To the Point

There comes a time in every epoch when pragmatism simply evolves into extreme acquiescence and surrender to the forces of apathy and do-nothingness, a guarantor of the status quo in all of its easy, democratic criminality--its fortress of greed.--TL Simons

Monday, May 31, 2010


Man, I have been hassling with my wireless connection all day. I wanted to write about Eugene Ionesco and the influence of The Theater of the Absurd on my work. But now I am tired and cranky and ready to surrender. But before I go, here is a link to a 1982 Paris Review interview with the playwright. If you're unfamiliar with Ionesco (there may be a few of you out there) start with his first play, The Bald Soprano.

I promise you, you will laugh your head off at the Smiths and the Martins.


Idiot of the Week

It is my pleasure to introduce this week's Idiot of the Week, an occasional blast of left-wing hubris bestowed on a deserving idiot by Round Bend Press and its name-calling, un-PC blogger, me.

You know this week's idiot as the former history professor-turned-politician and Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Clinton era, the man whose deeply divided GOP brethren rebelled against him after embarrassing ethics questions surfaced regarding his personal tax matters. He is the former congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich.

(the faint sound of clapping)

We know him well.

Newt has written another ridiculous book, and this one sounds like a doozy.

Things are getting uglier by the hour it seems. How do you like the photo of Newt? It's his official congressional portrait and, frankly, it looks gay.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Henri Barbusse's War

The Great War unleashed its madness on the European continent in 1914, opening the door to the most violent century in mankind's dark history.

One of those enraged by the audacity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's opening salvos of aggression was the Frenchman, Henri Barbusse (1874-1935). Like untold multitudes of his countrymen, Barbusse was seized by a fervent nationalism at the onset of the war. With the slaughter unfolding around him, it did not take Barbusse long to realize the errors in his thinking. Having been fortunate enough to survive the trench warfare and mass bombings (15 million would not be as lucky), and having witnessed the inhumanity close-up, Barbusse set about writing Under Fire, published in 1916.

The first anti-war novel to come out of the Great War, the book created bitter controversy in France, even as the war raged on and the U.S. debated whether to join the French-British alliance in 1917.

Here is a fragment of my essay on Barbusse and Under Fire from Alt-Everything.

Among the best anti-war novels, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916), is a story of anger and newly discovered ideals. It has elements of comedy and tenderness that transcend the vicious nature of hatred and war by demonstrating how men and women can rise above their most barbaric tendencies and glimpse anew their fundamental humanity.

Barbusse had published poems and a novel before he volunteered to fight with his countrymen in the Great War, in 1914 France. The experience turned him into a pacifist, and before the war was over he had written Under Fire, the first anti-war novel to come out of World War I.

An episodic story, the novel slogs along like its main characters, the soldiers who have not bargained for the misery that consumes them in France’s muddy, corpse-strewn fields of fire, or in the boredom of small French villages that house the fighters as they are pulled inexorably into the catastrophe of the war.

The historian Jay Winter, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, translated by Robin Buss, argues Barbusse’s “moral standing” as one who had seen and participated in the fighting won over those disposed to deny the war’s waste. Truth trumped idealized notions of a higher heroism and nobility of cause, and the novel gained popularity, winning France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt.

Debate, mainly among academics, does show that not everybody thought the award deserved. The book’s critics have called its dialogue unrealistic and skewered certain passages they insist did not happen, or could not have happened. These arguments will remain unresolved and unaddressed here. Every truth or indiscretion of a novel that is nearly a hundred years-old cannot be ascertained. Nor does it matter for the purpose of arguing that anger and an enlightened viewpoint, as well as comedy and pathos, can be taken from the book. It has then elements of truth that are understood to be somewhat real, if not universally accepted.

To tell the truth, one must shed the idealized rationalization of war by its purveyors and profiteers. This is the core of Barbusse’s pacifism. As it unfolded for Barbusse, the war became increasingly transparent as he began to see through the illusions he kept of himself sharing the supposed noble cause of French Nationalism. At the same time, he grew angry with what he suddenly realized was a huge mistake by everyone responsible for the outbreak of the war.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alinsky, Barack, Hillary and Me

If you need further evidence of the pathologically corrupt nature of America's current political structure, consider the legacy of Saul Alinsky, the man who gifted Hillary and Barack the dream.

This is the guy the right always despised and idealists like Hillary Rodham wanted to marry before she met Bill. Yet, no less a luminary than William F. Buckley admired Alinsky's tenacity, calling him an "organizational genius" back in the day. Buckley is sometimes referred to as the sensible right-winger of his era, but naturally he often made me ill, sort of like George Will does today, or the pseudo-intellectual columnist David Brooks, who hasn't the honesty of your average bank robber.

