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What Would J.J. Do?

 

Recently the inestimable James J. Patterson paid me the honor of reading selections from my newest novel, Melanie’s Song, during his weekly Facebook Live talk from the Alan Squire Publishing Reading Room. Among the selections he chose was one in which the narrator, J.J., meets her best friend and former room-mate, Jocelyn, at a favorite old restaurant in Hollywood. The subject of their conversation was so painfully current, that it prompted me to ask in an email to James, “What would J.J.–what would Jocelyn–do now?”

The pair had been two of five young coeds to travel to Paris and attend the Sorbonne together in the heady early ‘60’s, the “Kennedy years.” The world has convulsed and turned on its head so many times since then—in their personal lives as well as society at large. Jocelyn has done what many expected she would do, become a movie star, while J.J. is a journalist working for a local paper. In that capacity, and as anxious friend, J.J. is on a quest to find out what happened to another of their band, Melanie, who is rumored to have perished in the fire of a hippie commune on the North Coast. Part of the process is to interview all who knew her, including Jocelyn, who remembered seeing her last at a big “support the troops” rally on the mall in Washington, D.C., where she was performing.

Their conversation goes like this:

 

So the last time I saw her was at that big July 4th thing in 1970. ‘Honor America Day’ sponsored by Bob Hope. He asked me personally because I’d done a couple of shows with him earlier to entertain the troops. Did you know?” Jocelyn looked up.

          J.J. saw her friend’s eyes change color, green to gold, as they always had. A tiger, she thought. “Yes, I knew. How’d you get into that, anyway?”

         “My people, well mostly Harding, my main publicity guy, thought it would be good for my image.”

         “Yeah?” J.J. controlled her impulse to interrogate.

         “Yeah, well,” Jocelyn looked back at the glass. “I mean there was a niche there to fill, the hot Hollywood babe who wasn’t a dissenter.”

          “You mean like the un-Fonda?”

          “Exactly. I mean we were filming A Walk on the Woman Side and he thought, you know, we could reach a larger audience of women, housewives and all, if I had a more mainstream image. So I did the USO shows and that went well, and then Bob Hope called…and I went to Washington.”

          …“And you saw Melie at that event?”

         …“Yes, I saw her. She came because I was there…She was right there in front holding a sign. It said in big letters, Pourquoi me tuez-vous? And all around the edges were images from the war, some drawings, some photos. Huts being burned, children bombed and bleeding…”

         “Why do you kill me?” J.J. translated. “Words of Christ?”

         “No,” Jocelyn answered quietly, “Pascal. But echoing Christ. That was what she was getting at, that I had crossed over to the other side. That by supporting this ‘God Bless America’ kind of event, by supporting the troops, I was also contributing to the killing.”

          “Do you think she was right?”

          … “Yes. Of course she was right. That’s why I couldn’t acknowledge her. It was too…”

         “Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”

          “Dear God,” she replied, tears spilling down her cheeks, “I couldn’t. The image of her standing there silently with that sign has haunted me ever since, made me see what my life had become—a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. A fake woman hiding inside the persona of an invented one. She was saying to me with her presence, ‘Jocelyn, you’ve sold out. Where is the real you?’ How could I tell you? I was so ashamed.”

 

Hearing those words again prompted my question, but it also prompts me now to answer it, because I know both of those women rather well. They are, of course, old, gray at the roots, managing a few health problems as well as possible, and wild about their grandchildren.

 

Looking back over the decades since that pivotal march, Jocelyn can truthfully say she spent the rest of her life trying to be her real self, not a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. In the world of theater, she quickly embraced the cause of equality for women, and then turned to look around at her own neighbors in the Hollywood Hills, many of them Black and Latinx. She made common cause with them, and friends, and as a result, reflected the evils of society as she saw them in her increasingly radical theater. The acid smells of the fire in Watts that J.J. had forced her to face, always remained in her nostrils. She became, as she said, “stinking rich” and set up a foundation to give fortunes to causes that Jane Fonda supported along with her.

