Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Work in Progress"

[Time for a Barbie Dockstader Angell poem!    This would have been the final poem in the batch Barbie & I originally discussed posting, but I’m totally jazzed to announce that Barbie has signed on to be ongoing contributor on Robert Frost’s Banjo, so her work will continue to appear here every other Tuesday!  Yay!]

 

Work  In  Progress
Please  excuse  my  mess.
The construction isn’t done.
I know you thought it ended,
But it barely has begun.

Pieces of me all around
And no one has a broom.
Paranoia on the ground
And  heartache  clouds  the  room.

Just when things begin to end,
The unveiling seems so close,
Something falls apart again,
And everything implodes.

So step around the dust of me,
And try to visualize,
That soon the girl you want to see
Will be before your eyes.

And see the heart that’s being fixed,
With tape and sealing wax.
Although at times I still feel sick,
My head’s held up with tacks.

So please excuse the state I’m in,
The endless disarray.
But the handyman is mad again.
He won’t finish ‘till he’s paid.


Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Monday, August 29, 2011

Any Womans Blues #13 – Del Rey

Sorry we’re a bit behind schedule today, but Happy Monday, & welcome to this month’s installment of Any Woman’s Blues

I’ve been planning to write a feature on guitarist-uker Del Rey for this series for some time.  Now, you may not be familiar with Del Rey’s work, but I’m happy to introduce you—& you’ll see this series would be incomplete without her inclusion.

First, Del Rey is an extremely accomplished blues guitar player; she also happens to be a fantastic uke player too, & regular readers know I have a soft spot for that instrument; Del Rey has done instructional guitar & uke videos for Happy Traum’s Homespun Music.  In addition, Del Rey herself has been a tremendous force for increasing  all of our knowledge about the role of women in American music thru both her “Women with Guitar” & her “Women in American Music” series; Del Rey has brought these presentations to colleges, universities, folk societies & more.   Del Rey is particularly keen on the music of the great Memphis Minnie (see her version of “When the Levee Breaks” below), & she also has arranged jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’ “Boogie Mysterioso” for solo guitar!

The problem I kept running into is that there’s a shortage of Del Rey videos on YouTube—a sad situation, as she is an extremely talented performer—not based solely on her formidable instrumental chops or her strong & clear singing, but also on the more intangible qualities that make a musician into an entertainer.  Witty, informative & evincing joy in the music she clearly loves, Del Rey shows an engaging onstage presence.  But while I'd have preferred more videos to choose from (& admittedly, the sound on "When the Levee Breaks" isn't ideal), I decided not to wait, but to go ahead with a feature on this wonderful performer.

Del Rey has issued around a dozen cds on Hobemian Records, Southern Records & Kicking Mule.  She also tours, so be sure to catch her if she comes thru your town.

As far as instruments go, Del Rey favors resonators, & her performing guitar, which is parlor size, & her performing uke (concert scale) both were crafted by luthier Ron Phillips.  Her playing is remarkable for a clear, clean, singing tone & her fingerpicking on both the guitar & the uke is intricate & melodic.

Hope you enjoy the music!



 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Photo of the Week 8/28/11

The Banjo in Portland
Saturday 8/27/11

Technical difficulties ixnayed the photo I'd intended—so here's a Photoshopped & banjoistic greeting card to you from my new Portland digs!  (& check out the Chaplin & Clara Bow prints by the very talented Kate Gabrielle!)

Wishing you a Happy Sunday—& a Safe Sunday to All My Eastern Seaboard Friends.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Love Story

Since we had already taken a break from Goat’s Log for festivities with Hyggehus, Pinky suggested that we tell a part of the Summer Island story that Goat is unlikely to mention except in passing. That is, the revelation that Willabear was in love. It came as a surprise to Monster E. too! (Only one other Animal of Big Bed Land has fallen in love, and that was when Mooselers admitted to a serious crush on Nell Shipman, the extraordinary writer/actress/film editor of the silent screen.)

Willabear was a relatively recent arrival in BBL when he went to Mouse Fairy Island this summer along with Lefty, Goat, and Chinaberry. Willabear has always been a dapper sort, and the Animals find this one of his fine qualities, along with his extremely relaxed attitude (which is genuine and not for show.) The combination of dapper and relaxed- even to the point of floppy!- is most unusual and piquant.

At the Island, Willabear pointed out that he needed a bath. Monster E. can be
remiss in this area and often needs to be reminded. Since there is no running water at Summer Island, Violet Mouse Fairy helped fill a large basin with water from a hand pump in the kitchen for washing dishes that brings water up from the river. Violet has great and unusual insight into the Animal heart. When Willabear told her that he would like a fragrant shampoo with his bath, she began to guess the secret that he later revealed to her: that he was in love- and that his love lived in Big Bed Land.

As soon as she mentioned this, I realized at once who the Animal of his affections must be. “Glamora the Giraffe!” I said to myself, I said, “Self, it must be Glamora.” I had always suspected that great mystery dwelt behind those dramatic eyelashes of questionable authenticity. Through Willabear’s eyes, I perceived the complex beauty of her imagination and it felt like walking into a very three-dimensional snowflake—with planes of color on each crystal facet that
kept turning into different landscapes: an unfurling frond of fern that became a paisley jungle of skirt drying on a chair next to a radiator clanking its way through the beat that chorus girls danced to when Forbidden Passion was a shade of lipstick red and frost furred the thin edge of the windowpane… Glamora was right to lower her lashes! A less capacious soul than Willabear’s could get completely lost in her eyes.

The Animals and Mouse Fairies are helping the happy couple plan a winter wedding. Glamora has already tried on her veil which came from the Council thrift shop. Who would have guessed that a place called the “Thrifty Shoppe” would be a place you could purchase a wedding veil for a giraffe? And on dollar-a-bag day too! What wonders life holds.

Friday, August 26, 2011

“Georgie Buck”

It’s Friday, so you know what that means: banjo time!

So far (with one exception, which was a banjo duet), I’ve been featuring solo performances on Banjo Friday, but today we’re going to feature a three-person combo, & a great one at that—the Carolina Chocolate Drops!  The banjoist on this song is the phenomenally talented Rhiannon Giddens.

Of course, before going any further, I should note that the Carolina Chocolate Drops line-up featured in this video is not the current line-up.  Justin Robinson, who fiddles & sings here, is no longer with the band, & has been replaced by multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins & “the human beatbox,” Adam Matta.  I’ve recently been watching some videos on YouTube that feature the new line-up, & I’m happy to say, they sound just great!  Jenkins is a huge talent, & Matta brings a full-time percussionist that the Chocolate Drops haven’t had since the Sankofa Strings days when Sule Greg Wilson was a band member. 