Hillary may have anointed Alinsky's feet, so taken was she by his vision of a truly democratic America. Barack Obama carried the man's principles to the mountain top, of course, but Saul isn't around now to help poor Obama. Barack is in trouble with the left because he has evidently put Alinsky's searing logic on low-heat. (He's in trouble with the right because he's a black "socialist," a hopeless tandem.) His slow-cooked methodology may be spreading something salmonella-like at the worst possible time. Alinsky pre-dated (he died in 1972) the radical ecological movement, but recall that he was dialectically opposed to "materialism." And what is more materialistic than the quest for oil, I ask you?

No Marxist however, Saul sought "change" from the inside. He might have spanked Barack for the president's tepid response to BP's pungent disaster in the Gulf, because now that Barack is supposedly on the inside he isn't doing much.

Saul wasn't a communist, or even a socialist, he said, because he wasn't a joiner. (So take that, Sarah Palin, you tea-partying hackolyte!) The funnier Marx, Groucho, said the same thing if you recall: "I wouldn't belong to any organization that would have me as a member." Or to that effect.

These are difficult times for Barack, Hillary, you, me.

I have a connection to Alinsky, too, I just haven't run for high-office yet, or any office, except Sgt.-at-Arms in high school. Tall, handsome, kind of quiet, I promised everybody free hall passes any time they wanted them. I won.

I read Saul's seminal organizing bible Rules for Radicals when I was a kid. I loved it in 1974, took it to heart. Required reading for community organizers, I read it hard until my eyes bled, wore out the pages, passed it around. It worked. I was once called a "Bolshevik" by an alderman in rural Maine because I argued with him over his decision to not buy emergency oil for a poor woman and her ten or fifteen kids, I can't remember how many, really, but more than enough. I cursed the guy and my co-organizer told me I was ridiculous. My boss later said, Hon (she called everybody Hon, short for Honey I guess), you can't be pissing people off, you must learn the art of cajoling and kissing ass, or something like that. Alice Bean. There are a million Beans in Maine, one big family.

We got the oil.

That was a crazy time, like these days. Alinsky won, his faithful moved to the highest rungs of power (remember I haven't tried yet), but they are, sadly, sort of suspended there, having lost their mojo.

You know what Saul would say today? We need change, baby. Read this for a lucid account of where we are.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Ask Reddit

Reddit always makes me laugh. Damn, there are a lot of clever people in the world.


Writers Are Like Women

I received some nice praise for this blog yesterday from a writer whom I greatly respect. He's an educator and the author of one of the funniest and sad books I read last year, the novel Kerouac's Scroll. The novel is a road-tripping remembrance of friendship and, well, the end of the road for two long-time pals.

Two old fellows decide, after one character's initial hesitation and self-examination, they should see the Smithsonian exhibit of the original scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote his frenzied initial draft of On the Road. Guided by Kerouac's symbiotic spirit, they embark on a cross-country journey through America's heartland, and into the human heart. The story is both literary homage and a fending-off of that which would deaden a man's soul before his time, before his end, which is always too near. Quibbling, reminiscing, seething, and laughing on the road to D.C., these old ex-army buddies and expert raconteurs put a spotlight on the terribly personal issues of freedom, love, and finally, death.

Big themes, well wrought. It's a helluva story.

Sometimes I think writers are like women; they dress (write) for each other. That is why writers pen blurbs for others' book covers. If the endorsement sells books, fine. But what really matters when you think about it is that someone whose mind you respect understands and is taken for a moment into your world.

Understanding. That's what it's all about. Thank you Charles Deemer.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

In the Belly of the Green Bird

"In reality both Abu Ghraib and Haditha were merely more extreme versions of the day-to-day workings of the American occupation in Iraq, and what makes them unique is not so much how bad they were, or how embarrassing, but the fact that they made their way to the media and were publicized despite attempts to cover them up. Focusing on Abu Ghraib and Haditha distracts us from the daily, little Abu Ghraibs and small-scale Hadithas that have made up the occupation. The occupation has been one vast extended crime against the Iraqi people, and most of it has occurred unnoticed by the American people and the media."

Nir Rosen

One of the most competent independent journalists to report out of Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation and civil war, Nir Rosen is the author of In the Belly of the Green Bird, the best book I've read about the war. Among the handful of books that actually focused on the socio-cultural repercussions of the war rather than merely critiquing its methodologies--America could have gotten it right after all, or so some opine--Green Bird offered an amazingly intimate look at Iraqi resistance. While interviewing U.S. supporters among the Iraqi elites, he also talked to al-Qaeda operatives, disgruntled shopkeepers, apolitical cynics, and many others given short-shrift by most Western journalists. The result was a book with better balance and more depth than much of the Iraq War canon.

Rosen, an Iranian-American born in New York City, melded into the streets of Baghdad and towns and villages to talk to hundreds of ordinary Iraqis about the events and travails in their lives during wartime. Many of the Iraqis he talked to were different than the leaders who emerged from the initial power-brokering by Paul Bremer's Provisional Authority. Their interests did not merge directly with big oil and the huge government contracts being passed around in the initial frenzied turn from dictatorship to American puppet-state. As happens when a corporatist state like America dishes its power, the little guys in Iraq were run over, figuratively and literally, by the war machine during the all out rush to seize the spoils of a shattered nation.

