with speech pathologists across the country to develop poetry workshops for people with Aphasia and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan


Phoebe MacAdams (photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

DG: You were one of the founding members of Cahuenga Press, which has the wonderful distinction of being “owned, financed and operated by its poet-members,” as the website says. Can you talk about how it all started, how things have changed over the years, and some of the new projects you’re taking on today?

PM: Cahuenga Press started as an idea of Harry Northup and Holly Prado. It was born out of a desire to have creative control over our poetry and to be able to determine when and how we publish our books. Harry and Holly asked me, Bill Mohr, James Cushing, and Cecilia Woloch to be part of the project, and so originally, the Press consisted of three men and three women. Bill Mohr and Cecilia Woloch are no longer with the press and Holly Prado passed away on June 14, 2019. Recently we asked Jeannette Clough to join us, so we are now two men and two women.


Cahuenga Press in 2016: Me, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing (photo by Celeste Goyer)

Harry wanted to form the press to allow individual freedom for the poets involved, for the press to be self-sustaining, which it is, and to publish at least one book a year. For Harry, “there is also the personal connection with the poets whose work I admire and respect, and to be able to share common goals in poetry: continuity, memory, hope.” Holly wrote she wanted “to keep alive and make visible an attitude toward poetry that’s serious, lyrical, irrational, skillful, thoughtful: to encourage poetry that respects both feeling and intellect, the muse and keenly-studied language.” I wanted to be part of a poetry family, where each member supports each other’s creative freedom and process. I was glad to have the burden of seeking publication lifted. It is a great gift.

Our poetry styles are very different, yet we come together with total respect for each other’s work. We get together regularly to read new work to each other, share food and talk. We are a creative family. Once a year we gather at my house to have a publication party for our new book, The house has a large backyard and there is a raised area, like a grass stage. We sit in the back around tables to hear new work. We usually have 70-90 people who gather to listen, eat and buy books. All the proceeds from the books go back to the Press, along with our contributions. With Covid, of course, we have made adjustments. Our last publication party was on Zoom, and we are now meeting on Zoom, but we continue. We hope to meet again in person this spring.

There have been changes to Cahuenga over the years. Bill Mohr is a full-time literature professor at Long Beach State, and Cecilia Woloch now publishes her work with BOA Editions and other presses, so they are no longer part of Cahuenga. The four of us continued for many years. After Holly died, Jeannette Clough agreed to join us. We are gathering in person less now because of Covid, but we stay in touch by e-mail, by Zoom and on the phone. Our next book will be Tangled Hologram by James Cushing which will be out this spring (2022).

The Cahuenga family is intact.

As Harry said (and made t-shirts for us with this on it):

“Nothing Stops Poetry!”


Cahuenga Press July 2021 (photo by Ron Ozuna)
Jeannette Clough, James Cushing Me, Harry Northup

DG: Before moving to LA, you were part of the Bolinas scene. A recent article in The New Yorker even quotes an untitled poem by Ellen Sander that mentions Lewis MacAdams:

I swear to God
Me and Angelica
w/Juliet
met a diabetic monkey
in a tree on Hawthorne
in the Sheriff’s yard
and if that is not as good
as Tom or Bob or Lewis or Joanne or even Bill can do
You Can Kiss My Ass

In this respect, how was the LA scene different from the Bolinas one, both on a social and creative level, and did you find that you settled in quickly, or did it take some time to adjust?

PM: Lewis MacAdams and I moved to Bolinas in 1970 to be in the country and to start a family. We had friends in Bolinas: Tom and Angelica Clark, Joanne Kyger, Duncan and Genie McNaughton, and others. It is a beautiful rural community in Marine County on the Coast an hour north of San Francisco, built along the Bolinas Lagoon, a large body of water home to a variety of birds and other critters. We rented a house at the end of Nymph Road overlooking the Pacific in upper Bolinas, the Mesa. My two sons, Ocean and Will, were born there. Bolinas was unincorporated and its governing body was the Bolinas Public Utility Board, which determined who and how many people could get a water meter and build a house. Lewis got involved with local politics and was on the BPUD. I worked at the school.  It was the first time in my life I had been part of a community that truly controlled itself. The whole community rallied to prevent a big county sewer system from being built in Bolinas which would have opened up the town to massive development. We fought this and won, designing a sewage treatment system based on a series of ponds. There were incredible people in town, and the brilliant scientist and ecologist Peter Warshall helped design the sewer project.

View from Mt. Tamalpais

The other defining moment in Bolinas happened in 1971. In dense fog at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 19, two massive Standard Oil Company tankers met in a catastrophic collision in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. The oil spill drifted toward Bolinas and the entire town turned out to try to keep the oil out of the Lagoon and to save as many birds as we could. With logs, hay and anything we could get our hands on, we kept most of it out and spent days cleaning birds. It brought the community together. The complete story of this time can be found in Orville Schell’s The Town that Fought to Save Itself (Pantheon Books, 1976)

Bolinas was a community of poets, artists, rebels, and visionaries who gathered to make a forward-looking living space. We organized poetry readings, walked to each other’s houses to read and talk. We’d meet downtown for coffee and donuts, or at Smiley’s, the local bar.

The best book about Bolinas is an online book: Dreaming as One: Poetry, Poets and Community in Bolinas California 1967-1980 by Kevin Opstedal. This wonderful history is filled with many photos of the time.

(www.bigbridge.org/bolinas.htm)

Our marriage began to fall apart, and eventually, Lewis and I separated. Bolinas is a beautiful place, but it never felt like home to me, and while I figured out what was next, I moved to Colorado, where my mother lived. Eventually, Lewis and I decided that we needed to live closer together for the sake of our two sons and I moved back to California. I settled in Ojai, which a friend told me was Southern California’s version of Bolinas, a wonderful tip. I immediately felt like I belonged in Ojai. My kids went to Elementary and Jr. High School there. However, as they got older, Ojai began to feel too small—not enough going on for two teenage boys—and so we moved to Los Angeles, an hour and a half away. Ojai was close enough for me to visit, and my kids went to a great school—Harvard-Westlake, where Lewis was teaching creative writing.