I don’t know if Georgie Buck is still in the band’s repertoire following the personnel shift, but they did record versions on both their ’06 Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind & their ’10 breakout album, Genuine Negro Jig.  The latter take was live, with Rhiannon Giddens taking the vocal on the “don’t let your woman have her way” verse—& nailing it of course!  Actually, I just found out (too late!) that the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed here in Portland after I arrived.  Wait till next time; after seeing a great show with the Justin Robinson trio line-up in Chico, California last fall, I’m looking forward to hearing the new quartet Chocolate Drops.

“Georgie Buck” is an old African-American banjo tune, & the Carolina Chocolate Drops picked it up from their mentor, 90-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson, who in significant ways passed the torch of the African American string band tradition to them.  In fact, the Carolina Chocolate Drops backed Joe Thompson on this song on the 09 album, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Joe Thompson.


The song is usually played in G as a “one chord” song (tho some versions change chords at times to the relative minor chord, E minor.)  It’s been covered by a number of musicians, from Doc Watson to Elizabeth Cotten, & from Taj Mahal to Flatt & Scruggs.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops conflate the lyrics with those of a related song, “Black Annie.”

Enjoy!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

“The Laughing Heart”

Welcome to a poetic Thursday on Robert Frost’s Banjo!  I need to thank our own Visiting Poet, Nancy Krygowski, for suggesting today’s poem—& thanks indeed, Nancy, because it is a very good one.

I’ve long admired Charles Bukowski’s work, & especially read & absorbed his poetry a lot when I was living in San Francisco in the 1990s.  Bukowski was an anti-aesthete & an anti-poet of the first order, & that has always appealed to me—in fact, coincidentally with Nancy’s recommendation, I’ve found myself lately with my teeth even more on edge than usual when encountering anything that struck me as poetical or esthetical, & this poem really did my soul good.

On a personal note, I have an odd Bukowski anecdote that some may find amusing.  Back in my San Francisco days, several of us planned a Bukowski night at the local beanery, Java Supreme on Guerrero, home at the time to lots of music & poetry—I can’t remember the exact occasion; it’s possible it was when he died in ‘94, tho I think it may have been a year or so later.  Any hoot, as coincidence would have it, I was also scheduled for a root canal during the afternoon.  I showed up for the root canal fully expected to be fully inflated with nitrous oxide to transport me thru the procedure—but the orthodontist’s assistant discovered, too late to do me any good, that the nitrous tank was in fact empty.  So I told them to forge ahead, & a few hours later, I was reading Bukowski in an even more altered state than I would have been in had I had the nitrous oxide—& this without the benefit of any mind-altering chemicals except Novocaine &, to be blunt, pain. 

This has always struck me as appropriate to the occasion.  As an added feature, I’ve found a YouTube video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart.”  Enjoy!


The Laughing Heart


your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.


Charles Bukowski

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Adams County Makes the News - Adams County Leader #38

The Adams County Leader        Published Weekly On Friday
Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager
Member State Editorial Association 
Member National Editorial Association
Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance

July 17, 1931
SAW MONSTER METEOR


J. W. Wheeler can not be accused of being accustomed to "seeing things," so when he reports he saw a monster meteor speed across the heavens Tuesday night about 9:45 o'clock, we are sure he did see it.

Describing the incident, he says it was many times the largest meteor he ever saw—as big as a full moon, and it left a string of blaze behind it like a comet.  It disappeared, on its eastward plunge, over Council Mountain.  It was so high in the heavens that he felt sure it would not hit the earth.  This sight was described as truly wonderful and he is wondering how many others saw it.

July 24, 1931
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT


Are college girls really the best women?  Is the fact that a girl is in college proof of her superior character or intelligence?  Or is it merely proof that her Dad has money or influential friends whose “pull” was used to get her in?  Or perhaps simply the result of raising so much Cain at home that the folks were glad to mortgage the old place and let her go to get a little peace?  Isn’t sometimes greater proof of fineness for a girl to refuse to go to college, refuse to accept the sacrifice which a college course entails?

But granted, she’s there and everyone’s pleased—then what?  What is there in campus life to develop a girl into a better wife than the stay-at-home or the working girl?  True—she attends interesting lectures, meets worthwhile people.  But what does she get out of those lectures or those people beyond a transient interest or stimulation?  Are they really any more “educational” than a job as a first class secretary would have been?  They give her the feeling of culture—but do they make her more cultured?  Does she learn more about those qualities on which marriage is based—patience, self-control, generosity, common sense, sympathy, courage, endurance, fair play?  She thinks she does.  She’s sure those four years of college have given her a better brain and a bigger heart as well as a diploma.  But have they?  The truth is that many a good plain cook was spoiled to make a bachelor of arts.
  
July 24, 1931

DEAR DAD, OR MR. EDITOR
I have just finished reading the proof on the above column, wherein you reprint a lot of “hooey” about college women—“hooey” is the best way I know how to express it.  The exception I am taking to it at this time, and wish to comment on, is that which refers to “working” girls as distinguished from college girls.  Just as if the girl in college doesn’t work.  I venture the assertion that there isn’t a girl out of college who works any harder than does the college girl.  Of course, there are exceptions, in and out of college.  The college girls who do make their grades, have to work, and work hard.  Get up at 5:30 in the morning and dig into long difficult assignments and continue at something all day long, charged with nervous anxiety every minute and throw herself onto a bed at 10 p.m., utterly exhausted.  This is a day after day drag, and if she sandwiches in any sort of social activity between, it means nine months of grilling that only those who go through it understand.

Girls who do not go to college but “work” have no conception of the college grind.  Believe me, I do know, and I do not count myself as a dumb bell, either, when it comes to getting my assignments.  As to which kind of work, that of the college girl or that of the girl who gets a job or helps at home, is the most conducive to a broader understanding of life and its obligations—that may be debatable.  I am taking exception to the work insinuations in the article.  There are other phrases of that article that I would like to tear to pieces also.
Charlotte Lemon.

November 25, 1932
ROD AND GUN CLUBS

Mr. Editor, Adams County Leader
Dear Sir:
Is it not about time that fishermen and hunters of Adams County (who buy about 600 fish and game licenses, $1200 cash) woke up to the fact that they must get together and do something or find that a half dozen city sportsmen located in Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho City, Boise and Lewiston, will control the state Fish and Game Department—tell you when you may fish or hunt, which of you own streams or lakes you may fish and when you may fish them; the streams to be planted, the kind of fish and the amount for each stream or lake, and then tell you how much you can pay for a license.