Rosen's work is equal to the output of another guy I like, Patrick Cockburn of Britain's Independent. They are two of the best correspondents working today and should not be ignored, for they do the brave and painstaking job of analyzing and reporting the nuances of realpolitik in the Middle East and Western Asia when few others are willing to take the risk.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Weldon Kees and The Crime Club

Weldon Kees (1914-1955) is an often overlooked American poet and musician who was born and raised in Beatrice, Nebraska. I found him in an anthology of poets called Naked Poetry : Recent American Poetry in Open Forms, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey. This book was my bible in the early days of what passed for my academic training in poetics at the University of Oregon. Published in 1969, the collection is often credited for the rediscovery of Kees, a man who remains one of my guiding lights as a poet.

As much as I loved his work, I had never bothered to gather information on his background, until a strange coincidence occurred about twelve years ago. I was living in Beatrice, Nebraska during a short-lived romance that was fast turning into a disaster. I was killing time one day in the Beatrice Public Library, much in need of a dose of something medicinal, when I found a book about Kees on a shelf dedicated to Nebraskan writers. That's when I discovered Kees was from the very town where I sat reading his bio! (Well, come on. It's not like going to NYC and Lowell, Mass. and discovering them to be Kerouac's romping grounds. I mean, I already knew that when I passed through Lowell the first time).

I later shared this stunning (to me) discovery with as many of my Beatrice acquaintances as I could. None of them had heard of Kees, a favored son, an important man of letters, a brilliant jazz pianist, a painter, a former Time Magazine writer, a graduate of UN, Lincoln, a...a...a...

Worse, none of them were impressed.

Poetry can be an awfully lonely business, but knowing Kees' work makes it worthwhile. This is Kees at his most brilliant:


No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quiet dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
The torn photograph of a Weslyan basketball team
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
The note: "To be killed this way is quite all right with me."

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Kees was a prodigy, a gifted but troubled man. He leaped to his death, it is presumed, from the Golden Gate Bridge. His car was discovered on the bridge with the motor running, so that is probably what happened to him in 1955, but every time I saw an old man in Beatrice after my discovery, I looked closely for a resemblance to Kees. Maybe, I thought, just maybe he left San Francisco and returned home to live in anonymity.

Here is a bio of Kees, with extras.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ben Linder

One of the most infuriating and shameful acts of U.S. foreign policy in my time was the Reagan Administration's support of the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The leftist and one-time Sandinista rebel, Daniel Ortega, had come to power on the promise of economic reform in the Central American nation after the overthrow of the U.S. backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Ortega's promise to attack poverty and illiteracy in Nicaragua swept him into power and threatened U.S. hegemony in the region. Reagan and his goons fought back with all the poison the CIA could muster, including the illegal Arms-for-Hostages deal with Iran and the arming of anti-Ortega rebels--the so-called Contras.

Naturally, Reagan used the long-dead horse of falling dominoes to justify his policy. A mostly complacent America went along with the ruse, one of the last incongruities of Cold War containment philosophy.

Into the mess walked a Portland kid, Ben Linder (pictured), an idealistic and committed activist with an engineering degree from the University of Washington. Ben was working on a small hydroelectric project in a rural area north of Managua, April, 1987, when the Contras found him and two locals, tossed grenades at them, and finished them off with bullets to the head. Ben and his friends were assassinated by a U.S. sponsored death squad. Our nation was, in the very least, morally culpable.

But you couldn't tell that to Rep. Connie Mack and Elliot Abrams three weeks after the brutal act. They blamed the victim.

Going before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, Ben's parents sought answers about why their son had to die, and blamed U.S. policy-makers for his death. What transpired at those hearings is one of the most despicable and disgraceful abuses of power in the U.S.'s long history of despicable and disgraceful abuse.

That Elliot Abrams, a bastard of the tallest order, could resurface on George W. Bush's team after being convicted in 1991 of obstruction charges related to his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, is all you need to know about the deep corruption of the Republican lineage in America.


Places Where I've Done Time

The Armenian-American writer William Saroyan (1908-1981) was a huge favorite of mine during my early romance with writers and stories. Born in Fresno to Armenian immigrants, he was raised for eight years in an orphanage in Oakland, after the early death of his father. Rejoining his poor mother in Fresno as a teenager, he sold papers and worked in local vineyards to contribute to the family income. He attended Fresno Technical High, but didn't graduate due to disciplinary issues. He decided to become a writer after reading, at the behest of his mother, some of the stories his father had written. After a brief stint in the California National Guard, he went to New York for the first time at 19, only to become homesick. He returned to Fresno and plunged into his literary endeavors.