Living in Los Angeles was hard for me at first. I felt that I had no community.

Then, in 1988, Harry Northup, who was a well-known Los Angeles poet and who had run the reading series at Gasoline Alley since 1986, asked the poet Bill Mohr and me if we wanted to take over the reading series. Gasoline Alley was a coffee shop on Melrose Avenue, and Bill was a long time Angelino. He was very active in the literary community. Thanks to Bill, I met many poets who came to Gasoline Alley to read. I began to feel part of a creative community again. Of course, L.A. is spread out, so no walking to people’s houses for coffee and talk, but we drove to be to be together. The LA literary community is tightly knit, thanks largely to Beyond Baroque, which is the center of the city’s poetic life (see question 6). In 1989, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing, Bill Mohr, Cecilia Woloch, and I came together, creating Cahuenga Press. We were a creative family.

Lewis continued to be deeply involved in politics and started an organization called Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), whose goal is to bring back the LA River. This became an enormous project with many successes, and before he died, the city named a park along the river after him, The Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park. He is considered a local hero for his efforts on behalf of the river.

I am grateful to be part of the literary community of Los Angeles, but not involved in city politics. I taught for 26 years at Roosevelt High School, a large inner city high school in Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles). It was a job I loved up to my last day. (See question 7 below for reflections on that.)

I have been fortunate to live in literary communities: San Francisco, Bolinas, Boulder and now LA. Of them all, I feel most at home in Southern California.

DG: In Aram Saroyan’s 1998 collection, Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, there’s a work, “For Lewis MacAdams,” that must surely hold a special place in your consciousness, and I will quote all of it:

I can always count on you and Phoebe
To invite a few extra people
To any party we give. You two are the social couple
Here in Bolinas, we well as the mysterious,
Weird, insane, glamorous, captivating, delightful duo

You both just naturally are. And we count on you
To be. You’re into politics, too.
And Phoebe knows poetry. A poem of hers on giving birth
Is in today’s new issue of The Paper.
Last night you both were here for my birthday

And our housewarming combined. So were
A couple of other people I know only
Slightly. No matter. You know them perhaps slightly
Better than I do, and in that there is comfort.
The two of you are great at parties.

Phoebe threw a small toy at me at one point

Last night. I don’t know why she did it, and I know
I won’t ever know. She just did. You brought me
City Money, your first book, inscribed to me
with the words “Hell’s Bell.” I tell you,
I don’t need to understand. The two of you
Are perfect, that’s all. And if it’s perfect mystery
Or perfect insanity, all the better.
We love you.
Keep that in mind, will you.

What were the emotions you felt upon first reading Saroyan’s poem, written years after all the events, and do you take trips down memory lane often, or are you somewhat glad that the joys—but also the difficulties—of youth have been celebrated and overcome?

PM: When I read this poem, I laughed out loud. What a romantic interpretation of Lewis and me!

First of all, I have to admit that I have no memory of this party or of throwing a small toy at Aram. I wonder why I did that? Aram and Gailyn bought a wonderful house on Hawthorne Road on the Mesa, the upper section of Bolinas. It was nestled in among trees in a street off the main road. They were old friends and I was very happy that they were able to buy a house and settle in it to raise a family—Aram to write his poems, and Gailyn to paint her paintings.

To characterize Lewis and me as “glamorous, captivating and delightful” is such a stretch of the imagination from where we were at that point—Lewis and I were actually hanging on to our marriage by our fingernails. It was not very long after the time of this poem, I think, that we finally separated and then eventually, divorced.

It’s true that we did sometimes bring people with us to gatherings. Once a group of poets arrived in Bolinas, the secret got out and folks headed to the Bay area to visit. Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley stayed with us for a while, Franco Beltremetti came out, along with Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Bill Berkson, Joe Brainard, and various others. Some stayed and took up residence in Bolinas, others went back to New York, Boulder, or wherever they lived permanently.

The great social couple in Bolinas was actually Bob and Bobbie Creeley. They had bought a marvelous California farmhouse on Terrace Avenue, the road that joined downtown Bolinas to the Mesa. In the middle of their kitchen was a big round wooden table surrounded by chairs. There folks would gather and talk endlessly while Bobbie filled up coffee cups. The conversations around that table were a source of inspiration, joy, and comfort. When it got too hot inside, we all went outside and sat in chairs on the grass.

Joanne Kyger also held court in her house, a kind of glorified three-room wooden shed until she and her husband, Donald Guravich, built a beautiful large studio room in the back of the property. Joanne could talk to anyone and conversations at her house were an endless delight. The walls were covered with paintings. The surfaces were filled with all kinds of tchotchkes: Buddhas, little statues, candles, incense, small paintings, blessings of various kinds, all fascinating, all Joanne.

If we got tired of being in people’s houses, or people needed to go to bed, we would go downtown to Smiley’s bar and continue.

It was a time of world class talk!

Bolinas was filled with amazing people, and it was a beautiful place to live. I will always remember walking downtown on Terrace Avenue surrounded by nasturtiums and monarch butterflies; or standing on Ocean Parkway, the road overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and watching the waves coming in one after another, sparkling in the sunlight. There was much to love.

However, in all this beauty. Bolinas never really felt like my spirit’s home. When Lewis and I split and my life fell apart, I did not stay in Bolinas. I went to Colorado Springs to be near my family while I got myself back together. Finally, Lewis and I decided that we needed to be near each other for the sake of our sons. Lewis had moved to Los Angeles, and I moved to nearby Ojai. As I said earlier, a friend told me that it was Southern California’s version of Bolinas. As soon as I arrived in Ojai, I felt like my spirit was home. Though I am now based in Los Angeles, I visit Ojai frequently and still feel at home there.

My son, Ocean, lives in San Francisco with his wife, and their three children. They were both born in Bolinas and his wife’s parents are still there and so they spend a lot of time in Bobo, as we call it. When I go up to the Bay Area to visit, we often go up to Bolinas for the day. Though I am living happily in Southern California, I feel great tenderness for Bolinas.

Lewis always felt his home was Bolinas. This spring, the family and close friends will gather to bury Lewis’ ashes in the beautiful Bolinas Cemetery on Horseshoe Hill Road.