I believe we should have a game club in Adams County without any membership fee, a fish and game license being a certificate of membership, and have the fish and game of Adams County in the hands of all the license holders to decide what is best for our county.

A small assessment of less than 25 cents per member would pay all expenses, unless a big meeting or feed once a year is wanted—that expense would have to be raised by assessment or donations.
Very Truly Yours, Billie (W. R.) Brown
 

October 7, 1932
THE DIPTHERIA SITUATION
By Dr. Alvin Thurston


It is natural that there should be a great deal of discussion in the community at this time about Diptheria, in view of the recent epidemic in our near proximity.  From the very onset, your local physician has been pretty much in touch with the situation.  Adams County has no funds available for a County program of immunization against communicable diseases.  Any action that is taken is only done at a time when there is an actual epidemic or epidemic scare at hand.  It would require the hiring of a County Nurse and such other aids as would be necessary to get all the work done that should be done to protect our people from the communicable diseases.  However, the community is in no financial shape to take on this need.

The Department of Public Welfare in Boise provides for each county a sum of money each year to be expended on materials for immunization purposes.  Adams County was granted some $16.00 for the cost of materials this year.  Our share was claimed last March but to date there has been no countywide program, owing chiefly to the lack of funds to finance the work.  However, we have now in the County the materials that will be necessary to test at least one hundred persons, and enough of the immunity material to immunize about thirty more persons.  Your doctor is prepared to give these tests to any and all who so desire.  Should the school districts care to have them done, it is but a matter of making it known.  Unfortunately, a charge for such service, enough to cover the cost of administration of the material, will have to be made, as there are no county funds available to pay for this work.  As long as our supply of State and County material holds out, the determining of immunity may be had at very low cost to each individual.  As in the case of the administration of the Spotted Fever serum last spring, $1.00 will be charged for each injection.

compiled by Eberle Umbach

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Your Life"

[Oh boy, do I love this week's poem by Nancy Krygowski; I bet you will too!]

Your Life

drive like you have good insurance
                    like your Saturn really is a planet     with one
inhabitant             you              play who
                    has the fattest butt
and be happy to win       every time            measure
                    your worth in moments you choose to spend
in bed         measure     your love with a jar
                    of pennies you empty
into each day       wiggle your fingers in your pockets
                    for fun       drive carefully               follow all
the rules       think of your mother’s sad eyes
                    as directions         think
your old friends know you too well    
                    still  watch movies together         buy bras         chew
and swallow           say you want to hear it all       again
                    forget the dictionary’s unread pages           think
what you would give for the slowness
                    of a kid’s   summer day       think what you would give
to take back the words         then just die.           do it           believe
                    in this car that is you        your life     maybe
the windows are dirty            maybe the tires
                    need air           but you can drive     you should
drive or         better yet    
                    take a walk


Nancy Krygowski
© 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes – Roll & Tumble Blues

It’s Monday again, so you know what time it is on Robert Frost’s Banjo—time for the Monday Morning Blues!

We’re here today with the penultimate installment in our “10 Essential Delta Blues” series.  To reiterate: this list is not intended as the 10 essential Delta blues tunes, but rather a list that might be used as a starting point to appreciate this music.  I’ve also tried to show that there was more diversity in the music played in this region than simply the “deep” or “heavy” sound associated with the Charlie Patton & Son House circle.

But we’re only talking 10 songs, so there are bound to be omissions.  In fact, I debated a good deal between “Roll & Tumble Blues” & some song coming out of the “Sitting on Top of the World” family of tunes—in addition to “Sitting on Top of the World” itself (as recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks & later by Howlin’ Wolf), the latter also includes Tampa Red’s “You’ve Got to Reap What You Sow,” Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” & Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You’ve Got to Move.” 

But I finally decided on “Roll & Tumble Blues” as recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern.  The fact is, you could easily do a whole series on songs that have been based on this tune.  Here’s a partial list:

  • Minglewood Blues: Cannon’s Jug Stompers
  • Roll & Tumble Blues: Hambone Willie Newbern
  • Rolling & Tumbling: Muddy Waters
  • Louisiana Blues: Muddy Waters
  • Rollin’ & Tumblin’: Elmore James
  • If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day: Robert Johnson
  • Traveling Riverside Blues: Robert Johnson
  • Brownsville Blues: Sleepy John Estes
  • The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair: Sleepy John Estes
  • Goin’ Back to Memphis: Sunnyland Slim
  • Down in the Bottom: Howlin’ Wolf
  • Gravel Road Blues: Mississippi Fred McDowell
  • Red Sun: Johnny Shines
  • Fireman Ring the Bell: RL Burnside

Interestingly, these artists & others claim copyright not only on the words (which differ from song to song) but also on the music! 

What makes “Roll & Tumble Blues” so musically distinctive?  Here’s a pithy quote from Wikipedia:

The chordal structure…departs significantly from that of twelve-bar blues. The defining feature of the song is that each verse begins on the IV chord, which after two measures resolves to the I chord.

Now if the song is played in G (& open G is a common tuning for “Roll & Tumble,” which is typically played slide style), this means the song starts on a C chord rather than on a G chord.  What Wikipedia says is essentially true, tho as is often the case with blues songs from this region, the “chords” are fragmentary.  The way many players articulate that “C” chord is only partially recognizable as a C major triad, simply because the note C often isn’t played, just G & E! 

In any case, Hambone Willie Newbern recorded the first version of the song in 1929 for OKeh records.  Newbern, who was from Brownsville, Tennessee (hence, not from the Delta region as it’s usually defined) & played with Sleepy John Estes & Yank Rachell, only recorded six songs, all waxed at one session for OKeh in Atlanta in March 1929. 

Hope you enjoy the song, & stay tuned for the final installment in this series, which is scheduled to post on September 5th.  If you’ve been following along & are familiar with Delta blues, I suspect you can guess who the artist will be for that song!


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Betwixt & Between & an Excellent Blogger

Hello everybody.  Hope you’re looking forward to a pleasant weekend, & thanks for spending a few minutes of that here on Robert Frost’s Banjo!

If you’re a regular reader &/or connected to me thru various social media, you know I’ve been going thru some major changes over the past while.  After living in rural Idaho for the better part of 14 years, I moved to Portland, Oregon two weeks ago, & am living there with friends while I seek out more permanent living quarters.