Saroyan famously spent the money he made writing as fast as he earned it, and he was prolific. He was an addicted gambler and drinker, but remained a high-spirited humorist over the entirety of his career. He met early success by publishing stories in the legendary Story Magazine and elsewhere. Those stories became The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, published in 1934. The stories of Depression Era hardship told with compelling optimism, had great critical and commercial success, giving Saroyan the opportunity to travel. Daring...has often been compared favorably with other stories of hardship and oppression by Knut Hamsun (Hunger) and Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London).

Saroyan wrote fast and with abandon, often getting reasonable first drafts out to his editors in rapid succession. With his early success, he was afforded the opportunity to submit and let others correct little spelling and grammar problems where they arose. Every writer should be so lucky, or good.

Two of my favorites of Saroyan's vast output are his non-fictional Places Where I've Done Time (1972) and his first memoir, Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who (1961).

Here is a site dedicated to Saroyan's life and work.


Byrne vs. Crist

You have to love it every time a politician gets nailed for copyright infringement for appropriating a song to convey his "message." Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is in trouble with David Byrne for using "Road to Nowhere," without permission, in a negative campaign ad.

These political hacks not only forget history in pursuit of their tired policy decisions, they regularly forget their manners while conveniently ignoring U.S. copyright laws. This reminds me of Reagan and his misappropriation of Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," which he and/or his handlers evidently believed to be the new national anthem in his 1984 re-election campaign. At the time, it was just another example of how clueless Reagan and the Republicans were.

Devoid of anything like a poetic sensibility, they didn't listen to the lyrics or comprehend Springsteen's ironic message.

There are artists, like Byrne and Springsteen, who simply will not tolerate being used by the power elite for purposes contrary to their own political philosophies. Byrne is using the same attorney who made John McCain pay for misappropriating Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" in 2008.

I applaud Byrne's law suit, and I hope he doesn't sue me for posting this video.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Edward Bernays, Public Relations Man

Universally recognized as the father of public relations, Edward Bernays (1891-1995) was a fascinating and controversial figure. Like his uncle Sigmund Freud and Darwin, he was a revolutionary thinker whose ideas helped smash the old order, creating a new reality for the 20th Century.

He opened shop in 1919 in New York, and the world hasn't been the same since.

Every time you see something new that you think you might like to have, be it in an advertisement on television, in a magazine, on the Web, or in your wildest dreams, you owe your consumer impulses to Bernays.

He gave the U.S. women who smoke, Dodge cars, and a convenient Guatemalan dictatorship, among many other unnecessary flavors.

Hell, he's even responsible for Sarah Stalin, er Palin, Charles!

His ideas informed Chomsky and Goebbels. In differing ways, of course.

He warned, without success, that his secrets should not be used for evil purposes.

Here is the 2002 film documentary about his work and influence.



On Missing Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins, toward the end of her muckraking life, didn't stop laughing. The privileged Texan, who grew up in the same elitist Houston culture as George W. Bush, died January 31, 2007, age 62, after a long bout with breast cancer. The U.S. lost a significant voice with her passing, one unafraid to excoriate "Shrub," her pet name for the Dubya she knew in high school and never really liked. Ivins was an anti-Republican terror, and I miss her.

The daughter of a rich oil man/attorney, she rebelled early and engaged her father in tumultuous debates on the two big issues that never seem to go away in America--civil rights and imperial wars. Later, she rebelled against the overly fastidious and conservative handling of her copy at the New York Times. She lamented losing her hefty salary at the Times, but journalistic freedom meant everything to her. She went home to Texas, syndicated her work, and moved on.

Every time a dumb ass in Congress (or a wannabe) says something that should offend the sensibilities of any American living in supposed modernity, something as profoundly ignorant as Kentuckian Rand Paul's recent statements regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for instance, I wonder what Ivins would have said. No doubt, it would be brutally funny and spot-on.

And what might she say about this nonsense straight out of Austin?

Oh, Molly, you went way too early!

As all but the most fanatical supporters of University of Texas football might say, "Texa$$" (spit).


Saturday, May 22, 2010

McBain and Fat Ollie

In the early 50s a young Brooklyn-born writer with the pseudonym Evan Hunter (pictured) wrote a novel that became a sensation and helped define the paranoia of an America evolving out of pre-World War II social constructs. The novel was The Blackboard Jungle. It was a gritty look at American urban life and education, and it challenged some of the basic myths that Americans had for years clung to like life-preservers in a vast sea change. Post-war, amid a generalized growing affluence and resulting flight to a smug suburban existence, American cities began to degenerate. None more so than New York City, Hunter's turf. Cities, left to their corrupt vices, teeming with impoverishment and soaring crime, became the raw material of anthropologists and literary realists alike. Hunter caught the wave and wrote about a group of kids and a school in crisis. A former teacher, he knew his subject well.