 

J.J., who had started as a firebrand, became “Red hot,” as one critic called her, trying to smear her with the epithet meaning Communist. She, too, found success in the theater along side Jocelyn, then ventured into other writing, returning to journalism throughout. A turning point came when she was in South Central L.A. reporting on the aftermath of the Rodney King shooting. The flames, which roared like the sounds of injustice and desperation pounded through her veins for years, and it would haunt her dark nights like the devastation of war had done decades before in Vietnam. And so would the sense of fear she felt as a white woman in a terrifying situation for which she was both held partially accountable and vilified for daring to enter, even, or especially, as a journalist. Still, she continued to march, protest, write what she knew and tried to understand the generally overwhelmed ways of peace.

 

She and Jocelyn talked often, marveling at the fact they found themselves old. But then, increasingly wondering in disbelief at the world they were living in. They had seen the passage of the Civil Rights bill, of the War on Poverty, of women’s right to choose, of affirmative action, and of discrimination falling away on every front. They had seen the election—twice—of the immensely popular and gifted Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States. Then, as if out of a nightmare they found themselves in another world, with so many of the gains gone or eroded, and under the imprimatur of a deranged and narcissistic chief of state. Not only had he done his best to destroy all that seemed best in their country, and the hard-won progress of so many for so long, but his ineptitude had led to a deadly pandemic of Covid-19 galloping through America like a stampede.

 

So the two old friends talked, visiting the lamentations of age, feeling powerless, unable to see how at this point they could help turn the tide again, feeling sidelined by covid-19, and unable to join their fellow-citizens in the streets.

It was Jocelyn who broke the spell of despond. “Well, kiddo, we still have all our marbles and a lot of other assets as well. We’ve figured out since the 70s how to change when the times called for it. The times are calling for it again.”

 

And so they recognized the talents they still had: Jocelyn wasn’t working in the theater anymore, but she had influence there and a huge reputation. She was still stinking rich and had her foundation. Those could be repurposed. J.J. could still write, and in fact did write a lot. She could also pivot and help support artists of all stripes connect with activists and community leaders she knew. But even more than these fruits of their working lives, both women had the treasure of decades of experience.

As they watched on screens the faces of the marchers and the voices of the protesters, so many were young, as they had once been. It was thrilling. And they knew another mandate was to share those lessons of their own lives with the young. Especially with the grandchildren, their greatest gift.

Now several weeks into “sheltering in place” and other measures of uncommon isolation, I feel the kind of natural readjustment that comes with such a huge and sudden shift of what I had previously considered “normal life.” What normal will become at the end of this long, imposed “time-out” is anybody’s guess. In the best case, though, it gives us the opportunity to reset so much that collectively we humans have been doing to our own and the earth’s detriment. That is what I try to focus on and imagine in the long view.

In the short view, as my husband and I continue on our daily rounds in a newly adapted slow motion, instead of focusing on what and whom we are missing, I have found widening opportunities to appreciate what is directly in view. This includes, of course, the suddenly absent fumes, diminished traffic and ambient noise that is replaced now by clear skies, empty roads and birdsong. In the extra time I have to fill because I’m not going anywhere, I can spend longer contemplating the changing contours and colors of a newly clean San Francisco Bay from our back deck, and inhale the fragrance of the flowers all around me, many now laden with bees and bombarded by hummingbirds. Down the hill is a cherry tree in full dress, reminding me of others I have seen in Washington, D.C., or Provence.

And in those now occasional moments when I encounter other people, strangers, I make eye contact above my face mask to acknowledge the strangeness of our shared moment. Even more, I’ve given serious thought to the concept of heroism, and feel a gratitude I don’t know how to express to those people who are working to make surviving this time possible for the rest of us.

Yes, a salute to the health care workers who step into the line of fire every day and then return again, even after recovering from illness themselves. But also a salute to those who risk danger daily by coming to work to fill shelves and man checkouts in grocery stores and pharmacies; who work in restaurants to make carry-out available; who drive delivery vans or buses, trains or trash trucks; who still rush to emergencies, who still put out fires, who keep the lights on.

Thank you.