The move also meant a major transformation in my life’s most significant relationship, as Eberle (whom regular readers also know from her many contributions here) & I have decided to pursue separate paths in life.

So just like my friend the squirrel, I feel a bit up in the air & perhaps uncertain which way to turn at times.  In Idaho I had a certain identity as a musician/blogger/poet that now is being translated from a very rural setting to a very urban one.  As we know, with any translation, things get added & subtracted, & the end result is both the same & different.

I’ll try to make Robert Frost’s Banjo a bit more personal in the wake of this move.  Now don’t worry—all your favorite music, poetry & other series will continue.  But once every week or two I’ll try to chime in with a bit of an “emotional weather report” or newsy post.

Speaking of a nice piece of news: I was touched last week when one of my very favorite bloggers, Jacqueline T Lynch, named me as a recipient of the Liebster Blog award.  As I mentioned some time ago, I’ve decided not to display awards on this blog or to pass them along, as I find the latter situation more than a bit awkward—someone is always bound to be left out.  But I have huge respect for Jacqueline T Lynch as a writer & blogger, & also as a person I got to meet once as I was passing thru her home state of Massachusetts.  If you want to read about classic film, New England or repertory theater, you really need to be subscribing to Jacqueline’s blogs, namely Another Old Movie Blog, New England Travels & Tragedy & Comedy in New England.  Jacqueline Lynch is an accomplished & witty writer who never fails to produce first-rate, informative & entertaining blog posts.

In addition, Jacqueline is a published playwright & novelist, & you can find out more about her books (which I recommend!) on her web page here.  All of Jacqueline’s novels are available as ebooks.

Thanks so much Jacqueline!  & seriously, if you’re a blogger on any of my blog rolls, & you’d like the Liebster Blog award to display, please consider it passed on to you with my regards!

Oh, & speaking of “emotional weather reports,” how about some Tom Waits to take us into Saturday!

Friday, August 19, 2011

“Old Rattler”

Welcome to Banjo Friday!  We’ve got a good old-time tune for you & a little bit of old-time music history too.

So here’s a serious question to start off: given that the banjo is African in origin & first came to North America with African slaves, why is it that so few African-Americans are represented on old-time, banjo or string band records?   The answer to that one is complex, certainly—these days, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have almost single-handedly been bringing the African-American roots of string band music back into the limelight, but with a few exceptions, this type of music has been largely the provenance of European American musicians, at least as far as one might determine from evidence left by the recording industry.

In the 1920s—a real “boom” decade for the music recording industry in many ways—labels often categorized what might be called “folk music” as two types: “race” & “hillbilly.”  The meanings of those categories is straightforward, & it appears that the marketing of the records was straightforward, too: “race” records were marketed to the black community (which, in the 1920s was still largely located in the South) & “hillbilly” records to the white community, & again, with special focus on the South. 

We now know, of course, that the African-American string band tradition continued to flourish in parts of the South, at least in pockets, but rather than focusing on this type of music for the “race records” series, labels sought out blues musicians.  Meanwhile, the same labels sought out white musicians who played the old hoedowns, ballads & fiddle tunes for their “hillbilly” series.  There were exceptions to this—John & Alan Lomax field recorded a number of African American musicians playing string band music; but these were exceptions that proved the overall commercial rule.

Nonetheless, while they weren’t captured on the early recordings, & thus were neglected in the frenzy of “rediscoveries” that followed the 78 collecting fad & its cultural high-water mark, the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, there were plenty of great old-time banjoists & fiddlers in the African American community.  Joe Thompson, who was crucial in bringing Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons & Justin Robinson (et al.) together as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is just the best-known figure.

Today’s tune comes from a Smithsonian Folkways album that celebrates this tradition: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.  “Old Rattler” features the clawhammer banjo playing of John Snipes, who is playing a fretless banjo tuned to gDGAD—an interesting tuning that I know a little from playing around with the tune “Willie Moore,” which in old-time banjo circles is often played in this tuning.  The tuning is interesting because it gives us two sets of notes a fifth apart: G & D, & D & A; this lends itself very readily to modal playing.  The tuning is also called “Moonshiner,” as the old-time song of that name also is played in the gDGAD tuning.

If you know the song "Old Rattler" by Grand Ol'Opry star Grandpa Jones (himself a clawhammer banjoist of considerable skill) I should say: the two songs have little in common except the title
—hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

“Filling Station”

A happy Thursday, folks!  I’m checking in with a favorite poem by a favorite poet on a Poetry Thursday.

Elizabeth Bishop is to my mind one of the very best U.S. 20th century poets.  Her eye for detail & her descriptive abilities are superb, & while observation is one of her great strengths, she never becomes detached; there’s always a current of feeling rippling like a current beneath the lines.  & then there is also a pervasive wit, as well as a delight in the everyday things of this world.

“Filling Station” illustrates all of these characteristics (as well as her mastery of form & her rhetorical ease.)  Hope you enjoy it!


 

Filling Station


      Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.


Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"The Quest"

[Help us celebrate Robert Frost's Banjo's third anniversary with a wonderful poem & artwork by Rockstar-Poet-in-Residence, Barbie Dockstader Angell!]

The Quest


Fate wandered alone in a field of Regret.
Unsure of his fortune, aware of his Debts.
He had heard of a place where Dreams are a dream.
Where Honesty lives by a clear, crystal stream of
unconscious thoughts and moments of Pride.
Where Wisdom gives Life to the Hopes that have died.
The place where Confusion and Certainty meet.
Where the Music is true and the Memories sweet.

He  took  a  wrong  turn  and  soon  lost  his  way
as he searched for the place where Happiness stays.
Soon Fear crossed his trail and Fate realized
that the place would evade him the more that he tried.
As he came to a forest overrun with Torment,
he saw in his Heart it was time to relent.

Then deep in the darkness, he saw a Will running free,
and he knew in that moment all the things that could be.
So he made his own path,
and he took his own time,
and he founded a place
that he simply called, “Mine”.


Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Monday, August 15, 2011

Poor Boy Long Way from Home #2 – Gus Cannon

Hey folks!  It’s the Monday Morning Blues here on Robert Frost’s Banjo, & we’re featuring the second installment in the “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” series.

Today’s version of “Poor Boy Long Way from Home” is notable for a few reasons.  Although it was recorded about a year after Bo Weavil Jackson’s version, Gus Cannon’s take on “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home” is thought to represent an old version of the song, as it medleys two turn of the century “proto-blues” standards, “Poor Boy Blues” & “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.”  Of course, Gus Cannon is one of the oldest performers on record—he was born in 1883, & had a background performing in touring medicine shows.

