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Why Poetry is Free

Alexis Manzano has no internet footprint, no day job he’ll admit to, and no ambition other than writing poetry and living and working in the presence of poets and travelers. A traveler is anyone who passes his makeshift office at the edge of the park between 84th and 85th and Fifth Avenue on the sunny autumn day I found him. The location may change, but Alexis’ vocation does not. He works intently. He does not ask for money, only donation. Money and donation are not the same. Poetry is free, as the sign says.

A small young man with a cherubic face, Alexis composes his poems on a brown Olympia typewriter set gingerly on a folding table. A sign “Free Poetry” is propped in front of the typewriter; he sits with his back to the playground facing the cobbled sidewalk. He has a gossamer shawl regally tosssed around his shoulders to protect him from the light wind. He resembles a scribe or seer from antiquity.

I watched with curiosity as Ana Pearson settled into the visitor’s chair. Ana, from Argentina, is studying to be a translator so, by definition, she is interested in words. She presented her prompt: home. Alexis got to work. When he was finished, the poem covered two very small pieces of paper which Alexis clipped together. Here is his free mattress poem:

number of sidewalks/i’ve strolled past/exceeds all my gloved fingers
all the still trees/overarching silence/and what daydreams/have dissolved or popped over time
and judging by the life/span of this purple land
many thousands of brains/have explored these sidewalks
and surprised/that I haven’t collapsed/upon the concreted covered/by jagged shadows
i further the soft soles/up down/until
i forget what a mattress under ceilings felt like.

“Alexis, why haven’t you signed the poem?” I asked.

“Because I want the person to forget all this,” he said gesturing to the table, to the typewriter, to the air. “All that matters is the poem. Here is the poem.”

He handed it to Ana who seemed pleased to have such a personalized poem written to her prompt. It would be a souvenir of her sojourn in New York.

I have had some email exchange with Alexis since that day. When I mentioned that I taught at NYU he asked if there was any chance he could audit a poetry class. He’d been a student in the Creative Writing Program at Hunter, his father had gone to NYU, he had grown up in Harlem. Had he completed the program at Hunter, I wondered. He wouldn’t say. So many young people have to drop out of school for economic reasons these days. An NYU audit does not seem likely though he could attend readings, I told him. I then steered him to City Lore on the Lower East Side. Its founder, Steve Zeitlin, a reknowned folklorist and daily early morning poet, has just written a book called “The Poetry of Everyday Life,” which I know Alexis would enjoy.  Read More 
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The Intimacy of the Radio Studio

I was on the radio last night with my student, Valerie Pepe. Her book, “Deformed; My Remarkable Life,” has just been published by our family-owned company—Mediacs.com—so this blog post is by way of celebration and thank you to Bill Russo of City World Radio for inviting us onto his show.

I hadn’t been on the radio since I was interviewed by Leonard Lopate when “Another Day in Paradise” was published. There were four of us in the studio that day: Iain Levine and MacKay Wolff, contributors to the book, yours truly, and Leonard Lopate. Four chairs and microphones in close proximity, headsets on, voices clear, deep concentration as questions are asked and answered. Pauses are not acceptable on the radio, they are called “dead air,” so one must be alert and swing right in. Listening is as important as speaking in a radio studio.

Leonard Lopate is an exceptional person and interviewer; he’s always well prepared. Of course, he has an excellent staff as back-up; he doesn’t work alone. Bill Russo does. He’s retired from the New York City Housing Authority and radio is his avocation, among many other pursuits. His program is scheduled once every-other-week so he has time to read-up on his studio guests and generate an interesting conversation interspersed with music. He relies on the engineer—Jade Zabric—to get the timing right and Aimee Duggar, who sat to his left last night, to provide a light touch.

Russo was impressive. He’d read Valerie’s book and quoted a passage or two, he’d read my resume and was interested in the writing process, how Valerie and I worked together over a period of more than two years, meeting for our discussions at the Hollywood Diner on 16th and Sixth Avenue where Valerie, who is on crutches, found respite as she walked from her downtown office on 9/11 with her co-workers. We joked that the diner should put up a plaque and so should all the other diners where Valerie writes. Because she now writes all the time and everywhere.

I began my connection to radio as an occasional reporter for the BBC in London and then went on to study radio production in grad school. But I’d forgotten how much I love the intimacy of the radio studio. Just the sound of well-chosen words and the resonance of the human voice.

