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The B-52s

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B-52 — Image: VCG via Getty Images

According to Defense One, the U.S. air force “is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.” Although the alert order has NOT yet been given, preparations are underway “in anticipation that it might come,” according to a report.

I wrote this poem years ago when the B-52s were over Afghanistan (as they have been again in 2017) — but I offer it today as I once again see that iconic (and frightful) shape on my screen. Imagine seeing it in the sky over your home.

As it happens, I was also, as a cold war teenager, a huge fan of the band, The B-52’s. I’ll never forget hearing Quiche Lorraine for the first time. I treasured each of those albums. I loved their sound, their look, their snark and sass and odd, bubbly optimism. I still do.

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This is how my memory, and much of my poetry, works — a mix of tones — the bomber and the band, the beauty and the anguish. I see the plane, and so many memories — mostly not about planes — surface from the murky depths. This poem is about warfare, but also about a band I loved, about adolescence, mine and maybe yours, too.

The B-52s

A Navy brat and vinyl geek, I smugly broke
the codes of INXS, XTC, Run DMC, U2,
as swiftly as I untangled all the military acronyms—
CO, OPM, CincPacFleet, SNAFU, OpSec—that spelled out
a whole corner of my world. Why did it take me longer
to translate “B-52,” via an obscure fifties slang incarnation

(a southern lady’s big beehive hairdo)

back into its original language, from the band to the bombers’
gray bulk so utterly un-evoked by Fred Schneider’s
Technicolor spasms? Maybe because Fred was more aptly
a boltbucket Soviet MiG, an experimental rocket ship,
a stunt-flyer-slash-cropduster-slash-crooner. Or was he
Slim Pickens, straddling the nuke, yee-hawing?

*

In poster-papered bedrooms across the globe, I fixated
on Fred’s beatnik vaudeville, was pulse-thrilled
by the jangly, knockabout guitar, homegrown sound effects,
the amped-up pout of Kate and Cindy’s backup routines,
the dangerous shimmy of their leads. “Rock Lobster”
was the staple of school dances where girls
like Nancy Foster with her punked up blonde spikes
writhed on the floor in the center of the gym. I watched
from the fringes of vague circles, with girls like me,
girls who only punked up our hair in private, quietly
collecting vinyl, amassing libraries of intellectual and musical
superiority. What currency did I imagine for myself
as I gently dropped the needle on the disk’s black
edge? I did wear a black trench coat, hand-me-down
from dad, decorated with a hesitation of safety pins.
It was how we communicated for several years, via surplus,
him accidentally fashionable, passing along an old pea coat
or duffel, gifts of shifting and unexpected value.

*

Years later, I wandered through the SAC museum
where they’ve got a B-52 corralled among the others
in the gargantuan hangar — I stroked their flanks
in awe, weirdly nostalgic for the cold war,
the constantly patrolled skies, the stark, theoretical
shadow of mutually assured destruction.

The cool gray skins of the grounded planes
made me sweet on what I used to know: as a kid,
living on the hill above the naval air station, I learned
to identify planes by their bellies and wingspans against the sky,
or sometimes by the sounds they made as they tore
or lumbered through, unseen, above the clouds:
the stout triangle of the F-14, the slender dart of the F-16;
the pregnant, rumbling silhouette of the C-141.

*

Why do I need to know the names of everything?
These days, it’s birds I’m tracking—squinting
and listening, with a soft spot for troublemakers and villains:
the jays and woodpeckers, the soft brown cowbirds
with their song the sound of falling water. I learn them
with books and photos, a little Latin on the tongue.

Tonight, from Afghanistan, scratchy eyewitness radio reports
the telltale signature, back after a lengthy, peaceful absence:

four impossibly distant, wispy contrails,

claw mark of the B-52 bomber whispered against the blue,
belly full of apocalypse, miles above what I imagine
are brutally beautiful mountains.

As if they were fading tracks in week-old snowfall,
I follow these faint lines into odd confluences
of history and memory—blurrings of music
and machinery, of adolescence’s cold war standoffs,
the names and acronyms we make and say.

The war reporter’s voice is vintage crackle as he describes
what he sees. I remember the silhouettes of planes,
the scream of them against the atmosphere,
the writhing bodies of kids at school dances;
I remember both the old and more recent perils
of kids in black trench coats; I remember
the hiss of the needle against vinyl, one breath
before the music that saved me began.

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Beating the Bounds is here!

9781939449146As many of you know, Beating the Bounds, my new collection of poems, was published this September in the Granite State Poetry Series of Hobblebush Books. I’m so happy with the way it turned out, and so grateful to folks who helped make it happen.

If you’d like to get a sense of what the book is about, check out Matthew Cheney’s thoughtful notice.

