Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Tourists (photographers)"

Here's a poem from my chapbook, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (1989) that I recently rediscovered. (Kudos to friend and wonder-bassist, Ned Doherty for the canine cover image.) Over the course of preparing my Pith & Vinegar manuscript, poems have been added and subtracted, but what the current version tries to achieve is some kind of balance in terms of numbers of representative poems per book. The trick is finding work that still resonates personally, as well as holds up generally.

I don't remember a specific occurrence that triggered "Tourists (photographers)," but rather an amassed ennui after years of working in San Francisco's financial district and observing the de rigeur ritual of tourists shutterbugging indefatigably every inch of the city.

Tourists (photographers)

snap pictures upward
preserving tallness
(sheer walls of windows)
on film forever.

Where (I think)
do these photos
fit in? Between
baby shots
and bar mitzvahs,

graduation and
surprise parties

in an album set aside
for when guests drop by?
How do you explain
the presence

of a monolith
to the casual page-flipper
bored already
with unfamiliar faces

and shebangs they
weren't invited to?

It doesn't make sense.
But here they converge
(cameras collared
to their necks), snapping

happily ugly skyscrapers
from the cold blackness

their shadows puke out.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Red Lobster Blues"

Another uncollected Pith & Vinegar poem for today, which originally appeared in The Banana King:

Red Lobster Blues

Because they loved the crabs too much
the customers at Red Lobster

management was taken in the back
and beaten with jumbo shrimps

◊ ◊ ◊

Questioned about such plentiful
platefuls of servings, black eyes

blinked and trembling Adam’s apples fell
and “they were hungry” was their confession

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Dollar Store Nontraditional Sestina"

Today's Pith & Vinegar selection has not appeared previously in print. It was commissioned by The Dollar Store, a very cool and unique reading series in Chicago (that's currently on tour, by the way -- catch 'em if you can).

Dollar Store Nontraditional Sestina

The fried chicken he coveted came in a bucket of 6 pieces.
Safe for use around children and pets, the real wax candle glows and flickers without fire. Battery operated,
it emits a warm, ambient light without unhealthy smoke byproducts. In the living room, a circling train set
went round and round its track, a choking hazard with small parts,
toxic paint, smiling and waving animal passengers, its caveat “not for children under 3 years”
cruelly taunting tiny, yearning minds. It was, hastily, and on the cheap, made in China.

He and she own so many things made in China:
TV, DVD player; pants, socks, shirts; teakettle with 6 pieces
that whistles The Andy Griffith Show theme, but more often, does not. For children under 3, “years”
is a tricky concept. She looked at her daughter, soon to be four. Battery operated
clocks are telling her time, unlike her grandfather’s antique pocket watch, whose springs are suspected to be a choking hazard. Small parts
of him admired the force of habit of a circling train, set

in its ways; the circling train, setting
out to cover a route routinely made. In China,
the streets of Hong Kong are littered with choking hazards, and the small parts
played by its citizens help keep it safe—he admired that, too. Going home at 6, pieces
in the evening newspaper motivate millions of commuters to purchase premium batteries, operate
on a schedule and whatnot for children under 3 years,

watch more television, save Social Security. If not for children, under 3 years
is all the time it takes to let everything slide. In the old west, circling trains set
out for parts unknown circled at night for safety; pioneers didn’t have flashlights, much less batteries, operated
horse-drawn carriages and never dreamt what “made in China”
would one day suggest. They got by without being stigmatized. She used to know 6 pieces
by Shakespeare by heart, played them beautifully, people said. Choking back tears, hazarding graciousness, ever smaller parts

are all she plays now; like a Heimliched actress choking on her lines, the hazard of small parts
is once you play them, no one will cast you in leading roles anymore, not even for children. Under 3 years
was all it took to cool her heated dismay. Her husband’s on his way home at 6. Pieces
of pasta bob in boiling water. There are certain want ads she’s circling: will train, set your own schedule, earn money at home. If they made in China
what he makes, things would then be different. Neatly displayed in a battery, operated