The first time I stepped foot in New Orleans’ iconic jazz club and restaurant, Snug Harbor, it was at the invitation of jazz master and legend Ellis Marsalis, who, at the end of a remarkable interview, said, “Why don’t you come on over to the club tonight and hear some music.” So I did, and so I have done on every visit since, including one a year ago. And every time I have been lucky enough to catch the master himself at the key board, always sharing the limelight with others, often his students.

Now I am grieved to learn that he has succumbed to the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

In 1993, when I met him, I had been on a reporting trip, crossing the country by train and writing stories along the way. In New Orleans, I hit the jackpot, with Ellis Marsalis agreeing to speak to me in the jazz department of the University of New Orleans. Even before we talked, as he sat in a casual T-shirt, expansive and welcoming in his windowless office, I sensed that the windows didn’t matter to him but the sounds of students practicing their drums did. I sensed that he was as masterful a teacher as he was a musician, composer and performer.

At the end of a couple of hours, I knew that to be true. I had been taught, not lectured to, and the insights he imparted are still with me. He said, for example, that “jazz is like democracy. Jazz was from its inception to make order out of chaos, which is what democracy does.” Then he added he wasn’t sure if either experiment has worked.

He talked to me of the history of jazz, evolving from its roots in plantation entertainment to minstrel shows to vaudeville “Music was an Africanized version of what the master was familiar with—like Irish jigs…When the slaves were playing for themselves, it was a different rhythmic component.”  And he explained that as we closed out the 20th century, it was important to follow carefully the changes that occurred from Scott Joplin through Ellington, Monk, Gillespie and Miles Davis, “in order to get a real sense of who we are as a people.”

He went on to say that 1964 was a pivotal year for two reasons: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Beatles arriving in America. “Passage of Civil Rights opened up a Pandora’s box not only for black people but for women.” And the Beatles, he said, ended an era of “white males passing down (refined) jazz—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—to their children. For the first time white kids could get ‘black music’ through the Beatles, who acknowledged their debt to black music … by 1964 the lid was off.”

We talked of other things, too, including his amazing musical family, and the four of his six sons who became musicians: Wynton, the trumpet player; Branford, the saxophonist; Delfaeyo, the trombonist, composer and producer; and Jason, the drummer. Ellis shrugged off the suggestion that his family was anything special. “There are plenty of musical families in New Orleans,” he said. And if his family benefitted from any extraordinary genes, he said they surely came from his wife Dolores, who came from a stellar background of church music.

That first night I visited Shrug Harbor, Ellis did tell me that one of his sons, Jason, would be performing with him that evening, and he allowed as how Jason did seem to show a lot of promise. When I heard Jason at that performance, he was just sixteen, and he blew my socks off.

I left the club, and New Orleans, with my head exploding not only from what Ellis Marsalis had taught me, but from the several CDs I had in my bag with music from the remarkable Marsalis family.

My husband and I had intended to visit Snug Harbor again three weeks ago. We hoped, of course, to hear again the legend, by now a man of 83 who walked with a cane, hit the piano keys once more. This time we intended to take two young friends, college students with whom we wanted to share the genius of New Orleans, of jazz, of the Marsalis legend.

But then, the trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and in the silence of this peculiar isolation, I learned the hard news of Ellis Marsalis’ death. The only consolation I can think of is music—his music. I hope to hunt down those old CDs.

 

Ten days ago my last public “event” was to be in conversation in a local bookstore with fellow author and friend, Antoinette Constable, about her new Y.A. novel, Natalie: In the Shadow of the Swastika. It is based on true experiences—her own—as a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. It is a beautiful rendering of a young child’s personal transformation,from ages eight to thirteen, and the parallel story of her growing understanding of what horrors are occurring around her.

But in addition to being a gripping personal story and a grim history lesson, it is also a story about persistent and grueling deprivation. That aspect of it really struck me as the lights in the bookstore—and everywhere–went dark, and we all turned our attention to self-isolating and new ways of survival in the age of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

It occurred to me that much of the book and a lot of the thoughts of young Natalie concern food: the lack of it; memories of it; dreams of it; and for a brief period during a visit to her critically ill father in Switzerland, the delicious reality of it. Fresh baked bread, butter, jams and hams, cakes, and thick cream and cheeses from Normandy. These are the things that occupy the fantasies of a hungry girl, who later in real life will become a caterer and marvelous chef.