Bolinas will always be part of us.

DG: If you had to choose one poem you wrote in Bolinas and one in LA that you’re particularly proud of, which two poems would they be, and why?

PM: These two poems are very different and far apart in time in my life. I wrote the first one, Happy Birthday Bolinas, in the late seventies when I was living there with my two children and with Lewis MacAdams. It embodies a kind of mystery that is still challenging to me. I have loved this poem for years and I am still not certain about the meaning of it, if we can talk about meaning in a poem beyond the poem itself.

 

Happy Birthday Bolinas

for Joanne Kyger

Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old.
One green car. One white car. One convertible.
The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.

Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.

Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first.

A death’s head.

Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits standing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.

O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference.
All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length.
The song is resilient. The song is a muscle.
Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze.
Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching
where the door is open and the view is clear.

—from Sunday, Tombouctou Press, 1983

 

The dreams are in dream time, and trying to explain them means that I am using my “limited Rational Mind.” But doing so, I would say that dream 1 refers to a division—inside and out—but that really the two are one. Each side of the division is identical. Dream 2 might be telling me that I will have to remake my life (which I did do, in fact, when I left Bolinas) A Death’s Head? Well, these days, that is everywhere, isn’t it? Dream 3 has always been Joanne to me. She was the guiding spirit of Bolinas, our Soul, our singer, our healer, magical, full of silver discs, our teacher.

Dreams are woven into Joanne’s poetry, one part of her constant chronicling of spirit, and so they are here. These dreams are still meaningful to me, a message from some deep consciousness which I am still musing on.

Poetry was serious business in Bolinas, where the Tongue reigned supreme and where conversations were our lifeblood. What a joy it was to walk from one house to another to talk, then go down to the beach and talk some more, maybe eventually end up talking in Smiley’s, the local bar and hang out. Conversation was the coin of the land.

Bolinas was a place of a kind of magic, magic of song. It was a lovely time, and this poem brings it all back to me.

The second poem The Large Economy of the Beautiful, is the title poem from my selected poems which came out in 2016, published by Cahuenga Press.

 

The Large Economy of the Beautiful

I am wearing my birding hat
and crazy paraphernalia:
binos and bottles, little notebooks and pens
as the cars whiz by on Highway 1.
today I have learned about Syrinx, nymph
beloved by Pan,
also the throat muscle and cartilage of bird song.

the Black Skimmer moves along the top of the water
trolling for fish,
the California Cormorants stand on the sand
drying their wings

willet, whimbrel,
dowitcher and plover
yellow feet, red bills
Great Blue and Snowy White

at night the shapes of birds move differently:
wings calling

us to rise from our daily difficulties
and sing ourselves into form

—from The Large Economy of the Beautiful, Cahuenga Press 2016

 

Here, the mystery is birds. My husband and I are birders, an activity we began after we retired in 2011. My husband takes exquisite photos of birds. The bird life in Los Angeles is a treasure. We live in Pasadena, and are among them. They sustain me in this city and have led us to wander to Mono Lake, to Arizona, to Colombia. I love to be with their movement, their song and calls, their wonderful names. They give us beauty and give us wings within. I have come to them here in this big city and they are everywhere—the world of the urban wild.

This poem speaks to this joy and also to all the stuff that birding entails. You see birders with the equipment mentioned, binos, bottles, also birding hats, scopes, etc. There can be a lot of paraphernalia involved! Birders tend to be a gentle, joyful lot, how not to be in the presence of such beauty.

And this Los Angeles brought to me—the nymph beloved by Pan, birds and joy.

DG: In your poem, “these joys are temporary,” there’s a powerful metaphor about freedom, and I would like to quote the work in full:

over 100° today, yesterday 106°
when I didn’t go to hear Dana Gioia at Vroman’s,
having read his poems on line;
“new formalism”—why would you do that?
tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother
the exuberance that Walt won for us.
today I contemplated pictures at Avenue 50 Studio,
brave images of violence in Mexico
where artists who talk about killings are punished by death.

we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose
then come home to
turkey salad, jumbo artichokes, heirloom tomatoes,
frozen blueberry yoghurt.

The first line of the last stanza seems to imply that while poetry today is fortunate enough to have the possibility of making greater connections with the real world, it instead chooses to further distance itself by adopting tradition instead of innovation. Would this be a correct assessment of how you feel or is something else going in the poem?

PM: My poem, “These Joys are Temporary/And I Praise them,” was written on a very hot summer day in Los Angeles. Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena’s famed family bookstore which opened in 1894, had scheduled a reading of Dana Goia. Dana Goia is part of a school of poetry known as New Formalism. New Formalism is a movement in American poetry that has promoted a return to metrical rhymed verse and narrative poetry on the grounds that they are necessary if American poetry is to regain its former popularity. Along with Goia, some of its adherents are Timothy Steele, Maelyn Hacker, and Mark Jarman. This poetry is radically different from the work of any of the poets I grew up with and considered my mentors and teachers:  Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Alan Ginsberg, Bob Creeley, Joanne Kyger. The poets that I love take their inspiration in the poems of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams—poems with vitality and surprise, poems that are rooted in the speech of America. They are free, wild, and full of energy. They are not constrained and imprisoned by a set of metrical patterns or rhymes. I find that anathema to the spirit of modern American poetry.

Which is why, in my poem, I ask “why would you do that?” Why would you “tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother/the exuberance Walt won for us.” Walt Whitman opened up the verse form for us all—blew it wide open with his free verse. Free verse for a free country. I feel this is a great gift to American poets, and to the world. To return to strict rhythms and rhymes of the last century is going backward. It’s un-American!

The afternoon I did not go to hear Dana Goia read at Vroman’s, I instead went to a small gallery near where I live—Avenue 50 Studio. There was an exhibit of past political violence in Mexico, where I read that artists in Mexico who talked about the killings were punished by death.

The line “we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose” refers to a double freedom: the freedom artists have in this country to talk about anything they wish without fear of governmental reprisals, and the freedom American poets have thanks to Walt Whitman to write in free verse, “any meter we choose.”