from the backseat of her car, Tupperware tumbles at each unsuspected speed bump; in a battery,
on the spot, she parks and promotes her wares. Some contain choking hazards: small parts
of kitchen utensils, plastic molded what’s-its, knickknacks and accouterments made in China
expressly for the US market. She wraps her fingers in a knot. Four children under 3 years
old walk toward her unaccompanied, weaving and circling. Train set-
backs have delayed his homecoming to half past 6. Pieces

of jigsaw puzzles made in China displaying pictures of battery operated
cartoon characters are down to 6; pieces the kids don’t see as choking hazards, small parts
that might injure them, are not for children under 3 years. But a child’s mind is a circling train set.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Lunch at the D.O.C."

I used to work for a non-profit organization in Chicago's loop that was a block away from the Cook County jail. Today's poem, originally published in my 2003 chapbook, Identity Theft for Dummies was inspired by many lunchtime excursions and observations that took me past the Dept. of Corrections.

(Ironic side note: I was contacted by a reporter from The Flint Journal shortly after the publication of Identity Theft for Dummies. Turns out I had been sought out because I was a Flint native who, the reporter erroneously assumed, had written a book on identity theft prevention. No interview took place, I'm sad to say...)

Lunch at the D.O.C.

It’s pretty there,
in the courtyard,
where in the fall trees
jettison leaves
like marked money.

Babies in buggies
with kind, cooing moms,
hair freshly done, resting
in the shade
smoking cigarettes.

Visiting hours over
guests assemble outside,
trading greetings,
weirdly friendly,
and pause

checking likenesses
in the bulletproof glass.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Boredom"

Today's poem is from my 1995 chapbook, Workers' Comp. (That's my dad, on the right in the cover shot, standing below the GAINFULLY EMPLOYED? banner, holding his paycheck. This photo is most likely from when he worked as a polisher at Ternstedt, in Flint.)


People are bored, you can tell.
You can see it in their eyes
and in their manner—
the way their feet step
by rote and they never look
up to see where they're going.

I'm bored, too, barely
breathing through days on the job,
walking downtown in shadows
of anonymous skyscrapers,
diligently enabled
until five o'clock.

The only worse thing than being
bored are those people who
aren't—not because every
day's an adventure but because
every day isn't—with their go-
getters' enthusiasm and purgatorial pluck.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pith & Vinegar: "Feet"

Here's a poem from my Eyes, Ears, Nose & Throat chapbook (1990, cover art by Ken Rasak) that originally appeared in The Altered Mind. It's very evocative to me of a place, person and time in San Francisco, and is one I frequently read.


My right is bigger
than the left,
although you wouldn’t
know it just
to look; hers
are dirty
from going barefoot.

Out of curiosity,
I consider my hands
after giving them
a massage: the memory
of her arches,

ankles and toes lingers
there in an odor
to any but the well-
trained in podiatry.

◊ ◊ ◊

Walking, I keep
my eyes peeled
for broken glass
on the ground,
never breaking stride
as we move on

up the street,
past lilac bushes,
the sun going
behind us
like a shiny dime.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pith & Vinegar

I've been working intermittently at putting together a manuscript that collects poems that were originally published in small press zines that are long out of print; most of those were done with limited press runs to begin with. Other poems appeared originally in chapbooks printed and distributed solely in San Francisco. I've been vacillating on the title, but Pith & Vinegar is one I keep returning to. My goal is to have the manuscript together before the end of the year.

Readings lately have largely comprised new or newer material, so I'm going to start posting some of the older poems earmarked for this volume -- to see if anyone still likes them, and to see how I feel about them now as well. The first is taken from by debut chapbook, Rate of Exchange & Other Poems (1988); it originally appeared in Poetalk, a little mimeographed mag from out of the East Bay.