But there are other things that preoccupy her too: the lack of heat, and having to survive for season after season in a cold house; the Germans who terrify her in the streets, sometimes knock on the door in search of her Jewish mother, and bomb the house next door to bits; the constant fear that her mother will simply not return home one day, and she and her sisters will be on their own.

Of course, millions of children across the world have experienced such terrors, and continue to. Millions in our own country live with inexcusable deprivation all the time in our land of abundance, even before an event like the Covid-19 coronavirus swept through our land and the entire world. But many millions of others of us are lucky, blessed, and have warm and safe houses to shelter in and access to food, services and medical care.

For us, this represents an upheaval of our daily lives and expectations, but to date not real deprivation in the sense that others have known and know it. Realistically, we do not and will not likely face starvation, cold, and constant terror. That is what I remind myself when I cannot find an item I’m accustomed to on a strangely empty shelf, or when my professional and personal calendar is suddenly bare.

That is what I want my grandchildren to know when they read this book that I am sending them. And what I want them to take away from it is not only how lucky they are, but how they as well as we adults need to be thinking of ways to alleviate the pain of those around us who are not.

 

by Nick Farriella

Dearest Rosemary,

It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that, he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious as to his sources.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.

Faithfully yours,
F. Scott Fitzgerald

From: McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies

American Royalty

 

Latifah, Queen of American Royals

Amidst a seemingly endless barrage of bad news, one perennial with its own version of bad news keeps coming: coverage of the British Royals. From the sex scandals of Prince Andrew, to the infighting of the newly self-exiled couple Harry and Meghan (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) and his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, their dirty laundry never ceases to be hung out in public. And if there ever is a pause, the marvelous caricature of the mush-mouthed fop, King George III from Hamilton is always there to remind us colonists he’s ever-ready to kill us kindly to show his love.

But with Black History Month winding down, I thought it the perfect moment to pay homage to our own Royalty, with thumbnail sketches and one selection from of some of its greats—those self-selected for the job, who have talent, abiding legacies and enduring gifts. Call them Rock Stars.

All have had sensational careers, uncountable awards and recognition, and have hugely influenced generations of fans and musicians who have followed them. Two of these Royals have deep roots in jazz and herald from the era of Swing.

Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and died in 1974. Hi mother, Daisy, also a pianist, taught him manners and dignity as well as giving him piano lessons (although at the time, he preferred baseball). His off-hand manner and dapper dress earned him the title of Duke from his young friends. Pianist, composer, legendary band leader, his career began in the 1920’s—when he was a popular figure at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club—and spanned many decades. He toured abroad as well as in the States, and a very successful appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 introduced him to a new generation of fans. His multiple prizes culminated in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999.  Check out this classic on You Tube, “Take the A Train” from the film Reveille with Beverly, 1943.

James Count Basie was born in New Jersey in 1904 and died in 1984. Both parents were musicians, and his mother took in laundry to get him piano lessons. He quickly moved toward vaudeville, and before age 20 worked as a pianist accompanist and music director for blues performers. By then he was on the move: first to Harlem where he mingled with the greats, including Louis Armstrong; then to Kansas City for many years where his royal identity emerged his band, “Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm; and eventually Chicago where he developed his signature “jumping beat”  and showcased stars such as Billie Holiday; and finally to New York where he dominated in the era of swing. In the post-war period he recorded and toured widely, added pop and rock to his repertoire, performed at an inaugural ball for JFK in 1961, and later that year made a record with his contemporary icon, Duke Ellington with “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke.” Check out his classic “Pennies from Heaven” in the 1944 D-Day Remembrance Album on YouTube.

 

Nathaniel Adams, a.k.a. Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, and died too young in 1965.