Faced with the facts, many Americans panicked. Youth, juvenile delinquents, poked and prodded by something called Rock 'N Roll, became the era's bogymen. Sex and drugs had come out of the closet, and teenagers were to blame.

My fifth-grade teacher, perhaps fearful himself, and trying his best to help save us from ourselves, read the novel aloud to our class. He read it, from start to finish, for an hour every afternoon. I can recall being absolutely captivated by its fluid narrative, its beautiful sentences, its mood, and characters that I could understand. This is great, I recall thinking. I'd like to be able to write like that.

I still would, if I could, write like that, or at least that well.

Or as well as Ed McBain. You see Evan Hunter, whose real name was Salvatore Lombino, created the new pen name McBain (and a few others) in the sixties and turned to writing a series of procedural crime novels set in the mythical metropolis of Isola. Isola was of course New York, and his new literary domain became the 87th Precinct, a place where dumb and brilliant cops came together every day to solve Isola's most grisly and bizarre murder cases.

My favorite McBain novel is Fat Ollie's Book, a hilarious story about what happens when a decidedly nonliterary cop attempts to cash in on his crime fighting expertise. Fat Ollie loves to eat. He loves women, but he's shy around them, and he gets it in mind that the writing business is an easy racket. He determines he may as well become a famous author and make a fortune.

He won't be denied, until a street kid accidentally steals his novel-in-progress and throws a monkey wrench into an important case and Ollie's dream.

Fat Ollie's Book is brilliant, packed with a righteous view of human foibles and, quite deliberately, much to say about the creative process.

Ed McBain, AKA, Evan Hunter, was a genre master. He died in 2005 at age 79, leaving a long list of highly readable books to his huge fan base.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Country Music

I'm proud to admit I love country. Not the watered-down Nashville hokum of Tug McGraw's kid, Tim, and the rest of that ilk, but the real roots variety. So, occasionally, I dip my pen into the country well and write a sad song. I wrote these lyrics a while back, after leaving another dead-end kitchen job. I wish Steve Earle (pictured) or Hank III would record the sucker. Ha, ha! Not that Earle is actually authentic roots...I don't know what he is, but I like his sound. Hank's just proof that sometimes the DNA strings stretch through infinity.

The Ballad of the Old Cafe


You don't want to work the grill in the Old Cafe,
There are better ways to spend your days.
The good old days will soon slip you past,
and a job like that it just won't last.


There are better things to do.
Pick a job that is a better you.
Take time to catch a simple clue.
Don't do things that make you feel too blue.


If you cook something up, it should be real good.
Cook enough to feed the whole damn neighborhood.
Serve it one time with a real fine wine.
Just don't spend your whole life on the cookin' line.

Repeat Chorus


The Old Cafe will be the end of your time.
Let it and you will turn hard to crime.
You'll never have money or get very far,
Except to spend your pennies in the next door bar.

Repeat Chorus

Pretty damn sad, isn't it? Well, it would be if you put enough drawl into it.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Clash of Fundamentalisms

Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1943 (before Indian independence and partition), Tariq Ali is a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with Noam Chomsky, he is a favorite thinker among politicos unwilling to be spoon fed the doctrines of corporate media in the U.S. and Britain. I met him through, but he's been an active voice critical of the U.S. Empire since Vietnam. His The Clash of Fundamentalisms indicts religious zealotry of every persuasion, placing jihadists, Zionists and Christian right-wingers on even turf. This book posits that obsessive and rigid moralism is as problematic in world relations as capitalist greed. To you and I that might be obvious. Apparently it isn't as obvious to many religious fanatics around the globe. Another Ali theory argues that Americans are woefully ignorant of geography and history. Many of us lefties can attest to that, knowing people before the Iraq War who asked, Where is Iraq? Once the bombs fell, people sort of understood, if you could pull them away from Fox News and reality T.V. for a moment.

Ali's Bush in Babylon was an unrelenting attack on George W. Bush and the neocons' war in Iraq. A reason I like Ali so much is because he brings a heightened level of cultural analysis to his political writing, citing the importance of poetics in the Arab imagination and political discourse. He is fond of the Iraqi poet Saadi Youseff, who published this in 2003 as the invasion of Iraq unfolded.

from America, America
by Saadi Youssef

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
and John Silver's parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln's dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.

Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the stone age?

Mainstream American commentators, even if they should find the occasional urge to criticize U.S. foreign policy, would never think of citing poetry in their analyses. Poetry is for the academics in the U.S., compartmentalized, and supposedly hallowed ground (we non-academics know better). The last U.S. politician to openly write poetry was Eugene McCarthy, who wrote in Vietnam Message--

We will take our corrugated steel
out of the land of thatched huts.

We will take our tanks
out of the land of the water buffalo.

We will take our napalm and flame throwers
out of the land that scarcely knows the use of matches.

We will take our helicopters
out of the land of colored birds and butterflies.

We will give back your villages and fields
your small and willing women.

We will leave you your small joys
and smaller troubles.