Scroll down to Bill Russo 10/17/2016 to hear the show:


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Freedom to Write Redux

I went to see the Diane Arbus exhibition—her early work—at the Met Breuer last week. The arrangement made me dizzy—free standing syncopated columns. But walking through them, around them and, sometimes, into them, I began to experience the photographs in a new way. Many of the images have become iconic so the unusual curation was necessary to witness anew the work of a controversial photographer. She was a “super recognizer” of what used to be called freaks, people living on the edges of life, who may or may not have had mental or physical deformities. Arbus asks us to know and accept them, as she has done, and to reflect on our own afflictions. She grew up in a privileged world where suffering was kept at arms length and rarely acknowledged. What was her quest? I believe she wanted to find an affinity with the suffering of others so that she could feel her own—and to acknowledge it with her camera. Sadly, she took her own life in 1971 at the age of 48.

Not every artist or writer lives as intensely, of course. At the very least, we observe differently—with a heightened sensibility like the marginalized freaks in the Arbus portraits, like Arbus herself. And what we produce is far from perfect. Maybe the rendering isn’t clear enough, or we’ve faltered in our understanding, or we’ve made errors of judgment, or gotten a chronology wrong, or our readers/viewers take offense. They may even assert that we have no right to tell their story in concert with our own. And though our eye penetrates and the heart is full, a negative response is always startling.

Years ago, when I began “Searching for Fritzi,” the memoir about my Viennese family and the genocide that had killed nearly all of them, my mother did not want me to write the story. Our famous cousin, an Oluympic ice skating champion, had disappeared during the war. What had happened to her? It didn’t take long for me to find out. Fritzi had married a Japanese national and spent the war years in Japan. Worse, she had entertained German officers when they visited the Japanese High Command; she was a collaborator. My mother feared that Fritzi would sue if we exposed her even though the facts had been corroborated multiple times. Nonetheless, my mother’s intuition was correct because she had grown up with Fritzi Burger, watched her become a celebrity, and knew that she would not tolerate a tarnished image.

Fritzi had died before the book was published but her son and grandson were still alive. Both of them threatened to sue. The threat itself—like terrorism—was enough to scare me, of course. What writer has the money to go to court to defend a libel suit? None that I know. But I checked and double-checked what I had written and I still stand by it. The book has had legs—it found it’s way not so long ago to a library in Berlin and was taken up by a scholar there who has lived in Japan and speaks and reads Japanese. He’s dug even deeper, pulled articles from contemporary newspapers, and continued the examination of Fritzi Burger’s war years in Japan. I’m gratified by his attention to this piece of history.

Like Diane Arbus, who also was a writer, I write to see, to understand, and to share whatever insight I’ve managed to attain about subjects that others cannot or will not write about. If I allow any kind of prior restraint—whether it is a wish that I not write about a certain subject, or a warning that if I do I might be sued, or a request to read the copy before it is submitted, I could not continue being a writer. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances—when we write about loved ones, for instance—but they are few and far between. And, even then, we should pause before we hand over copy.  Read More 
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A respite today from the election and international bad news as I prepare for two writing workshops this week. I love teaching and meeting my new students. So here's a post I wrote before the Chelsea bomb blast and the first presidential debate. I hope that my readers who are not writers will find metaphors--boundaries, for example-- buried herein:

Palimpsest: A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.

I worked hard on a blurb for the jacket of a book. It was a commissoined writing job from a publishing house and there was no reason for me to take ownership, to feel pride, or to demand anything. So when the editor completely rewrote the blurb and said, “pretty good, huh?” I could and should have felt nothing. It wasn’t my book, it wasn’t my publishing company, it was just a job. But I couldn’t let it go. I felt resentful. He’d used my flair and expertise and made it his own just enough to claim it as his work. Traces of my work were there. They had provided inspiration and I could still see my well-wrought phrases inside the editor’s sentences.

I’d been working with the editor for a while and knew that he was a frustrated writer. I might have had compassion, but I didn’t. I said something mean and then regretted it. Not only on a personal level, but professionally. This guy was not going to hire me again.

Then there’s the story of one of my writer’s groups many years ago, or a writer’s group that failed instantly, I should say. I’d gathered some colleagues I didn’t know well for an introductory evening of discussion. Everyone brought two pages of a work-in-progress, any genre. I had been writing poetry and printed out a still raw long poem, just a first draft, I said when it was my turn to present to the group. I skipped out to the bathroom as everyone was reading it silently to themselves and by the time I returned, they were all abuzz with comments. Except for one person. She remained silent. When everyone else was done, she handed me my manuscript which she’d scratched over with multiple suggestions, corrections and rewritings. “It would work better this way,” she said. My words were visible under her words but my connection to the poem was damaged. When everyone left, I tore it up, and even though it was still in a file on the computer, I never could go back to it.

It was my first experience of a writer/editor who thinks she’s being helpful by overwriting my work with her words.

Kingsley Amis talked about a bad editor as someone who “prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for any phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage.”

Most editors don’t want to make the copy their own, nor is every editor a frustrated writer. They are another breed altogether, as are fellow writers who think they know better than you do how to revise your work by stealing it from you.  Read More 
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