Vocalist, pianist, and the first African-American man to host a T.V. series, he is remembered for his beautiful ballads and fabulous pop tunes, over 100 of which rose to the top of the charts. In L.A., in the ‘30s, giving a nod to another old English king of nursery rhyme legend, he formed a band called the “King Cole Swingsters,” and the name stuck. Though the Nat King Cole Show on NBC lasted only one season, he was able to host gold-star guests such as Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. When the network pulled the plug, Cole commented on the racism of the day saying, “Madison Ave. is afraid of the dark.” He then went on to Havana and made several wildly popular recordings in Spanish. Years after his untimely death, his daughter, singer Natalie Cole, using new technology, was able to re-record some of his songs in duet with herself. Listen to the 1991 smash hit version of “Unforgettable,” found on YouTube and made forty years after the original version.

 

Prince Rogers Nelson was to the royal manner born in Minneapolis in 1958, and died in 2016. He came into the world with high rank accorded by his father, who gave him the name Prince because he hoped his son “would do everything I wanted to do.” Given his incredible musicianship, his wide-ranging voice, his flamboyant persona, outrageous success and worldwide fan club, dad must have been pleased. Prince perfected his own musical style, blending punk rock, synthesizer, pop and new wave. He made a title-track in 1999 against nuclear proliferation, appeared constantly on MTV, played the Superbowl, and in 2004, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, he loomed as large as in life, as the world stopped in mourning and in praise. At home, even the highest realms of power bowed down, including President Barack Obama, who paid him tribute, and the U.S. Senate, which passed a resolution honoring his achievements. And what could be more Prince than “Purple Rain.” Check out “Prince—Purple Rain,” the official video from April 2016 on YouTube.

 

Dana Elaine Owens—Queen Latifah—was born in New Jersey in 1970. Rapper, singer, song writer, actress, producer, she made her debut album in 1989, Hail to the Queen. The name stuck. And what list of American royalty would be complete without our own version of Elizabeth II? She went on to make Nature of a Sistah in 1991—and just took off from there, non-stop. A Fox Sitcom, followed by a Grammy for the single “U.N.I.T.Y.”  in 1993, which had a huge influence on women; then on to hosting her own daytime T.V. talk show; making more acclaimed records and films, including an Academy Award nomination for her role in the smash hit musical, Chicago, in 2004, and critical acclaim for starring as Bessie Smith in the HBO film Bessie, in 2015. And the awards keep coming. But she has perhaps no higher accolade than the sales of over 2 million records. To choose among them, I’ll pick a personal favorite to recommend: “Queen Latifah—When You’re Good to Mama,” on YouTube.

It contains a message old King George III would have been well-advised to listen to before his unruly colonists told him in very American terms to “bugger off.”

 

 

 

Visiting a foreign place for the first time offers the traveler the chance for fresh wonder and the jolt of surprise—like new love. But revisiting that place, perhaps multiple times, offers the traveler another opportunity:  to add connections through time and season rendering what was already known to layers of what is still to be revealed and the chance to find something new altogether.

Or so it is for me, as my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I work on editing a new anthology gathered from our Wanderland Writers’ latest journey to Greece in June 2019. The stories themselves bring novel takes on shared experiences, and reading them in winter light while remembering the heat of the summer that produced them gives a different hue as well.

What strikes me in particular is how many of these are women’s stories. Some featuring individual women encountered by the writers, whether an old woman on the island of Ikaria sharing secrets about longevity, or a young woman seeking roots in the ancient religion on a hillside in Athens; others featuring the ancient myths and goddesses themselves. From Athena and Aphrodite, to Pasiphae, wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur,

to the Oracle of Delphi, it seems many of the writers were seeking contemporary understandings from the lives of these ancient powerful women. They were looking at old stories through the layers of time and experience to discover new possibilities.

I have done this myself in reimagining Penelope, the vaunted, patient wife of Odysseus who waited for twenty years while beating back her suitors and faithfully weaving her stories until he returned. Or did she?  In the shadow the 2020 Women’s March, with women again on the forefront of viable candidates for president, with young women rising visibly on multiple fronts, I revisit a poem I wrote a time ago, in middle age. I see how easily those old stories link to our modern sensibilities–and longings–and wonder what new discoveries await me as I continue to plumb the treasures of Greece, visited, and revisited again in the richness of old age.