We will trust you to your gods,
some blind, some many-handed.

Interesting times we live in, I'd say. I wonder if Obama secretly scribbles the occasional verse. Probably not, uh?


Monday, May 17, 2010

Nature's Birthday

Thirty years ago tomorrow... Already? My, my, how time slips away! The eruption of St. Helens is one of those unforgettable experiences that help define one's life. As with the Kennedy assassinations, the death of Prefontaine (an acquaintance), the Twin Towers falling, et. al., I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the event occurred.

On May 18, 1980, I was sitting in Civic Stadium (now PGE Park) watching a Portland Beavers baseball game when my friend Mark returned to his seat next to me with a pair of beers and said, "She did it." I said, "She did what?" He said, "She blew." "Did she?" I said, possibly thinking of something else. "The mountain just blew up!" he said. "Oh, that," I said.

We left the game and walked a short distance over to the Jefferson Street Bridge that crosses I-405 in the Goose Hollow neighborhood. There she was, one angry Helen, a perfect view of her on the clear horizon. I'll never forget the sight, and the battle with falling ash for the next few weeks.

Portlanders donned their masks, like denizens of a small island nation somewhere stricken with a possibly fatal flu virus. You had to if you wanted to go outside and lead a normal existence.

Old Harry Truman challenged nature that day at his Spirit Lake home. Said he would rather die there than leave, and he did, along with 56 other souls.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Twain on War

I turned 40 the day the U.S. began its first bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, January 16, 1991. As it happened, I was scheduled to leave the next day for Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. I planned to live a solitary month in a trailer rental there and work on a couple of writing projects that I'd managed to avoid for far too long. If you're old enough, you'll remember that the first Gulf War was a television bonanza for CNN, with its cast of Pentagon experts and sexy reporters giving viewers their first taste of life in wartime as a 24/7 news event.

Vietnam is often referred to as America's first televised war, but its coverage was light-hearted compared to the news/hyperbole CNN floated in Gulf War I. The black and white imagery of annihilation, video shot from thousands of feet above the intended target, sanitized death--it was all there for the transfixed and undiscerning viewer. And then came the helicopter shot of the "Highway of Death," a sort of media dessert.

I caught glimpses of the coverage in a Seaview, WA bar near my rental trailer each evening before trudging back to work, usually in a dismal mood. Back in my trailer each night, I didn't work on my planned projects, but wrote an anti-war play instead, which I titled simply, The War. (Unfortunately, I have lost the play, both in my imagination and and on paper.)

Weeks earlier, I had dutifully protested the war, marching along with thousands of others through Portland's streets. As with every march since the Vietnam era, I knew what effect protest would have on militarism--none.

I was reconciled to living with that knowledge forever while using protest as a symbol.

But once the Gulf War began I was surprised by the depth of the jingoism and mindless sloganeering of the pro-war crowd as the U.S. commenced its slaughter. Somehow, mistakenly, I thought our citizenry had transcended such nonsense.

Then I realized that for half the nation the scars of the Vietnam era had faded away. The citizenry was ripe for another dose of poison.

The divisiveness of U.S. war policy had returned with a vengeance.

Death brought out the yellow ribbons and bumper stickers in 1991, along with the the "support- our-troops" messaging sent directly to the anti-war crowd: "We follow and we do not protest. We love America more than you do."

Here it is almost 20 years later, with the U.S. floundering in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am the patriot now. I choose to support the troops alright. By suggesting they be sent home from these untenable fiascoes.

In times such as these I draw solace from Mark Twain's great satirical essay on war and think perhaps my instincts are correct. Scoundrels have been around for a long time and will never go away.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Artist and Poet

My old friend KC Bacon, a poet and artist with whom I collaborated on a number of projects in the mid-90s, now lives and works in the Tacoma, WA area. Before moving north from Portland in 1994, he published a trio of books under his one-time-only Irvington Press imprint, including my chapbook/play The Problem. I strongly suggest you check out his gallery of colorful neo-impressionistic works. The guy is a truly amazing painter, and a fine poet.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Greatest

One of the highlights of my early twenties was seeing this man read at the San Francisco Public Library in 1975. Buk came on stage and sat at a long folding table, with a three-foot tall cactus
on one end and a tub of Heineken on the other. In his legendary style, he drank beer after beer, building his "show" into a raucous crescendo of mirth and satire. About midway through the reading a group of gay men began to heckle him. Buk lectured them on their manners for a few minutes and asked them to leave. Jesus, he was funny.
For my money, Buk is America's greatest poet. Why he was never named Poet Laureate of the US, I just don't understand!

Here is a two minute video of Bukowski's reading of
The Genius of the Crowd.


Irwin Shaw's The Eighty-Yard Run

Irwin Shaw was one of the great short story writers of last century. His novels tended to be sprawling page-turners, but he was a master of the short form, able to compress huge themes into a few pages and make them sing with possibilities.