I end the stanza with a description of the delicious foods we eat in California summers. The poem is part of a series of poems that I entitled “Small Dinners.” My plan was to anchor the poems in our summer food, a kind of love poem to the incredible wealth of fresh produce that we have in California.

So, after lines of appreciation to Walt Whitman and our literary legacy, the poem ends with a more grounded appreciation of the glorious fruits and veggies of our state, great temporary joys.

DG: With Bill Mohr you coordinated the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue. Can you talk about those years, some of the people who read/attended the events, and why programs like this are important not just for LA writers, but for poetry in general?

PM: When I started coordinating the Gasoline Alley reading series with Bill Mohr in 1988, I did not know many poets in Los Angeles. Bill (founder of Momentum Press, editor, poet and scholar) knew the literary scene well and because of him, I met many of our local poets: Suzanne Lummis, Ron Koertge, Laurel Ann Bogen, Steve Kowit, Jack Grapes, Amy Uymatsu among many others. This was a weekly series and we hosted a great number of poets in the course of running the series for two years. It was a wonderful way to get to know them. I would read their work in order to do introductions before the readings, and became familiar with a lot of the LA poets as they came through the doors of the coffee shop.

Hearing poets read is important—to really understand the beauty of poetry, it must be heard, and live readings are essential. It is a joy to go to a local coffee shop, and over a latte, hear some of the best poets in California. It is also a chance to get to know them, to talk with them afterwards, and in this sprawling city, to feel part of a community. There have been many reading series in LA – from the wonderful Aloud series at the Central Library’s beautiful Mark Taper Auditorium, sponsored by the Library Foundation, and the longstanding series, Library Girl, at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica organized by Susan Hayden, to the series at tiny Battery Books in Pasadena curated by the LA poet Steve Abee. All of these are a joy and you often get to hear poets whose work you don’t know well, so it opens you up to new voices.

The oldest series in Los Angeles is at the venerable Beyond Baroque, which was founded by George Drury Smith, who started publishing a magazine at a storefront in 1968. It is now housed in the old Venice City Hall on Venice Blvd. Beyond Baroque is the heart of Los Angeles’ literary life and going to the reading series on Friday night is like going to church. It’s a sacred space, as well as a place to meet friends, hear great poetry and find books in Beyond Baroque’s bookstore. One of my fondest memories of Beyond Baroque is the night that Ed Dorn came to read. He was dying of pancreatic cancer at the time and this was his last reading. After he had finished the entire audience rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation, very unusual for LA audiences. Tears were shed.

Poetry readings are always important, but particularly in LA, where we live so far apart. There is no walking to someone’s house to read a few poems in LA. Beyond Baroque, for instance, is an hour’s drive from my house in Pasadena, so readings bind us together. They make us family.

That said, we are (hopefully) just coming out of a two-year pandemic when all live poetry readings stopped happening. Beyond Baroque had its first in-person reading this March. Many of the reading series moved online to the Zoom format. Zoom kept poetry readings alive for us and I am eternally grateful for Zoom. It is not a perfect format. It is an odd feeling to read your poems facing a screen where you are looking at yourself and little squares of a completely quiet audience which wiggles its fingers to show its appreciation. However, in spite of its difficulties, Zoom has some advantages over live readings. I have been going to more readings than ever, readings in Ventura or Ojai that I don’t always get to. And the readings are attended by people all over the country and the globe. I am hoping that many venues will continue to have an on line option along with their live readings.

As Harry said, “Nothing stops poetry” and nothing stops poetry readings, either!

James Cushing at a Cahuenga Press Reading

DG: For many years you taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School, before retiring in 2011. How did teaching in this setting influence your writing?

PM: I started teaching at Roosevelt High School, a large LA Unified school in East Los Angeles, in 1986, not long after I moved to LA. I had gone to and taught at private schools my whole life and I wanted a change. When I went to the Roosevelt campus, I loved the warm friendly atmosphere and the principal, Henry Ronquillo. I was hired on the spot to teach English in the Magnet program. When I started at the school, the student population was 5,000. It was one of the largest schools in the country and had a student population about the size of the population of the town of Ojai where I had lived before coming to LA. I was overwhelmed by the size, but somehow the school worked. The principal supported his teachers and many innovative programs. I loved teaching at Roosevelt until my last day in June of 2011.

I met my husband, Ron Ozuna, at the school. He taught in the science department and his colleagues decided that we were meant for each other, and kind of threw us together. It worked! We were married in 1995, with my principal and a lot of Roosevelt teachers at the wedding. Ron and I taught in an interdisciplinary program together and started outdoor education at the school. We took many students for weekend trips to Catalina Island and Mono Lake, and other outdoor programs. They loved it, and so did we.

Teaching is more than a full-time job. We worked from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, then came home to grade papers and plan lessons for the next day. Naturally, the big issue for me was how to find time for writing. I decided that I needed to incorporate my teaching life into my writing. I taught creative writing for many years and when I assigned writing to my students, I wrote along with them. I began to write poems that would help me figure out what I was doing in the classroom.

So much goes on in a week.
July 29, 1996, I watch the news:
a bomb at the Olympics,
the crash of TWA flight 800.
We talk in class about roundness
and the spirit of the bear.
My students write poems
in the Japanese garden.
We discuss the Puritans,
sin and virtue.
I wonder about my mole,
do I have cancer?
I collapse with stress, sleep, recover.
So much goes on in a life, and

what is teaching, anyway?

One poem became many. After reading 1968, by the poet Ed Sanders, a wonderful journal history in verse, I decided to keep a poetry journal for one year, to see if I could answer my question in a meaningful way. I did this for the academic year 2001-2002. I wrote as I moved through my day, in my conference period, after school, etc. One advantage of teaching is the generous vacation time, during which I could edit my work. Eventually, that collection of poems became a book, Livelihood, which was published by Cahuenga Press in 2003. It is a book that I treasure, filled as it is with memories of a profession that I loved.

To date, it is my most popular book.

DG: What are reading or working on at the moment?