Of course later Cannon became well-known as the leader of one of the best known jug bands, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a combo that produced a number of well-known songs such as “Walk Right In,” “Minglewood Blues,” “Viola Lee Blues,” “Feather Bed” & more.  But Cannon’s recording career began before the formation of the Jug Stompers when he recorded six songs as Banjo Joe, with backing guitar by none other than Blind Blake!  In fact, Cannon also played banjo on a couple of Blake’s own 1927 recordings. 

So this version is also notable because Cannon is playing slide on a banjo (which, along the with the jug, was his instrument), not a guitar.  While the idea of slide banjo may strike us as odd, it actually makes sense.  First, the banjo is often tuned to an open chord, which itself facilitates slide playing; second, there’s easy access to higher frets than on a guitar because of the way the neck meets the body—remember, this was long before cutaway guitars!

Gus Cannon’s recording of “Poor Boy Long Way from Home” was released by Paramount; it was the A side, with “Can You Blame The Colored Man” as the B side recording.  The recordings were made around November 1927 in Chicago.

There’s no question that Gus Cannon is an important figure in the development of American popular music.  He lived a long & full life, surviving & performing into his 90s.  Cannon’s Jug Stompers produced a memorable sound, with Cannon playing banjo & jug simultaneously behind the virtuosic harmonica of Noah Lewis & the guitar playing of Ashley Thompson, Elijah Avery or Hosea Woods—Woods also contributed kazoo to the mix!  Cannon’s Jug Stompers were featured on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with their songs “Minglewood Blues” & “Feather Bed” both appearing on the “Songs” volume of the three record set. 

Hope you enjoy this wonderful version of a great song!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Historic Ambassadorial Tour

Note from Pinky your hostess: What a flurry in Big Bed Land! Polar Knight and Grey Dog were unanimously selected to add a few words to the Opening Ceremonies. Polar Knight presents this poem, explaining that this kind of poetry is called occasional poetry, because you write it (occasionally) on very special occasions. Here it is, with Polar Knight's dedication:

Dedicated to Fair Monster Kat - honored among Animals

The happy day dawns, we pause not to wonder
what makes the sun sparkle, we don’t have to guess
why even the earth worms are dancing down under
the earth as she shakes out the folds of her dress-
It’s the Hyggehus Animals crossing the tundra
The Gang is arriving today, we say, yes!

Welcome Teddy the Plushy with dapper crochet
And Eli with baby who shepherds the way
Here’s to Manny the Manatee, Pablo the Blue,
Carl, Goody and Will, and hey Gordon, you too!
Welcome Sergeant, the vigilant, Richard the Bold,
Enigmatic Henri (whom we’d love to hold!)
Flo and Pisa, the Boxers, the Highland Cow (sweet!)
And Hobo the traveler- it’s a pleasure to meet!
Footix Official and Ewen the lamb:
Big hugs from Piggles, Big Bed Land grande dame.
With Shingles and Hush they’re all making their way
The Hyggehus Gang meets Big Bed Land today!

Postscript from Polar Knight: We salute you, Monster J., without whose wisdom, loving patience, encouragement, and thorough understanding of Big Bed Land, Platypuss-in-Boots would never have been (and neither would today’s slide show have been completed in time!)

And now for the opening ceremony: we eat!
 
A few words from Grey Dog: Here I am with Rosie Bear, who has joined me in many of my travels. I do love to travel and run! One day this green basket simply lifted off the exercise bicycle (where many of our trips begin) and could travel by itself, effortlessly. When traveling with Monsters by car, I love to go outside and run next to the car for long stretches. (This is safe for Animal Dogs, but not safe for Monster Dogs.) I must say I feel a kinship with Shaggy Dog Hobo who traveled from Texas.

During the tour you'll visit Panda Air, the hammock which under Chairman Panda's direction can take the Animals anywhere, including under water and into outer space. Chairman Panda is an extremely evolved Animal (possibly from another planet, some speculate) who introduced the Animals to a number of new technologies, including teleporting and shopping. Panda has the somewhat disconcerting ability to appear suddenly outside Big Bed Land. There have been Panda sightings on Television, in Chinese Restaurants, and even on billboards! A much loved and respected Animal. The music for the tour is called "Grey Dog's Holiday" and was composed by M. John Hayes. He performs on the baritone ukulele and Monster E. accompanies on the flute.

Friday, August 12, 2011

“Year of Jubilo”

A happy Banjo Friday to you, friends!  I have a fun tune for you, so kick back & enjoy some old-time music.

On previous banjo Fridays I’ve written about players like Roscoe Holcomb & Bascom Lamar Lunsford who played “two-finger style.”  This manner of playing was pretty common in the real “old-time” days, both among African American & European American musicians—I’ve read that this was called the “complementing” style in the African American community, especially the two-finger style in which the thumb plays all or the majority of the melody notes (as in Roscoe Holcomb’s playing.)  This was to contrast it with the frailing style.

These days, thumb-lead two-finger picking is pretty uncommon.  Frailing or clawhammer is pretty much the default playing style among banjoists who play “old-time,” & I’ve featured a few videos that have given you an idea not only what this style sounds like, but also what frailing right-hand mechanics look like.  I thought I’d like to do the same for two-finger playing.

As I suspected, my YouTube options for illustrating two-finger thumb lead playing were much more limited, but I did run across a player by the name of Richard Hood who I like quite well.  In addition to playing solo banjo in the two-finger style, Mr Hood also plays in a band called The Bristol Brothers, & is an accomplished guitarist as well, especially as a fingerstyle player.

Of course the trick was to find a video in which you could see Mr. Hood’s right hand clearly so you can see the general playing motion; & after watching several of his videos, I decided his version of “Year of Jubilo” (AKA “Lincoln’s Gunboats,” AKA “Kingdom Coming”) was the best all-around for this purpose, despite a slight stumble at the end of the song.  Hood’s playing throughout tho is really excellent.

“The Year of Jubilo” was originally written in the 1860s by one Henry C. Work.  Tho the song originally had lyrics, these are rife with dialect, & to put it mildly, are dated.  The song’s intention, however, celebrates the idea of the slaves’ emancipation.  The tune itself has passed very much into the old-time repertoire, however, & is usually played as an up-tempo fiddle tune in the key of D.  I’ve seen banjo tab for “The Year of Jubilo” in both the double C & the open C tunings—of course these are either capoed or tuned up a whole tone so that the banjo is playing in D. 