The Eighty-Yard Run is a masterpiece about a washed-up ex-football player with an existential problem--doubt. The opening description of Christian Darling running for a touchdown in practice is a gem of sports writing; beautiful prose that takes the reader along on a moment by moment run for glory. Here is the opening paragraph.

If you're not familiar with this story, understand that Darling is recalling a run from 15 years earlier. At 35 and past what he imagines is the prime of life, he considers himself a failure. And that friends is a gigantic theme in Shaw's best stories.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Punk and Theater

In The Law of Revenge, the teenage protopunk-worshipping rocker Beak enters Judge Hack's courtroom with an electric guitar strapped on, intending to serenade Fred, the man who has murdered his sister. The courtroom descends into chaos when Beak, thrashing a discordant melody, sings:

Dead Fred

My heart is my guitar
And my blood runs thick,
My veins pop open when
I’m playin’ my licks.

My music is a speedball
That I shoot up my arm,
My weapon is a solo shot
Down on Yasgar’s Farm.

Hendrix is dead, Fred.
Morrison is dead, Fred.
Joplin is dead, Fred.
Belushi is dead, Fred.
You’re dead, Fred!
You’re dead!

I’d rather be dead than
Be a corporate sheep,
I’d rather be an icon
Than a lonesome fool,
I’d rather be a Jesus
Than a pop star geek,
I’d rather be a rock with
An empty head!

No, No, No!
I ain’t quite as
Dead as Fred!
I ain’t quite as
Dead as Fred!
I ain’t quite as
Dead as Fred!
No! No!

Beak, like the rest of his family, opts out on the chance to exact revenge on Fred, the condemned killer. Punk has hijacked his existence. He succeeds only in disturbing Hack and everyone else in the courtroom, leaving the judge one final option.

See a preview of Revenge here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

the bright ones run alone into the night

the lights come on at
six-thirty every morning
but you don’t care because
you’re already gone in your mind

you were up at 4 a.m.
gulping the swill coffee

you’ve taken a piss and shaved
and counted your money

you haven’t slept
but getting out of this place
is more important than sleep
and you want fresh air

you knew what it would
be like here
before you arrived

your back stooped
all you own in a shoulder bag
your empty pages
stuffed in a single side-pocket

at check-in you
gave them a name
but you’re uncertain whether
you have spoken
your name or the name
of a dead man

they want to know who
sent you and where you’re from

but they don’t care
how you got here or why

looking around
you realize you’ve fallen
into a trap

the snoring is a coded
a riddle you must solve
on your own—but your life
has become an unanswerable lie
as you walk out the door

returning to your bed
amid the stench and piles of
cheap crime novels
you will see the bright
ones run alone
into the night


All of my Round Bend Press titles are available at:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Baudelaire & Bukowski

Richard Howard's translation of Charles Baudelaire's "The Flowers of Evil" is generally acknowledged to be among the best. I've always had an affinity for Baudelaire. I discovered him in college and have gone back to him many times over the years. Rebel, drinker, madman--his spirit spoke directly to me. I've always put him up there on the lit pedestal with the other Charles--Bukowski. Buk could be awfully crotchety about poets and I'm not certain he ever paid homage to Baudelaire, but he should have. Within differing styles, voices, epochs, they have remarkably similar views of the world. This is not Howard's, but rather Aggeler's translation of Baudelaire's The Murderer's Wine. It will suffice here, but go to Howard if you want the best lyricism.

The Murderer's Wine

My wife is dead and I am free!
Now I can drink my fill;
When I'd come home without a sou,
Her screaming would drive me crazy.

I am as happy as a king;
The air is pure, the sky superb...
We had a summer like this
When I fell in love with her!

To satisfy the awful thirst
That tortures me, I'd have to drink
All the wine it would take to fill
Her grave — that is not a little:

I threw her down a well,
And what is more, I dropped on her
All the stones of the well's rim.
I will forget her if I can!

In the name of love's vows,
From which nothing can release us,
And to become the friends we were
When we first knew passion's rapture,

I begged of her a rendezvous
At night, on a deserted road.
She came there! — mad creature!
We're all more or less mad!

She was still attractive,
Although very tired! and I,
I loved her too much! that is why
I said to her: Depart this life!

None can understand me. Did one
Among all those stupid drunkards
Ever dream in his morbid nights
Of making a shroud of wine?

That dissolute crowd, unfeeling
As an iron machine,
Never, nor summer, nor winter,
Has known what true love is,

With its black enchantments,
Its hellish cortege of alarms,
Its phials of poison, and its tears,
Its noise of chains and dead men's bones!

— Here I am free and all alone!
I'll get blind drunk tonight;
Then without fear, without remorse,
I'll lie down on the ground

And I'll sleep like a dog!
The dump-cart with its heavy wheels
Loaded with mud and rocks,
The careening wagon may well

Crush in my guilty head
Or cut my body in two;
I laugh at God, at the Devil,
And at the Holy Table as well!