PM: On March 11,  2019, the World Health Organization declared the Covid 19 epidemic to be a pandemic, and on March 19, Governor Newsome issued a stay-at-home order for California. I began going out only to go to grocery stores—covered with a long raincoat, a mask, and gloves. We did all the disinfecting that was recommended and lived inside our house.

I kept a journal of the events, and kept up with friends and poets on Zoom. However, little by little, the atmosphere of the pandemic began to affect my creative life. I was taking enough precautions so that I was not particularly afraid, but there was a prevailing atmosphere of dread. In addition, the entire country had to listen to the lies and appalling misinformation of our president. That bothered me particularly. The sense of honesty and dignity that I had grown used to during Obama’s term had completely disappeared. Everything that I held dear in our American government was being chipped away. Words meant nothing to the president. I felt myself in a kind of despair and the daily onslaught pushed me inward, into a protective cocoon.

Happily, after Biden’s win, things began to be better. We all got our vaccines and boosters and began to venture out into the world again.

My creative life, however, did not recover so quickly. For many months. I did not write poems, but kept writing in my journal.

As I began to feel a bit more hopeful, I looked over my journals and realized I had a substantial record of my spirit’s life. I have always loved day books that track one’s mind and heart over time. I love Holly Prado’s Weather, a wonderful chronicle of her life day by day, and I love A Day Book, by Bob Creeley. I decided to take the essence of the journals that I was keeping and distill them into what I called snapshots—snapshots of my inner life. I started with my journal that began in July of 2019 and began pulling out what seemed significant to me. It is progressing little by little—we will see how it goes.

It feels like a project that sustains.

 

About Phoebe MacAdams

Phoebe MacAdams was born and raised in New York City, but has lived in California most of her adult life, first in the poetry community of Bolinas in Northern California, and then in Ojai in Ventura County. She has been active in the Los Angeles literary community since her move here in 1986. She is a founding member of Cahuenga Press, a poets’ cooperative press (1989-present), with the poets James Cushing, the late Holly Prado and Harry Northup, and recently Jeanette Clough. Its goal “is to create fine books of poetry by poets whose work we admire and respect; to make poetry actual in the world in ways which honor both individual creative freedom and cooperative support.”

For two years, Phoebe ran the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue with poet Bill Mohr. She taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for twenty-six years until her retirement in 2011. She has published seven books of poetry: Sunday, Ever; and with Cahuenga Press, Ordinary Snake Dance, Livelihood, Strange Grace, Touching Stone, and her most recent Cahuenga title, The Large Economy of the Beautiful, New and Selected Poems. In 2017, Beyond Baroque Books published Every Bird Helps: A Cancer Journal.

According to Amelie Frank, “What she reports back to us from her daily pilgrimages should give us hope: truth and beauty are at hand everywhere we look and always just as we need it most.”

She lives in Pasadena with her husband, Ron Ozuna.

Multiply and Divide Using Scientific Notation, a poem by David Garyan

06/02/2022
Trento, Italy

 

Multiply and Divide Using Scientific Notation

Only scientists should seriously discuss science,
meaning Judith Butler should stop talking gender.

Only psychologists should seriously discuss psychology,
meaning Harold Bloom should’ve stopped talking behavior.

Only historians should seriously discuss history,
meaning Stephen Greenblatt should forget the history of ideas.

Be an expert only in yourself.

Specialize. Divide. Categorize.

If you’re white, feel only your pain.
If you’re black, do the same.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Social Media Gestapo and NKVD: Djokovic and Meat Loaf, an article by David Garyan

23/01/2022
Trento, Italy

 

Social Media Gestapo and NKVD: Djokovic and Meat Loaf

Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful
Friedrich Nietzsche

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently signed a decree stating that from February 1st, a Super Green Pass will be required to access all forms of public transport, along with bars and restaurants (indoors and outdoors), theaters, cinemas, stadiums, gyms, and so on. A Super Green Pass can only be attained through vaccination, or through recovery after testing positive for COVID. In other words, negative tests will no longer work. In an unprecedented move, people will now also be required to have the basic Green Pass to access banks and post offices. The question is why? Why this disproportionate response?

Not long ago, the good Prime Minister went on record saying the following: “Most of the problems we are facing today depend on the fact that there are unvaccinated people.” That’s very funny. Of course, in a so-called democracy it’s easy to blame people who, for whatever reason, decide they don’t want to do something the state tells them. Let’s admit many of those “dissidents” have no legitimate reason to avoid the vaccine. If we admit the aforementioned, however, let’s also acknowledge that when a state doesn’t give you the right to have ownership over your own body—to have a choice—then that state isn’t really free. Even if a government forces its individuals to do something which is ultimately beneficial for them, it’s not freedom—it’s merely efficient autocracy. Dictatorship with benefits. An amusement park you loved in the beginning, but now you can’t leave it. Essentially a prison, but it’s not a prison: Everything inside it is nice and merry, but even if you’ve had your fun, you have to stay. It’s all for your own good.

Draghi’s word’s are pathetic, cheap, and disingenuous. He should pick on someone his own size. Since the 19th century, Italy has been dealing with a pandemic far worse than COVID—a virus the government itself has been complicit in spreading. It has suffocated the majority of rural communities in the south. It dominates almost every important sector of Italian life in places like Naples, Palermo, and Calabria. We’re talking about an epidemic that controls anywhere from 0.7 percent to 1.7 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Reuters, and Andrea Orlando, Italy’s former justice minister, respectively.

While 0.7 and 1.7 percent may seem miniscule, we’re talking about Italy’s entire GDP, which is roughly 1.8 trillion, meaning the figure amounts to anywhere between 13 to 18 billion USD. To make things even clearer, the whole GDPs of countries like Armenia, Albania, and Georgia, for example, are about that much—13, 15, and 16 billion, respectively. Essentially, what we’re saying is the following: If the ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, and Cosa Nostra were to join forces, their collective profits could amount to bankrolling an entire country like the one in which I was born—Armenia. That’s the real problem. The more unfortunate fact, however, is really this one: “The UN has a target for countries to spend 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA).” What? Developed western democracies who’ve colonized and plundered the globe only have a duty to set aside less than one percent of their whole GDP to developing poor countries? Excellent. Well done.