If you are local, the Plymouth State University Follett Campus Bookstore has copies of the book for sale. If you’d like to order online, you can order a copy directly from the press via Paypal — and there’s a 30% discount if you enter the coupon code “love2read” where indicated.

You can also order a copy from the WONDERFUL folks at Small Press Distributors — they also have my first chapbook for sale there, if you’re interested. (The book is also available at That Other Place That’s Taking Over The World, if you must.)

I had a really fun book launch/reading/sale/signing/celebration (in spite of/because of the flooding!) at the Pease Public Library in Plymouth, New Hampshire, on October 30. If you couldn’t make it, please check out the “Upcoming Readings” section of this blog — many more readings ahead!

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My Typewriter Story

To celebrate the release of the documentary, California Typewriter, their Facebook page has made a call for folks to share their #TypewriterStory. It could win you a typewriter! My story is longish, and involves line breaks, so I thought I’d write it up here instead, give myself the sprawl of the blogspace. I guess I’ll just start with the poem. Well, the first poem. My poem.
Antique
I bought this Underwood typewriter
for my last fifteen dollars in an old man’s
yard somewhere between Pott’s Grove
and Washingtonville, off a road that spun
lazy through fields of corn, withering
from June’s lack of rain, through fields
of wheat waving stiff and crisp as khaki.
I tested the keys, entranced: the “B”
and the “M” leaned slightly to the right,
the “2” and the “Q” stuck the worst,
but the quick brown fox jumped over
the lazy dogs.
                            The old proprietor,
who appeared from behind a tree to my calls,
winked and gave me a cardboard carton
to carry it in. His yard was filled with junk:
skeletal iron bed frames, pots and pans steely
with sunlight, plates from several states,
a market scale, a seamstress’s dress form,
one box of shoes, one box of plastic honey dispensers,
a Mary Poppins carpet bag–and tables full
of other lost, forgotten knickknacks.
                                                            I asked,
“Is it all yours?” “No, some of it I get.” “How
do you get it?” He said no more, offered
a noncommittal shrug.
                                         To the side
of this sunlit gallery, a small red shed
with a sign on its open door: “Do Not Enter,”
and peering in I could scarcely make out
the pale face of a large porcelain doll in the dark.
Outlines and shadows of other things loomed
over him; it was a porcelain boy in blue.
The old man said those things were not for sale
today, but after I paid for this typewriter,
a huge glass brick, a wooden baby swing,
and angel and devil salt and pepper shakers,
he said “Wait,” and ambled inside.
                                                       He emerged
with a small green metal case and set it out
proudly on one of his peeling, rickety
three-dollar tables. Smiling, knowing exactly
what would please us, he brushed off dust,
lifted away the lid, revealing a Tom Thumb
child’s typewriter. I think I was properly amazed,
and reminded him I had no money left. He nodded.
“Next time you need a typewriter, you come
back here. I’ll have something new, then.”
His rooster crowed, I took some photographs,
and he called after me, “You put those in the paper!”
Home, I finally notice there is no key
for the number one, no space for it.
No exclamation mark, either. Black with green
and gold script, this fifty-pound writing machine
could be a pipe organ, Model “T” or steam locomotive.
My new interpreter will make stubborn muscle
of my fingers, which lunge into it. It lurches
forward, shakes the table, chatters out these lines,
the hammers little soldiers marching
at my command.
                              I’ll call her Viola, after the crazy,
antique Viola who lives in my building and tells
angry, earnest stories of the aliens, subversives
and communists who plague her life. She yells
at me in the elevator, demands I pin up
the smoky, wandering wisps of her hair.

I wrote this poem as a college student, 25 years ago, after buying my first antique typewriter, pretty much as described above in that entirely too wordy poem. It was the summer before my senior year, and I was attending the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and really trying on what it might mean to Be A Poet. It was fitting, I guess, that my first Underwood and I found one another during a day trip during the Seminar. It made me feel Very Much Especially Poetic.

The summer after I graduated, before I headed off to grad school, my dad took temporary custody of the typewriter, and gave it a thorough tune-up and cleaning. He was a model ship-builder and engineer, and all-around handy guy, so this was right up his alley. And because he also had an artistic spirit, he returned the typewriter to me with a poem of his own, though he swore its true author was the machine itself — you’ll see why. I have a scan of the original, but I’m having trouble making it post-able in all its typewritten glory. So, here it is, just typed in by me on this dumb laptop keyboard:

RESURRECTION

by John Ahl

Ahah! So there you are!
The one. Come closer!
Look at me now!
Clean!
Black lacquer gleaming.
Escapement mended.
Keys ungummed; oiled.
New, untraveled ribbon.
Reborn!
Revitalized!
Brought forth,
like some mechanical Lazarus
from that Pennsylvania barn-crypt where
interred in cow dung motes
I rested
rusted
remembered.
Until you bought me
brought me.
Did you remember me from the time before?
There were so many times, before.
Did I know you before?
Which one are you?