Penelope and the Suitors

                                   She had heard the whisper:

fish-tailed maidens

with nets of golden hair,

those sirens, their bitch-calls piercing

his ears, painted hands strumming

his legs

and Circe. Ah Circe,

wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,

that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.

But Helen’s face,

oval goddess beauty

that he had looked upon,

haunted her

 

and her heart, slow constricted fist

                               beyond the leap of yearning, stopped

its beating.

 

Now, they said, he was dead.

 

For the first time in twenty years

she laughed, twenty years of rock

island, stone, sea, swells

of waiting.

Now he was near and those

who could not follow his wake

said he was dead, those who

could not tell dying

from coming.

 

At last near coming home,

the waves pulled back from the beach

like parted lips, like

hands running over hips,

rounded still, and she laughed

again knowing how the gods and suitors

wet their tongues.

Hair to waist, laced with silver

precious metal, like gold

on the looking-glass

where her face, smooth and finely laced,

finely colored from

twenty summers’ sun was,

she knew, lovely.

 

So what had he heard?

 

If he knew her at all, he would know

she did not remain untouched,

not by the sinewy black poet

who loved her like the night,

or the fisherman with the wise beard

casting his net of stories

about her, rubbing her back,

or the philosopher who thought best

with his slender fingers,

or that young artist with the Vulcan eyes–

all like the seasons, her weave of patches

a coverlet to cover

the marriage bed.

That is what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus,

closed her eyes to see him

wearing those twenty years.

But she saw only his likeness,

Telemachus, the son,

beauty in his fierce and tender

restlessness,

the boy left behind, the guard

charged by men

to do what no man can:

Separate a woman from her desire.

 

Still she waited, had waited

waited and wanted

husband, blood-mate,

twin of the inner mirror

whose likeness only knew

the holier longings of love.

Then he came. Strong-chested,

broad-armed, steeled in

beard and bone.

 

Did he know at last what this journey

had been for?

                    

He saw her first, her eyes

the lissome blue his glance once

skated over,

mirrors on a pristine lagoon.

Now, around them, little creases,

terrain,

a holding place

before plunging

into the deep sea.

                          You are the most beautiful, he thought.

                          Yes, she smiled.

                  

                          Come in.

 

 

 

                                  

                                 

Remembering Toni Morrison

Remembering Toni Morrison, (1931-2019), who said:

“I am staring out the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of, “Oh fine—and you?” I blurt out the truth. “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write:  it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…” I am about to explain further but he interrupts shouting, No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds:  who did their work hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.

The list—which covers centuries, not just the last one—is long. A short sample will include Paul Robeson, Primo Levi, Ai Weiwei, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lillian Hellman, Salman Rushdie, Herta Muller, Walter Benjamin. An exhaustive list would run into the hundreds.

Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilization is held.

CALLING ALL WANDERLANDERS TO NAMIBIA

Elephants Carry Each Other—Namibian Proverb

 

When: June 13th to 20th, 2020.

Where: The Cheetah Conservation Foundation, Otjiwarongo, Namibia, Southern Africa

 

Join us for the “Journey to the End of the World,” as CNN once described it. Or maybe, with its vast, dramatic landscapes, magnificent wildlife, primordial dunes, fabled Skeleton Coast and original inhabitants, the San (or Bushmen), it is a journey to the beginning of the world. It is certainly a land of superlatives—the driest in sub-Saharan Africa, the emptiest in Southern Africa, and the country with the largest population of cheetahs, the world’s fastest animals.

It is the cheetahs who beckon us, and among them we will be making our stay. Founded by the American, Oxford-trained zoologist Dr. Laurie Marker in 1990, the Cheetah Conservation Foundation has done world-acclaimed research and pioneering work in wildlife conservation, particularly by it’s innovative programs working with farmers.

We will be housed in a beautiful lodge or a guest house, have meals in the dining room which features locally grown food, and take field trips daily into the reserve’s large territory,  visiting such facilities as its model farm, Dancing Goat Creamery, museum and genetics lab. We will also have daily workshops, writing time, and drinks at sunset overlooking a watering hole.