It’s good to know countries like the UK, in 2013, “achieved this target for the first time.” Unfortunately, the UK also has a problem: “Since 2015, the Government has also been under a statutory duty to meet it. However, citing the economic impact of the pandemic, the Government will spend 0.5% of GNI for ODA in 2021 as a ‘temporary measure.’ NGOs have said the reduction undermines the Government’s intentions to prioritise global health and girls’ empowerment.” Politicians. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Draghi is a man of politics, but we shouldn’t hold it against him. We should, however, criticize him for being a coward—a poltroon of the biggest proportions. A bully who acts tough and picks on weak kids to make himself feel strong. The real problem, Mr. Prime Minister, isn’t the unvaccinated—the real problem is government. For over a hundred years, honest, hardworking citizens in your country have been silenced, harassed, and even killed, because pestilence roams the land, and government has not only been unable to stamp it out, many within it have done a great deal to proliferate the disease. Exceptions exist. There are heroic Falcones and Borsellinos today, and the American role in bolstering the problem after WWII as a strong bulwark against communism must also be mentioned.

It seems, however, that people have forgotten the ‘90s. Mani pulite is an Italian expression meaning “clean hands,” but it’s often used to describe the scandal that rocked the country—no, it had nothing to do with a shortage of hand sanitizer during the flu season. Mani pulite was a nationwide corruption campaign that, along with the downfall of the USSR, contributed to bringing down the First Republic. Countless political parties disappeared. Many individuals committed suicide as a result of the controversies. Naturally, things like this happen everywhere.

I have used Italy only as an example because the phrase Mani pulite is so appropriate to the occasion. If Draghi was a real tough guy, he would go after people his own size—organizations that can bankroll small countries—instead of poor, little, irresponsible anti-vaxxers. They aren’t Italy’s problem, and neither are they the world’s. The planet, if you haven’t noticed, is going to shit. It has bigger things to worry about. As people in Africa are dying of hunger, why doesn’t any country donate ten percent of their GDP? More pertinently, when Ebola and Avian influenza were tearing through Africa, why did no one care to lift a finger? Aha. When the pandemics begin to hit the privileged class, it’s time to “really” protect ourselves. Vaccines, boosters, high-grade masks, and the whole nine yards, really.

Why is it so hard for people to accept the following? While government and science have done many great things, they have mostly failed to contain this pandemic. In the beginning, we were told to quarantine, and this would solve the problem—it didn’t. Then we were told to quarantine again, and this didn’t do it either. Quarantines are now a thing of the past—like the Sony Walkman or the floppy disk. Then it was the salvation of vaccines. Hallelujah, Sweet Jesus! How we all waited for that! Finally, an end to the madness! Science the Savior had arrived. And then the vaccines didn’t really work either (I admit—that’s a bit dishonest). Vaccines did minimize the effects of COVID, drastically reducing the death toll, but their use isn’t sustainable. Their potency is pathetic months after inoculation, meaning constant boosters are needed.

The problem is that the “effectiveness” of vaccines is misleading. Effective? Yes, but for how long? If COVID were to go on for five more years, let’s say, you could no longer rely on vaccines—you would need a course of 10-15 booster shots just to make it to the end, and it’s almost certain no medical study would uphold such a vaccination campaign. So, the disciples of science are merely lucky—they can say their miracles are helping to end the pandemic because if it were to go on for much longer, their Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca would become more useless than the holy water they love to ridicule. The most important question, however, is the following: Why is the situation at its worst precisely now—when cases are sky-high—almost a year after the vaccines were developed? That’s a bit ridiculous. It’s like inventing the electric car to clean up pollution and ending up with more pollution after everyone begins driving them.

Having said all that, the point of the article is neither Draghi nor Italy. The point is our obsessive need to self-police—to self-arrest, even. Before it was the state that assumed all the burdens of tracking and “correcting” deviant behavior. In Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany that was the NKVD and Gestapo, respectively. Citizens occasionally denounced their fellow compatriots, but it was largely the state that utilized its political machinery to achieve total obedience. Today, the work of the state has become easier. Fellow citizens themselves log into Facebook and post all kinds of stupid, logically fallacious propaganda, not worthy of the latest edition of Pravda. What they love to do most of all, however, is to go after the illustrious personalities—the ones who refuse to acquiesce to the state. Most recently? Djokovic and Meat Loaf.

Why do people do this? It seems the need stems from a desire to bring some relevance into their own worthless existences. Their whole lives have been wasted sitting on a couch. They have eaten the frozen TV dinners and watched the sitcom reruns. Now they feel a need to display their accomplishments. The problem is they have none, and so they impose their benevolence on all of society. Naturally, their own meaningless being pales in comparison to the stature of Djokovic and Meat Loaf, and so they feel compelled to market the only achievement they have—bending over and letting the state stick it in.

The media, too, is clever. It capitalizes on the psychological need we have to see people suffer—especially if these people have achieved more than we have. All our lives we’ve been rejected, unable to realize our goals, to be recognized for our work, to travel and have people admire us—indeed, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in seeing these “privileged” people suffer as well. That’s, in fact, the very same attitude which brought communism to Russia: Look at these privileged noblemen—we have nothing and they have everything. After all, how difficult could it be to ridicule this?

I admit I too felt a certain sense of pleasure hearing the news about Djokovic. Then I analyzed what I had felt. Being honest with myself, I saw how the reaction was driven by my own shortcomings—by my inability to have achieved similar levels of greatness.

The problem is that we’re too pathetic to accept the difficult truth: As Westerners who shout about rights, democracy, and body ownership, it’s really people like Djokovic who are our heroes, but we don’t want them to be our heroes. What we really want is to be Djokovic. To have the same recognition. To have accomplishments on that level. To have the same platform to speak. To have our voices heard. To exercise one’s rights in the way we want. What do I mean? Djokovic is someone who has attained such a level of success that missing an Australian Open—while unfortunate—will not keep him from being remembered as one of the greatest tennis players ever. While the Australian state may shut him down, deny him entry, and harass him, he can still exercise his individuality. He can stand firm. He can act in accordance with his beliefs, suffering the consequences but nevertheless standing firm. We can’t.