You’ll notice that the index finger plays more of a drone part in this style, which is exactly the reverse of most banjo playing styles, in which the thumb acts as a drone on the fifth string.  In thumb-lead two-finger style, the index finger generally drones on the first string—remember, “two-finger” in banjo & guitar terms means just index finger & thumb.  It’s a beautiful manner of playing, & as Hood proves here, is not only useful for accompanying singing, but in the hands of an accomplished player can provide plenty of drive on an instrumental fiddle tune.  Those who are interested in such things can find a number of two-finger banjo tabs, mostly in the thumb lead style on the excellent “Thumb-Lead Banjer” blog here.

In the meantime, please enjoy “Year of Jubilo.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

“The World And I”

For Thursday—a poem by the great & greatly enigmatic Laura Riding Jackson.

If you don’t know about Laura Riding Jackson, I’d encourage you to take a look at her biography, & also to seek out more of her poetry.  Tho Riding Jackson is “associated” with the Fugitive school of poetry (the writers associated with the magazine The Fugitive, including Hart Crane, Alan Tate, John Crowe Ransom & others), her poetry now strikes me as an exploration at depths beyond the works of her fellow “Fugitives.”  Laura Riding Jackson often grappled with the possibilities of meaning both in poetry & by extension in language overall in both a direct & a profound manner, as you will see in “The World And I.”  Based on this poem, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that Riding Jackson ultimately renounced poetry, tho she continued to work with language from a more theoretical standpoint & continued to explore how language & meaning interact.

 

The World And I

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun.
But how to mean more closely
If the sun shines but approximately?
What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense!
Perhaps this is as close a meaning
As perhaps becomes such knowing.
Else I think the world and I
Must live together as strangers and die—
A sour love, each doubtful whether
Was ever a thing to love the other.
No, better for both to be nearly sure
Each of each—exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the world
Fail to meet by a moment, and a word.


Laura Riding Jackson

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Adams County Makes the News - Adams County Leader #37

The Adams County Leader        Published Weekly On Friday
Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager
Member State Editorial Association 
Member National Editorial Association
Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance

January 10, 1930
DR. HIGGS FIGURED IT OUT

San Diego, California
Mr. William Lemon
Dear Sir: That chain letter came a few days ago, and after thinking it over, I consigned it to the wastebasket for the following reasons.  First, if each person was to send on to seven more as directed, and it took one week to pass from one to the other on the average, in six months time there would have been 70,387,187,802,763,680,139,543 letters sent, which in plain English is seventy octillion, three hundred and eighty-seven pentillion, one hundred eighty-seven quadrillion, eight hundred two trillion, seven hundred sixty-three billion, six hundred eighty million, one hundred thirty-nine thousand and five hundred forty-three.  This is a greater majority than the Republicans ever carried Pennsylvania even with the help of Vare’s money.  To haul these letters, it would require one hundred quadrillion cars, making a train one quadrillion miles long and Bert Hagar and Swanstrom would not catch that many fish all summer.  And besides it appears that Tom Heflin started this and he starts too many things.

Aside from that, we are well and hope the natives of Adams County are the same.
Respectfully,
D. P. Higgs

January 10, 1930
BIDDING ON MAIL ROUTES

Postmaster Prout says that the bidding on star routes is going on merrily at this time, numerous persons being convinced that they can make some easy money running these routes over the next four years.  There is a route from Council to Cuprum, one from Council to Mesa, and one from Old Davis on Crooked River to Wildhorse.

January 17, 1930
WINTER PEARS DELICIOUS

We are indebted to Mrs. Wm. Wilson of Hornet Creek for samples of their winter pears.  And even now we are suspicious that they might have put one over on us and gave us fresh pears from Florida.  As Mrs. Wilson (Mrs., understand) is particularly known for veracity, we are accepting her word about these being pears grown on their place and stored for winter use in their cellar, and we are devouring them voraciously.

January 17, 1930
CORRECTION


In the arithmetical spasm I sent you yesterday about the chain letter accumulation that would occur in one half year, I made a mistake in that I put Octillion instead of Sextillion at the beginning of the total.  I was about to carry it out for a year, but I found that I was going to run out of figures.  Say, Lemon, seriously, one is surprised how fast multiplication will get into high finance.  The figures I sent you were absolutely right, except for the mistake noted.  I had some fun with the kids last night and they would not believe the total after they got it.

Raining to beat the band today.

D. P. Higgs

February 21, 1930
THE DOCTOR QUESTION AGAIN


Editor, Adams County Leader:

I was very much interested in your article with reference to a doctor for the county.  I hope you will continue to urge this matter through the columns of the Leader.  I had to cling to the front end of the car to keep a flashlight on the road because of the dangers ahead while taking our boy to a doctor recently, and I, for one, would appreciate having a doctor at the county seat.  A few miles of such driving might be all right under the stress of extreme circumstances, but 38 miles of it reminds one that a doctor should be nearer at hand.

We certainly do need a doctor.

There are a great many things a county doctor could do.  In schools, for instance, he could instruct the children on disease prevention, and I have seen some very efficient work done in this line by doctors working with the P.T.A.s of the various schools of the county.

Sincerely yours,
An Interested Leader Reader

November 14, 1930
HAVE TO GIVE IT UP


The editor of this family-fireside home-companion started something he can’t finish.  He just has to give it up.  You know it is often said that if we have bouquets—flowers to give folks—give them while the person is living and don’t wait until he or she is dead.  Piles of flowers on a casket are worthless to that departed one.  Or, if you have anything good to say about neighbors, say it now while they are living.  Don’t wait to say it in an obituary after they are dead.

But folks, it won’t work.  This editor tried it out, and has proved definitely that it’s a joke.  Some of our readers will remember that in recent months, this paper attempted to make a feature under a heading “Special Folks Among Us.”  For several issues, intermittently, we wrote complimentary resumes of different men or women who are our neighbors.  Well, sir, every time we did so, we stirred up a hornet’s nest of protest.  Various and numerous readers would joke and jibe us about those things we said about so-and-so.  Then we would try again and attempt to pick a better subject, someone we suspected might run the gauntlet.  But no use.  We just quit.  So don’t tell us to hand bouquets to living folks.  We are going to wait until they are dead, and then no one dares jibe us about it.

compiled by Eberle Umbach

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

“Monday Chicken”

[Please enjoy Nancy Krygowski’s latest, rife with telling details.]