The whiskey-flushed night reporter
who, with shaky, tobacco stained fingers
hunt-and-pecked page seven unread
Broadway gossip of the 20’s?

The sixty-word-per-minute
manicured secretary who
typed lawyers’ briefs
served lawyers’ coffee
avoided lawyers’ hands
until she was committed?

Are you the fiction writer
whose nail-bit, cold fingers sought, but
never quite found the answer?

The indifferent Corporal
who typed letters of bereavement
for the Captain’s signature
advising parents of their sons’ untimely but
gallant death in Bataan?
Chosin Reservoir?
Chu Lai?

Perhaps you are the clerk, who
with greasy hands
typed up orders for Buick parts.

Or the hands poised, mind paralyzed high school junior
seeking inspiration from 45 RPM rock and roll
for a 1000 word, typed, double-spaced
(with footnotes)
carbon paper triplicate essay
on Henry James Jr’s Portrait of a Lady.

None of those, you say?
Then come closer.
Put your fingers on my
reborn keys.
Tell me who you are.

I love my dad’s personification of the typewriter as possessor of the spirits of its previous users. I think he glimpsed the human spirit inside the machine, evidenced by the slight wear and tear. I think that for him, working on it was a way to connect with those ghosts. I love seeing his imagination at work in those lines, which he presented me sort of shyly, rolled right into the Underwood, as if it had typed itself.

In the years since, I’ve amassed and parted with many typewriters. Someone even left one on my doorstep once, a sturdy little orphan. At one point, I had about twenty of them, but I think I’m at a modest dozen or so now. I can’t remember the last time I drafted a poem on one of them. My dad passed away in 2015, not yet having completed his latest ship model, a scratch-built Constitution. Typing that poem into this post is a chance to hear his voice again, to remember his delight at the Underwood I left in his care for him to bring back to lustrous, solid (if not mint) condition.

I think I’m drawn to manual typewriters for the energies they carry, those that my dad sensed and translated into his poem. They are machines, yes, but machines powered by human touch and muscle, churning out human language, and, now, in the age of iPads and texts made of light, I find comforting music in their clatter, and a sturdy anchor in their physical heft, their dark, shining presence.

 

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Reading Through The Pile

Zone.3_.Fall_.2016_As summer turns the corner into August, I’m once again playing catch-up with piles of literary magazines I have been wanting to read. Sure, they’re a little out of date, but the poems and stories and essays and reviews within remain fresh and juicy and delicious. #ShelfLife

I just finished reading the Fall 2016 issue of Zone 3, and I just have to say their magazines are always so PRETTY. Really love their design choices all around. And Zone 3‘s not just a pretty face! I dog-eared quite a few page corners in this issue — some really memorable work, some of which I hope to share with my students this fall. 

Andrew Koch‘s poems, “Form a Line” and “Orchard,” are slow, longish poems whose pace and great detail I really enjoyed. These expansive, essayistic poems start small and really take me somewhere I didn’t necessarily expect to go — but, in both instances, the destinations seemed, in the end, not only satisfying but inevitable. Both poems got richer for me with each new reading; I love that!

Ellyn Lichvar’s “Flotsam” invokes the image and the tragedy of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who died by drowning; the photograph of his tiny body washed up on the beach is revisited here in brutal, spare detail. The poem imagines the life that led Alan, as well as many refugees, to such desperate and life-threatening measures: “Before the child washed // ashore, he mastered the art / of surrender. Hands held high / they pointed at him whatever // was on hand–camera, / gun–and no one said learn / to swim.”

Carrie Shipers’ “Love Poem to Daniel Bryan, Summer 2013″ illuminated both the speaker/”lover” and the “beloved” in ways I found surprisingly moving, given that Daniel Bryan is a professional wrestler on television, not an actual acquaintance (as far as I can tell) of the speaker. Shipers’ direct address seeks to point out similarities between her speaker and the wrestler: “I understand how even doing well can lead // to doubt: How many matches will it take / to prove your critics wrong, make you believe / that you belong? Daniel, like you // I’m either overlooked or under siege / by people with more power, insecure / but tougher than my enemies expect.” I found the repeated invocation of his full name to be so well-done, well-timed, in this poem. 

I reread “Limb” by Ellie Tipton several times, each time sinking a little more deeply into the poem’s affecting details, as well as the smart narrative arrangement of those details. The title and the work with that word “limb” is pretty devastating. As the poem progresses, the lines lengthen, and italicized fragments of language become a kind of archipelago of memory: Always the circle of strangers around you, and your family // strung together on an orange couch with a man called Chaplain, and / mother opened the ICU doors, asking the gentler one, who took her hands and said, / not yet and said thread. And hours later, clinging, we told God: fine.” The two final stanzas of the poem that come on the heels of this one feature much shorter lines, sentence fragments, glimmers, silences. The poem’s end just gutted me every time I read it. It’s a good reason to consider buying a copy of the issue.