We’re proud activists, promoters of democracy, passionate defenders of human rights—only one thing stands in our way: The state has us by the balls. Go ahead. Try to refuse vaccination. You will lose your job. This will force you to live off our savings (those more fortunate will have them). Once those savings dwindle, you’ll be out on the street. You neither have the capital nor the platform to do what Djokovic did—to stand up for your beliefs. So you go after the guy who can. Essentially, you become the arm of the state. That’s what Facebook has grown to be—a cesspool of the vilest stupidity known to man. An online network of Stalinist apparatchiks and Gestapo forces patrolling the ether, hell-bent on punishing any and all deviance.

When Aaron Rodgers tried to stand up for his beliefs, social media grilled him because he had lied. “He should’ve just been honest,” was what many on the internet said. Then athletes like Djokovic were honest, but that wasn’t good enough either. All this, finally, brings me to Meat Loaf.

Meat Loaf is dead. He was an anti-vaxxer. He was a Republican. So what? I would rather have hung out with him than any of the Don Smiths on Facebook with their despicable opinions and poorly designed Microsoft Paint propaganda posters. God, I hate those.

What, really, have those Joe Blows done? Meat Loaf was a rock legend. He had way too many accomplishments to be sitting in front of a screen posting poorly made images on social media. I loved his songs, and I will continue to love them. I wish he’d been vaccinated so he could’ve lived longer, but that’s a choice he made. His decision was part of the totality that made him who he is.

And what about Djokovic? He couldn’t have been Djokovic, if, along with his greatness, he also didn’t have the irresponsible beliefs that come from the same source. We must accept him in his totality. For example, why are surgeons, soldiers, and pilots often numb to other people’s feelings? Because many times their inherently “negative” traits are also what allow them to be good at their jobs—it’s the very source from where the talent originates to begin with. Djokovic and Meat Loaf are and were unique individuals—one a world class athlete, the other a bad boy rock star. If your body works at levels far higher than the average one, perhaps you should have more agency over it, and perhaps you will be more afraid of “tampering” with its “configuration.”

For Meat Loaf, he was just a rebel—this helped him become who he is, and unfortunately it also led to his death. We make choices every day. We make choices that affect the course of our lives. I would think that in a Western democracy, it’s perhaps important to try and preserve the ability to choose whenever possible.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Trial by Twitter, an article by David Garyan

Trento, Italy

01/01/2022

Trial by Twitter

an article by David Garyan

On January 1st, 2022, my poem, “American Pandemic (The President’s Prayer),” was published in The American Journal of Poetry, Volume 12; it’s a poem, which, at first, seems to take a stand against science—more specifically vaccines, and perhaps, on the surface, something like that, at least if there’s no deeper contemplation, is happening there. For the record, as I wrote in this complementary piece, I believe in the positive power of science and the effectiveness of vaccines, which I received under the supervision of my parents as a child, along with the COVID jab on my own initiative (two shots of Pfizer).

Leaving all that aside, however, and returning to the work, I wrote this poem not to discredit science and vaccines, but to challenge the assumption that science and vaccines can solve all our problems—that somehow those men and women working in white lab coats are saints and miracle workers. I don’t believe they are, at least not in the grandiose, biblical sense. What do I mean? Before addressing this question, I would like to say that, firstly, there should be absolutely no debate about the good these individuals have done—the increased ease and convenience of life is total proof of this. Secondly, I don’t even claim to say that scientists are somehow bad individuals, because they’re not—many of them genuinely care about improving the planet, but even those with good intentions are often blinded by them and can’t see the actual damage the pursuit of their goals is making; this isn’t something peculiar to science or scientists, but rather it’s a general principle which affects everyone, from religious leaders on down to presidents.

So, what’s the purpose and intention of the poem? Essentially, I composed it as a challenge to the supposed saintliness of science. The pandemic has exposed—aside from the frailty of both authoritarian and even democratic nation states (a cliché argument these days)—not only our total obedience to science, but more aptly, our worship of it, to the point of idolatry. This is strange, because science, after all, isn’t omnipotent; it cannot, for example, read your thoughts or open your brain to find a picture of a horse inside it when you’re thinking of one, at least perhaps not yet. And so, we shouldn’t give it that kind of treatment, until it actually demonstrates these “godly” powers, which might be within the realm of possibilities, but perhaps also not.

The people wearing white coats, hence—the ones who’ve given us vaccines, cures, and medication—are often the same people who’ve given us the pandemics, diseases, and problems in the first place. Thus, referring to COVID vaccines as miracles is like saying nuclear decontamination experts are saints because they’ve developed tools to rid Chernobyl of all its radiation, or, more humorously, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science itself develops the reactors and bombs, and then fashions the “miracles” to protect us from the very harm that arises from them.

It’s because of science, to begin with, that we have many of the illnesses, pandemics, and environmental destruction that the discipline itself is now trying to rid us of. Except for the biblical flood, which was a deliberate attempt to teach humanity a “lesson,” the unwanted consequences of scientific progress are exactly that—unwanted; indeed, I can’t think of any other time when God had to send his “miracles” to cure his people from the ills he himself created, which, as I try to count them, seem to be rare, and probably non-existent, at least in the Garden of Eden.

The unquestioned belief and faith in the “goodness” of science has become, somehow, more dogmatic than Christian fundamentalism; in this respect, perhaps, we don’t need more science, but less of it. As Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, a 1910 book in which he discusses not only India, but also modern civilization and colonialism. This work, like many others which show us the uncomfortable truth of who and what we are, was of course banned by the British—not that different from what’s happening today when people are simply silenced for speaking about things that make the government and masses uncomfortable. So, what does Gandhi say here that’s so relevant to our times? Or, the better question to ask would the following: How does he get banned? Well, by stating the following: “Railways, lawyers and doctors have impoverished the country [India] so much so that, if we do not wake up in time, we shall be ruined.” Let’s ignore lawyers for a second, and focus on doctors, who, according to Gandhi, give us the false illusion of health, because instead of listening to the messages and symptoms of our own bodies, we, instead, take medications to silence those very signs that tell us we’re destroying ourselves, all in the attempt to continue living those destructive lives.