My sphinx-like cat
reclines on the
table, soaking up

with that spongy intensity
he exhibits
at every new morning.

Wish I could be
that certain
or sometimes, that stupid.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Trio of Upcoming Gigs

I have three upcoming gigs to announce.

Friday, June 26 @ 3:30 PM
Taste of Chicago
Best Buy Live Stage
Jackson Blvd & Lake Shore Drive
* The Injured Parties play during this annual event

Saturday, June 27 @ 10 PM
Uncommon Ground
3800 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IL
(773) 929-3680
* Alex Chilton Birthday Bash-and-a-half, featuring yours truly along with Christine Cozza, Doleful Lions, Adam Fitz, Julie Jurgens, Kasper Hauser & Dann Morr, performing our favorite Chilton-written numbers.

Wednesday, July 8 @ 9 PM
Double Door
1572 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL
(773) 489-3160
* Rock 'n' Roll Bailout free show! Record release for The Injured Parties' debut, Fun with a Purpose! Also with Welcome to Ashley, The Moves and The Beat Seekers

Hope to see you at any/all of these special events!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Remembering Stephanie Morris

My good friend, Stephanie Morris passed away on June 1st. I met Steph and her soon-to-be husband, Nathan Keay at the Beat Kitchen, back when we were neighbors, living on the same block as that establishment. Stephanie was introduced to me as a singer-songwriter from Austin, TX who would be an excellent choice for my monthly songwriter series, Folk You! Listening to her music made it abundantly clear that she was a gifted and understated writer. Over the years, Steph played Folk You! a number of times, and was a frequent presence at the December "best of" shows capping off each year. I often joked -- seriously -- that I would have her play every month if it wasn't for the damn format hawking "three new songwriters" every show. She was never less than wonderful.

When The Injured Parties were recording our debut, I thought of Stephanie immediately as someone whose backing vocals would augment and improve two tracks on the album, "Dogwalker" and "Be My Jesus." A consummate pro, I sent her rough mixes of the songs and asked that she come up with some ideas. With those vague instructions, she came into the studio and was paired with another good friend of the band, Clarissa Novales. The two of them not only hit it off but worked together beautifully, creating lovely harmonies on the spot. She also sang with us live a few times, impromptu. It's a testament to her nature that she never balked at being asked to contribute, and always did an exemplary job.

Stephanie was one of those rare people who made everything she touched even better than you expected she would. You knew she was not only capable of rising to the occasion, yet were still surprised at how highly she elevated the quality and emotional level of the song. Her own compositions were like that, too -- songs that were laid back and discreet, in that they disarmingly struck you without resorting to tricks or histrionics. She was a deft lyricist whose words surprised and delighted.

Her husband has set up a memorial page on Facebook. I encourage everyone to go there and learn more about this talented and unique person. She will be missed.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Kunming-Chicago Poetry Group

I'm very pleased to have six poems in translation in New Poetry Appreciation Anthology, vol. 2 , from the Kunming-Chicago Poetry Group and Yunnan University Press: "Emilee Is That You?," "Gold Coast Hand Car Wash," "Hope," "Map of the World," "Passing Fancy," and "Soft Palate." The poems include work written over a twenty year period. Thank you to literary liaison, Steven Schroeder for this incredible opportunity.

Steve reports that a bilingual edition may be next. Chinese speakers may purchase the anthology here.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Throw the Lions to the Christians

Finally, my first solo album, Throw the Lions to the Christians has been made available for purchase on Amazon. It's also in the process of being made available digitally for download, via iTunes (US and international), Rhapsody, Napster, eMusic, Lala, et al.

This is yet another step toward bringing my back catalog into print. Down the line I am anticipating full-scale releases of all the Fussbudgets recordings, as well as the voluminous home recordings done while I was in San Francisco, some of which were previously released in super-limited cassette-only capacity. All this work will be remastered.

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