At the end of our stay, there will be an optional trip to the famous Etosha National Park, a great wildlife preserve shared by Namibia and Botswana.

It is said that you may leave Namibia, but it never leaves you. Come and be changed forever.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it was the shadows left by Walt Whitman

and Emily Dickinson as they passed through that first imprinted the capital with a taste for poetry. Whatever it was, it remains one of the best-kept secrets in the creative heart of a city buried inside its persona of politics.

In the many years I lived and worked here, I was nourished by its flourishing scene, not only in the bookstores, universities, arts centers and clubs where the young and upcoming could share and perform, but also through contact with some of the established giants of our times. Visiting here again during National Poetry Month, I am reminded of the many great poets I met, heard, studied with, or simply learned from. Even a partial list is astonishing: Maxine Kumin, William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, E. Ethelbert Miller, Richard Wilbur, Stanly Kunitz, Carolyn Forché, Rod Jellema, Roland Flint, Robert Haas, Grace Cavalieri.

Moreover, for a few years, in my capacity as a journalist, I had the wonderful beat of interviewing the Poet Laureate. I would like to share a few personal remembrances of three of them, plus one inspirational woman who won prizes and glory in other poetry spheres.

 

Howard Nemerov—  I met him on Capitol Hill during his tenure as Poet Laureate in 1989. A Pulitzer Prize winner, it was his second stint as the nation’s official poet, as he had already held that post earlier when it was called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Before following him around the grounds of the Capitol as he led a throng of high school students dispensing his wisdom and jokes, we had first met in a sitting room of the nearby hotel where he was residing. It was there he greeted me with his wry humor and distinct diction. “I only agreed to this interview because my wife loves Modern Maturity,” he boomed.

It was there I had to reply that I did not, in fact, write for Modern Maturity, but rather for Maturity News Service, a wire.

Having passed that hurdle, the rest of my time with him was a delight, filled with quips, humor, and of course the poetry of a self-proclaimed “poet of few regrets.” Beginning from the beginning, he said he never intended to be a poet, but didn’t succeed at another imagined profession—that of Catholic priest—when he realized he couldn’t start at the level of cardinal, but would have to work his way up. Then he added: “As my mother said, ‘Howie, you’ve come a long way for a rich Jewish kid from Park Ave.’”

He also agreed with W.H. Auden, who claimed that “you are only a poet while writing a poem,” or for ten minutes afterward. He further claimed, “Most poetry is drivel, including my own.”

Listen to him read  about the line between prose and poetry and make your own judgment:

Howard Nemerov – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrj4HJptyHg

 

Joseph Brodsky– When I was summoned into the ornate office of the Poet Laureate inside the Library of Congress in 1991 to meet the new appointee, he had already won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and was a Russian-American literary rock star on the world stage. I knew some of his storied life history: as a young child surviving the Siege of Leningrad and Russia’s rampant anti-Semitism; as a young poet being sponsored and helped by the likes of Anna Akhmatova and W.H. Auden; his escape to the United States in 1972.

As he spoke, recounted his impressions of America, recited poems in English with Russian cadences, I expected to be awed. What I did not expect was that, half-way through the interview, he would begin to fidget. I noticed his fingers, distinctly stained yellow at the tips, fiddling with his shirt pocket. It finally occurred to me to ask: “Mr. Brodsky, would you like to take a break to smoke?”

“Yes,” he replied, “these”… and he deleted the expletive I was sure he had in mind, “people won’t let me smoke inside.” Then he added, “Come.” And before I knew it, I was following him over a low wrought-iron railing and out the window of his office to a small perch overlooking the capitol. There we remained for the rest of the interview, above the trees. He happily puffed, while I scribbled.

A follow-up to an unforgettable afternoon came some months later, during the first exchange between Russian and American high school students. By luck, my daughter’s high school was chosen as one to receive Russian students, and one of her best friend’s family was a host. As a result, we often had many Russian students in our home. One of them, named Anna, spied Brodsky’s autobiographical and highly acclaimed book of prose, Less Than One, on my bookshelf. She was amazed that I possessed this, telling me that her parents, both English professors, so wanted to read it, but it was forbidden in the Soviet Union. It went home with her, my smuggled gift to Brodsky’s native land.