 

Monday Chicken


She hacks the chicken’s bare body into parts:
Thigh, wing, drumstick.  That is how hard

she pounds, the chicken a drum she needs to keep time
with because where does time go? Years ago, it seems,

when she was just married?  she stuck her hand inside
the bird, drew out the blue-black of the liver. And a child asked

What’s that?  She can’t have just been married, this child
is one of many.  She pulled out the red-blue of the heart. 

What’s that?  She didn’t answer, couldn’t, put them
in a small enamel bowl. Over the stove’s lit burner, she turns

each part, singeing pin feathers from the bumpy, gelatinous skin.
She wants to peel it off, but her husband, or a son, likes the snap

and grease of it between his teeth. It is a daughter who watches. 
In a cedar chest, a wedding dress lays wrapped in black paper. 

Had she ever read Shakespeare? Tomorrow is Tuesday.
Pile of wrinkled shirts.  Meatloaf and green beans for dinner.

Nancy Krygowski
© 2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

10 Essential Delta Blues – Pea Vine Blues

A happy Monday to you!  The Monday Morning Blues is here at Robert Frost’s Banjo, & we have some “deep blues” indeed, as our “10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes” continues with a selection from the great Charlie Patton.

Of course, when you’re making any kind of list about Delta blues, or classic country blues in general, there’s simply no question: Charlie Patton is going to be represented.  Conventional blues history places Patton in a privileged spot as the sort of original embodiment of the style of music now usually called “Delta blues.”  Patton’s complex & insistent rhythms; his declamatory singing style; his use of the bottleneck (tho it does figure much less prominently in his music than in that of Son House); his vigorous instrumental attack; & even his larger than life persona as a rounder & an itinerant minstrel/bard who played everywhere from juke joints to country dances all delineated prototypical aspects of the Delta bluesman. 

Of course, more recent writers have called some of these assumptions into question & asked how much of this is the product of historical revisionism by white blues enthusiasts from the 1940s on.  Still, however much revisionism may have played a role in the creation of the Patton myth, it is true that his records sold well in the late 1920s & early 1930s, & that Paramount Records thought highly enough of him as a commercial property to arrange for four recording sessions, during which Patton recorded almost 60 sides.

So the question with Charlie Patton becomes which song to include in a list of 10 that limits itself to one song per artist.  According to Son House, Patton’s favorites among his own songs were “Stone Pony” & “High Water Everywhere” (& House stated somewhat ambiguously that the latter was “the onliest one I like for myself.”)   I had to rule “Stone Pony” out because I’d already included Tommy Johnson’s “Bye Bye Blues” which, like Willie Brown’s “M & O Blues,” is considered a version of the “pony blues” (you can read my discussion on that here).  I gave “High Water Everywhere” serious consideration—it is indeed a masterpiece of its kind—but I ended up deciding on what is probably my favorite Charlie Patton song, “Pea Vine Blues.”

Patton recorded “Pea Vine Blues” at a 1929 Paramount session in Richmond, Indiana.  If you don’t know the song, I should point out that the Pea Vine was a local railroad line that connected the Dockery Plantation to the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, more popularly known as the “Yellow Dog” (as in, “I’m going where the Southern cross the Dog.”)  The Pea Vine was given its singular name because it traveled a circuitous route.

“Pea Vine Blues” has some characteristic Patton riffs that appear in some of his other songs, perhaps most notably “Banty Rooster Blues” & “Bird’s Nest Bound.”  In fact, when Rory Block recorded “Pea Vine Blues” on her 1995 When a Woman Gets the Blues, she conflated the lyrics with those of “Banty Rooster Blues” to good effect.  “Pea Vine Blues” is essentially a two-chord song, with a movement between the tonic chord (G in this case) & the five chord (D).  However, as is typical of the blues, both of these chords hover between major & minor, without ever being clearly defined in terms of that modality.  There’s a characteristic “hammer-on” on the 6th string from a D note to an F natural note.  For those non guitarists out there, a “hammer-on” is a note produced by a guitarist’s left hand when she/he strikes down with one of the left hand fingers so forcefully higher up the fretboard (often, as in this case, going from an unfretted to a fretted string) that a new note is produced without any action from the right hand.  Patton recorded "Pea Vine Blues" in open G tuning
—in other words, the unfretted guitar strings form a G chord.

Lyrically, “Pea Vine Blues” is a great example of how “floating lyrics” can be combined to produce what seems like an intensely personal statement.  By song’s end, when we learn that the Pea Vine’s whistle is blowing “just like she wasn't gonna blow no more,” we are in a landscape of emotional desolation.  If critic Robert Palmer’s term “deep blues” has any meaning, it most certainly describes “Pea Vine Blues.”

Enjoy!

Friday, August 5, 2011

“Darling Corey”

A happy Banjo Friday everybody!  Hope you’re ready for a great old-time banjo tune, because that’s just what we have for you today.

Although this version of “Darling Corey” by Roscoe Holcomb dates back to a recording made in the 1960s during the folk revival, the song itself is old, as is the style in which Holcomb plays it.  The first recordings of “Darling Corey” date back to 1927, when Buell Kazee & B.F. Shelton each sang it with banjo accompaniment.  Kazee played the song in his usual banjo frailing style, but Shelton played the banjo two-finger style with the thumb taking the lead in the same way as Roscoe Holcomb.  Two-finger, by the way, refers to the fact that the player only uses his/her right-hand thumb & index finger; three-finger playing (as performed by bluegrass banjoists & in different ways by old-timers like Dock Boggs & Charlie Poole) adds the middle finger as well.

I don’t know what specific tuning Holcomb is using in this recording, tho the key center appears to be E flat.  Given that fact, I’d assume Holcomb is using some form of D-tuning with a capo on the first fret, but that’s just a guess.  Shelton used an unusual variant of the “double C” tuning, which finds the banjo tuned gCGCC; these days you often see it tabbed in either double C tuning (gCGCD) or “Mountain Minor” (gDGCD); in the latter case the song is played either in G or capoed up to A.  Pete Seeger played “Darling Corey” in “Graveyard tuning, which is a form of open D: f#DF#AD.

There are definite hints of Dock Boggs in Holcomb’s version—as Holcomb sings it, the song shares some lyrics both with “Country Blues” & “Danville Girl.”  Some have also suggested a connection with both “Little Maggie” & “East Virginia.”

Hope you enjoy this wonderfully dark old-time tune.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Writer’s Talk with Nancy Krygowski

Happy Thursday, everybody!  We’re here with the latest installment of Writers Talk, which is an interview with Robert Frost’s Banjo’s newest contributor, Nancy Krygowski.  I’m excited about this one!