I’m not sure what to say about David Huddle’s “Verbal Binary Presence in Early Childhood Development, that Infamously Difficult Poetic Form the Villanelle, and the Spiritual Quotidian.” It’s the winner of Zone 3’s 2016 nonfiction prize. It’s genre-bendy, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, darkly funny in places. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Also, if you are interested in the villanelle form, you must see this. 

Finally, I just wanted to say how pleased I was to see Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies (Alice James, 2016) reviewed by Robert Campbell here. I’m a big fan of May’s work — like Campbell, I find reading May’s poems to be a “sublime pleasure.”

Thanks, Zone 3 editorial team, and thanks, Austin Peay State University Center for the Creative Arts, for supporting such beautiful and necessary work!

 

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Information Underload

“And this is why there is endless talk about the latest needle in a haystack finder, when what we are facing is a collapse of the market that funds the creation of needles. ”

Hapgood

The general thesis of the tech world has been, for many years, that there is too much information and we need technology to surface the best information. For a while that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays the solution is going to be AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend…

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Poetry, Readings/Events, Uncategorized

Settings: On Collaboration, RE-vision, and the Artistic Process

This month, I had the great luck to attend the premier of award-winning composer Jonathan Santore’s choral setting of a group of my poems, collectively entitled, “Smoking, Drinking, Messing Around.” The piece was featured in a larger performance by the New Hampshire Master Chorale, “From Time To Time.”

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This is the second time my colleague and friend has “set” my poems to music for singing, and I consider such setting a gift. Listening to the poems sung by such talented vocalists to music Jonathan composed is a profound gift to me, personally – I get to hear my poems through the artistic ears and imagination of a brilliant composer, which is like hearing them for the first time, or hearing them anew, separate from the composing/revising voice in my own head. When Jonathan “sets” my work, he makes a whole new thing and offers me a new relationship to the poems – to the words, to the emotional colors, to the tone and tempo.

I used to spend more time doing letterpress work (hand-setting lead type to make poetry broadsides), the “setting” of the poems was also an (unintended, but welcome) opportunity to gain new or different access to old/familiar material, especially at the most fundamental level: the letter, the word, and the line. Setting my own poems using this old technology was so inspiring to me that I wrote a poem ABOUT type-setting my poetry! It’s featured HERE.

KHNAndNebraska 081

These two kinds of experience—hand-setting poems with lead type and having poems set for a chorus— both have me thinking about how a given work is never really finished in the sense of, say, cement “setting.” Even if the author is done with it, a reader will transform the piece in some way. Even if the reader is done with it, she may return years later with experiences or perspectives that transform, again, her (re)reading. Same for the writer. And when another artist enters the conversation, as Jonathan has done with my work, I find that the new work, the un-finishing, the re-liquefying—the work opens new doorways to the poems I thought I was done with, that I thought were done with me.

My collaborations (here’s an EXAMPLE) over twenty years or so with musicians, composers, dancers, and visual artists, as well as with other writers, have taken many different shapes and directions. They have, across the board, been invigorating, educational, and transformative. I’m feeling resolved today to work actively to seek out opportunities to work with and learn from other artists. Just last week, I met with an area songwriter with whom I hope to collaborate/perform in the coming year. I hope that I have afforded and will continue to afford other collaborators the gift (of insight, of RE-vision) that Jonathan and the Master Chorale (and others!) have provided me.

Publication, Uncategorized

Recent Publications & News

I’ve been so happy to be included in Indolent Books’ “What Rough Beast” project, publishing a poem “exploring and responding to our nation’s political reality” every day this year. In March, they posted my poem, Fake Ghazal,” and in April, my poem, “Defending the Constitution.” Other favorites of mine from the project include “Overheard” by Noah Stetzer, Carla Drysdale’s “Elegy for Leonard Cohen,” and “Nobody Dies Because They Don’t,” by Laura Winkelspecht. Thanks, Michael Broder, for your tremendous work with this and other projects.

I also want to thank Charlie Bondhus for selecting a couple of poems of mine for publication at The Good Men Project. The first, “My Father’s Tools,” has already been posted, to mark Father’s Day. Another, “Ortho,” is forthcoming.

I also recently had the pleasure of reading some poems and talking about poetry with Dr. Maria Sanders, host of the”Philosophy 4 Life” radio show. Click HERE to have a listen.

My new full-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds, is due out in September from Hobblebush Books, in their Granite State Poetry Series. The title poem from the collection was recently published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry (V 59 / No 2, Spring/Summer 2017).

I am looking forward to making up for a rather dry few months, poetry-wise. I’m on a poem-a-day grind this month, which, though I sort of hate it, does the trick.