Hear him read from “Odysseus to Telemachus.”

Joseph Brodsky reads ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTd6K9Lrfpo

 

Rita Dove—    My first encounter with Rita Dove, in 1993, was as an imposter. She had been named Poet Laureate and was being honored by the Library of Congress with a luncheon for high-powered literati in an ornate room worthy of Versailles.

I was neither one of the intended august guests, nor, in all my dealings with and writing about the Library of Congress, had I known about such a room. The fact of the matter was that the directors of the Writer’s Center in nearby Bethesda, Allan Lefcowitz and his wife Jane Fox, had been invited, but at the last minute  could not come. Still they had wanted the Center, a stellar local gathering place for local writers, passing luminaries, readings, and workshops to be represented at the lunch. They directed Sunil Freeman, a longtime staff member, and my friend, to go instead and to find someone to accompany him. He called me, who had been for many years an instructor there.

We arrived just in time and found our place cards–as Allan Lefcowitz and Jane Fox–at the appointed table. Sunil, a dark-haired man of Indian heritage no more resembled the silver- haired Jewish gentleman, Al Lefcowitz, than I did the tall, sturdy bespectacled woman I was supposed to impersonate. Table-mate and Pulitzer-Prize winner Henry Taylor looked confused, evidently recognizing me as the mother of one of his son’s classmates. Sunil and I tried to explain, but it was difficult to keep saying, “we’re not really who you think,” and didn’t want to interrupt the introductions as they began.

Then followed the warm, human, and inspirational presentation by Rita Dove. From that moment to this, I have been riveted by the story of her grandparents, Thomas and Beulah, first presented to the world by a prize-winning book of the same name that later became an opera.

Of course, when introduced to her that first time, as well as the subsequent ones, the name on my name-tag was of no importance. What was of importance was her openness, her thoughts on poetry and activism, and eventually, her mission of making clear the innate connection between poetry and jazz. All through her tenure, Washington was alive with verse and its reverberations in the sounds of jazz.

Click on these links to see Rita Dove at the White House introduced by President Obama and singer Clairdee with the Ken French Quintet perform a jazz ballad based on a Rita Dove poem.

White House Poetry Evening with Rita Dove, intro by … – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIT82Oy9U1Y

The House Slave #jazzvoicesofpoetry – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymk-LaQxaAk

 

Ann Darr When I first met Ann Darr, she was a storied figure in the Washington poetry scene, and at the Writer’s Center where she was a popular teacher, as she also was at American University. As an instructor at the Writer’s Center myself, I often saw her wrapped in a velvet cape, her penetrating blue eyes peering out from beneath a beret. I decided to apply to study with her in one of her poetry workshops. She turned me down. Later, after a more successful application, after we became fast friends, we laughed about it.

But despite her warmth and friendship, despite the jokes and personal stories we shared, I was always in awe of her gifts, her immutable beauty, and the courage that remained the hallmark of her life. Its central meaning was based on the reality of her experience as a pilot and the images of flying that permeated her poetry.

As she told it, her fascination with flight began at age six with the death of her mother. She was told her mother had gone to heaven; she figured if she could learn to fly, she would find her. The opportunity came young to fly over the crops of her native Iowa, and in World War II, she joined the fabled Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). They formed a core part of the women who, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, were “a weapon waiting to be used.”

 

Darr joined in 1943, and the metaphor of flying appeared throughout her life and work thereafter:

Instructions for Survival 

                                        You women pilots are on

                                     your way

                                        to becoming precision flyers.

                                       It’s

                                          your responsibility to remain

                                      alive. So,

                                         it’s entirely up to you;

                                        the decision that bailing out

                                     is necessary

                                       the act of leaving your plane

                                      the procedure during the descent

                                     the landing.

Hear Ann Darr in her own words in this conversation with poet Roland Flint

Ann Darr, a poet and pilot, lets her words fly – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFMK0jFX7JA