Poet Nancy Krygowski is an adult literacy instructor and was co-founder & poet booker for the Gist Street Reading Series. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, River Styx, Southern Poetry Review, 5 A.M., and other magazines. She is the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

In addition, Nancy’s book Velocity won the 2006 Starrett Prize & was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.  The University’s press release stated, “Poet Nancy Krygowski is a fresh, surprising voice that speaks for the intelligent heart in each of us,” while poet Gerald Stern, who selected Velocity for the Starrett Prize, described Nancy in this way, ““This is a wide-eyed, assertive, wild, well-read, street-smart, edgy, loving, suffering, heaven-crazed poet. It’s a joy to find her.”

If you’re a regular reader, you know that Nancy Krygowski has stepped in as the blog’s “Visiting Poet” while L.E. (AKA Dani) Leone is off on a series of jaunts.  Based on Nancy’s first poem, “Moving Van,” (which you can read at this link) & this interview, I have to agree with Stern’s assertion that “it’s a joy to find her.”  I’m very happy to have Nancy participating in the blog even on a temporary basis.  Don’t forget: next poem by Nancy will appear next Tuesday, August 9th, & her poems will appear every other Tuesday alternating with regular contributor Barbie Dockstader Angell, for the next while!

& now—the interview!

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

I grew up in a big, practical, Polish family, and though lots of reading happened in our house, I never thought that actual people wrote what we read.  In college, I started to hang around people who identified themselves as writers, real live writers.  This was a huge deal for me.  I had written poems for myself since I was young but never even thought to show them to anyone.  When I found these poets and fiction writers (Robert Frost’s Banjo’s Dani Leone was one), my world started to shift. 

At first, hanging out with writers affirmed my identity as a reader—I thought of myself as an appreciator of their work.  Then I got up the nerve to show my poems to my writer pals, and things started to change.  They liked what they read, and I liked that.  I was in graduate school in New Hampshire at that time, not for creative writing, and I brazenly showed some poems to Charles Simic to see if he would let me into a workshop.  He did.  That’s when I started to feel like a poet. 

I struggle with my identity as a writer. Yes, I’m a poet, I know this, but writing poems is still, at least initially, something I do for myself. I get personal satisfaction from writing a poem that I like. I feel way more at ease identifying as a teacher because teaching is something I do for others. (I teach English as a second language, mainly to refugees, and specialize in teaching reading skills.)  I get a larger, social satisfaction from that.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.  

The most fascinating writing process for me was putting together the final draft of Velocity.  I had gathered up poems and sent them out to book competitions and even got good responses, but I knew they weren’t working as a book.  The poems weren’t bouncing off each other, speaking to each other enough.  I showed the collection to a smart poet friend, and he asked the simplest question I hadn’t seriously considered:  What is the book about?

I don’t usually think of poems in terms of about, like you do with novels or books of non-fiction. So I got on my living room floor and started making various stacks of poems.  I stacked poems by content, by emotion, by length, by whether or not they contained swear words, anything to try to see the poems in new ways. I kept asking myself, What is it about?  After many stacks, I made a conscious decision to use my sister’s death as the book’s backdrop, which meant cutting poems I liked, digging up and breathing life into some older poems, and writing new ones.  I made the more intuitive decision to order the poems to recreate the feeling you have a few years after someone you love dies—you go on with life, but the death is always on your mind, sometimes staring directly at you, sometimes hovering as a feeling of loss that permeates how you see the world, that sense that something is always missing. 

When I finished, I didn’t show the manuscript to anyone; I sent it off to competitions.  I felt like the book would either be taken or I was going to give up (I had been at the process of sending out the manuscript for about 4 years), and at that point, I thought either end would be okay.  I’m really, really happy things turned out as they did. 

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)  

Damn. I know this sounds unprofessional, but honestly, I feel pretty disconnected from the publishing process.  I’m awful at sending out poems to journals.  It feels too impersonal, too distant, like I’m depositing little drips of thought into a very large and hard to find bucket.  Publishing a book was much better—I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—but it made me confront the fact that part of publishing is self-promotion, which I suck at.  I’m essentially an introvert.  (See below.)  Nevertheless, my favorite kind of ‘publishing’ is doing readings.  I have a strong belief that poems should be heard, and though I write with an emphasis on sound and hope that readers can hear my poems on the page, I really like the immediacy of reading to listeners, of having the poems in my voice filling a room.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

Writing has brought a lot of great people who are writers into my life:  Dani Leone, Aaron Smith, Sherrie Flick, Neno Perrotta, Terrance Hayes.  But writing makes me a pretty serious introvert.  (Or being an introvert made me a writer and trying to get the work of writing done makes me more of an introvert?)   In either case, because I am a slow, often unfocused writer, I need lots of time alone to create anything.  I need silence.  I need to read and stare and listen to people on buses.  I need to take walks by myself.  I go interior and I don’t want to talk.  I have months of not seeing my dear friends.  Writing hasn’t helped my social life. 

I’m married to an engineer—a very eclectic, wonderful, engineer—and writing plays a very small role in our relationship. Tom seems to like the idea that I’m a writer (I can’t say for sure if he’s ever read my book) maybe only because that gives him time alone to read whatever geeky stuff he reads.  The truth is, I like having the perspective that writing is simultaneously hugely important and not important at all. My marriage helps me remember that.  My husband’s at work making decisions that will affect whether or not people get clean water, and I’m spending some mornings wondering if I can use the word giggle in a poem.  I never want to take myself too seriously as a writer; this helps.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community. 

Right now, my main community is my dear, old friend Dani Leone (see her sweet response to this question) and my wonderful poetry students at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.  Dani and I write for each other each week (though she’s behind).  I love her wild, sturdy, beautiful writing and am committed to our pact of making sure it comes into the world.

My poetry students inspire me with their joy, their willingness to be pushed and to share, and with all they have to say in their poems and to each other. They make me happy about poetry. (In fact, I’m using my RFB posts to showcase what I create from the prompts I give them.)  Also, I’m lucky to have great poet friends like Aaron Smith and Lois Williams to turn to when I need smart poetic eyes and serious edits, plus other writing and visual artist friends who I can talk to about creating in general.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

I’m working on another manuscript, and my goal is to have a draft done in the next few months.  I’m just about at the point where I want to start making stacks on my floor, and that excites me. 

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

The metal slide you put on your finger and wiggle around to make those soulful, eerie steel guitar sounds.