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Red, Green & Yellow

This is a short script I wrote for a screenwriting class at Portland State University. Our prof (Charles Deemer) gave us a premise. A young woman goes to a bar to meet a man she has connected with through a personal ad. To identify himself, the man will be holding a single red rose. The man turns out to be her father.
Premise, conflict, resolution--it's all here in approximately 15 minutes.
See the preview at

Monday, May 3, 2010

from Alt-Everything

A section of Alt-Everything looks at a few of my favorite films. This essay compares and contrasts Kanal, a story of the Warsaw Uprising, and Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot.

See a preview at

The Spatial/Psychological in Kanal and Das Boot

The war stories told in Kanal (1957) and Das Boot (1981) tell of valiant leadership, desperation, and fear. The commanding officers in both films trudge through unbearable hardships as they search for ways to protect their partisans from ultimate catastrophe.

The U-boat commander is a cynical realist in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. His men are kids whom he knows haven’t a clue about what is in store for them as they prepare to skulk vigilantly around the channel waters and the North Sea. Most innocent is the journalist, aboard the boat to record, for a curious public, life in wartime and the role of underwater navigation in the Reich’s quest. The romantic belief he has in technology is soon replaced by a new awareness of the peril he is in as he seeks to put a human face on the sailors’ fear and bravery.

Das Boot is a story of survival. It hasn’t much to say regarding German ideology, except the captain and one of his lieutenants seem to represent polar views of the Nazis. The expediency of what the men do to survive overrides their concerns for the homeland’s political policies. Pro-war and anti-war viewpoints then are not central themes in the narrative, but rather a natural extension of the diversity of the crew, which is stuck in an increasingly treacherous adventure.

Petersen seems to be speaking to the folly of war by telling a particular kind of war story, which focuses on the claustrophobic elements of World War II U-boats. When men are together in such close proximity they behave and interact in ways that bring about the best and worst in human nature. War is folly in this context because men need more separation than close quarters are capable of providing. War is unnatural in this regard because it creates an environment in which men are unable to act naturally and must be repeatedly reminded of the extraordinary situation they are in. One might liken the feel of this film to another ambiguously anti-war film, Platoon, by Oliver Stone. Stone too chose a story that forced a micro examination of the spatial/psychological implications of men working in close proximity to one another. Not surprisingly, both films are anti-heroic in this regard, and are rather more focused on showing how the environments the men are forced to endure causes madness and instability in some characters.

Like Platoon, a story about a small group of men who will suffer the consequences of poor political choices, Das Boot takes for granted the historical narrative of its war. The audience knows who is going to win the Big Event in an historical context. The real story is in the minutia of ordinary men living their lives in extraordinary circumstances.

Andrzej Wadja’s Kanal, made over twenty-years prior to Das Boot, created a similar claustrophobic intensity to highlight the alternating madness and exuberance, and ultimate defeat, of its characters’ will to survive war’s crucible. The spatial/psychological conditions the characters are forced to endure in these films are similar, involving isolation and exaggerated proximity. A suffocating closeness impeded the Polish fighters in the final days of the Warsaw Uprising. But with the introduction of women into Kanal the viewer is asked to consider another extraordinary circumstance of war. What happens between men and women in close proximity under those circumstances?

Kanal is a love story told under the most threatening conditions imaginable. Whereas viewers learn to sympathize with the crew of the U-boat, the sympathy for the lovers in Kanal takes precedence within the story. Again, in the historical context, one would hope that the sewer system really might lead the resistance fighters to safety, but what one wants finally for Daisy and her lover is complete freedom, a triumph of love and hope. Ultimately one wants love to defeat hate.

A crucial difference between Kanal and Das Boot can be found in their endings. Hope is returned for Daisy and her lover at the end of Kanal, as it might be for others if the commander who shoots his lieutenant and returns underground to search for stragglers finds them and brings them out alive. The ambiguity of the ending keeps hope, and thus the possibility of love, alive amid conditions of utter hopelessness.

The differences between films such as Kanal and Das Boot, both made well after the end of the war’s hostilities, is the difference between the lurid aspects of in-war propaganda and historical perspective, which, as we’ll see in another essay, became a major concern of the New German cinema, and the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Marriage of Maria Braun.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Of Dirty Kitchens, Bedlam & the Bomb

Cold War poetics, 1945-75. This single essay on the relationship between literature and politics during the first 30 years of the Cold War explores the work of a number or writers who spoke directly to the Cold War experience. It examines but is by no means a complete analysis of the work of a select group of U.S., Soviet, and South American authors influenced by the near-catastrophic realities of the early Cold War era.

See it at


Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Small Error

Checking my sales info I discovered my friend Ollie bought The Opening rather than Two Plays as I posted below. No big deal, except he missed out on the 2fer. Still, a sale is a sale, and I am grateful for the support.