Take, for example, individuals who routinely overeat—in the event of chronic pain, they’re less likely to embark on the difficult road of ceasing their unhealthy habit and more likely to follow the convenient way of taking substances that relieve the very symptoms/bodily signals which are telling them to stop eating in the first place, and when those miracles of science slowly begin losing their effectiveness (something they’re bound to do sooner or later) that person will blame the medication’s quality/growing ineffectiveness instead of his own lifestyle.

And so, doctors, according to Gandhi, aren’t so much curing people these days inasmuch as they’re promoting unhealthy lifestyles, and they do this by making us believe that health is no longer about your own ability to protect the body that’s yours, but rather it’s the job of science to do that—so stay out. Science has conveniently labeled those bodily signals which are telling us to change our own lifestyle and conveniently labeled them “symptoms,” in order to take away our own agency and hand it over to science so it can “cure” it.

And how about mental health? Feeling depressed? Like the stomach pain caused by overeating, don’t figure out why you have no energy or motivation. Don’t listen to your own body because you neither know it nor can change it yourself. You’re not a scientist and you’ll undergo Trial by Twitter should you dare step out of line. Indeed, your depression is probably caused by the fact that you’ve ingested too much TV or are leading a generally unproductive life, but don’t you dare make that assumption—these things are neither worth thinking about nor even relevant. Take an anti-depressants and continue your routine, because, you, as a Western individual, one with complete faith in science, can do nothing wrong to yourself, and if you do something wrong to yourself—like overeating which leads to stomach pain or watching too much TV which leads to depression—it’s not your job to fix or even worry about that; it’s the job of science to do that. Is this the altar of saintly science we blindly kneel before?

Already, articles, such as this one in Forbes are beginning to report that psychologists may have been too eager in designating some mental disorders as real disorders, when in fact, something like “ADHD is not a disorder …. Rather it is an evolutionary mismatch to the modern learning environment we have constructed.” Indeed, it’s not depression itself that’s the problem, but the modern world, with all its technology and science, that’s causing the depression to begin with—triggering things in the mind that would never have come to the surface in an otherwise “healthy” environment, not contaminated by the miracles of science. Disorders, however, and more surreptitiously symptoms, pay well, and so why not designate? Why not diagnose? Because to cure, you must diagnose, but who benefits from the cure in this case—the patient or corporations? Why do you need to “cure” something that could’ve been avoided in the first place?

Let’s return to modernity. Gandhi spoke about railroads. And so, was it not this technology which first connected the world? And, by God, how it truly did connect everyone—pandemics and diseases included, and these, of course, never had to pay for a ticket. During Gandhi’s day, railroads were all the rage—today it’s automobiles and planes, spreading all kinds of germs with greater convenience and ease, when, hundreds of years ago, these friendly viruses rarely left the community. Once again: Is this the saintliness of science that we must worship?

Perhaps it’s still not apparent to most that we’re losing our humanity. The sentiment may seem grand, but what good will it do us to trust blindly in science when that very same blindness more than satisfies the definition of dogma in any religion? Is it not apparent that we’re falling into the same trap of exclusion, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness when we judge people who choose to follow a different creed, except that now the persecution is packaged in a different form of heresy—the refusal to bow down to the altars of medicine, engineering, physics, and chemistry—things which have given us cures, bridges, light, but also atomic bombs, poisons, and Dr. Mengele, who and which, as I’ve written, have yet to demonstrate divinity, and probably never will.

It may be cliché, but there’s a price to pay for everything, and science has largely refused to acknowledge any of its own faults, which is why it’s strange, these days, for the discipline to demand that people worship its teachings like a religion—complete faith in the so-called chemical scriptures. Not that nature can’t wreak its own havoc or create its own poisons, but at least when the forest regrows after a lightning fire, or rivers return to their banks after downpours, nature doesn’t have the arrogance to designate precisely those forces which help it heal from the wounds its own power has inflicted as miracles.

It’s in this respect that I refuse to call vaccines, the people who develop and administer them, and science in general as miracles, because they’re not—even if they do contribute much good to our society. A blind belief, along with a total, unquestioned reliance on these things, much less the elevation of these studies to a holy plateau, is utterly unwarranted, and this remains the message of the poem.

And lastly, let’s assume the government does coerce individuals into doing something which is ultimately good for them, this coercion, nevertheless, can’t be called freedom, because while today that “benevolence” may align with the government’s own goals, tomorrow those goals may diverge, and when scientists begin injecting people to satisfy an entirely different, but necessary agenda (sterilizing people, for example, to control population because the planet is on the verge of collapse) will we blindly follow those measures as well—for the “good” of the planet? That too remains the message of the poem.

The authentic artist has always been and will always be an ardent critic of the blind stupidity espoused by the masses. And, furthermore, it’s the true visionaries who see, and perhaps have already seen, what lies two steps ahead—precisely those dangers which seem absolutely harmless today but will become a force to be reckoned with years down the line. Indeed, it’s the real poets who’ve always been enemies of the government; if they’re not dissidents, they’re existence is worthless. Those, who, today, prop up the governments’ initiatives are nothing more than the American variety of the Soviet Writers Union, which bestowed elite status and material benefits in exchange for cheap literature that promoted the “noble” agendas of the state. Our own apparatchik artists today—in contrast to the hack poets like Mayakovsky and hack novelists like Ostrovski who glorified the construction of a communist paradise—are styling themselves like ones who’ve just gotten out of bed, and they’re nevertheless espousing a similarly unrealistic Eden where no one is ever offended, where everyone is always safe, where everything is forever perfect, because 2+2=5, and all of this will somehow be brought by an incarnation of Lenin, except he’ll be a better communist this time.

For now, everything is okay—get vaccinated and carry a card that prevents those who don’t have it from entering movie theaters and Christmas markets. Anyways, today it’s all for our own good and what’s the harm if it also coincides with the government’s agenda? None whatsoever. When tomorrow, however, the planet’s very existence is really threatened (it will surely come to that point one day) and something drastic must be done to fix the situation, it will no longer matter to the government what people are injected with—only that the problem is solved.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.