Tuesday, November 30, 2010


[L.E. Leone's latest is a new spin on electricity]

Electricity Explained

The current needs the cord. Nothing works
or is broken until you plug it in.
Then you know.

Lights, heat...

Perfume smells prettier on pigs, like violinists
in a cornfield. We’re only human.
We work, we’re broke, our ballads


like balled-up twang. It’s what
cats love about us, why we love Vivaldi,
Bondage and fishnets are sexy. High


wires, underground cables, roads, we’re all
of us all tied up. Together. Tugged and taut,
teeth chattering, we vibrate, dream

a sack of rattlesnakes...

wonder why
we wake up
craving popcorn.

L.E. Leone

© 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

“Gun Street Girl”

Happy Monday!  I’m back with some Monday Morning Blues, tho using the word “blues” for today’s song is a bit of a stretch.  It’s Tom Waits’ great song “Gun Street Girl” from his amazing Rain Dogs album—for my money, definitely a “desert island” selection.

If by chance you haven’t heard the original—& for that matter, the entire Rain Dogs album—you really need to do so.  Waits’ whiskey-&-cigarettes-at-4:00 a.m. voice is backed by banjo & some very cool percussion.  Of course, to say that a Waits’ song has cool percussion is stating the obvious, especially on practically all of his work from the 80s & 90s.  But since the arrangement of “Gun Street Girl” is so spare, the percussion becomes a major voice on the song, even by Waits’ standards.

For those who are interested in musical minutiae: as was the case with last week’s song, “Country Blues,” I was tempted to record this using the banjo as backing.  I tried it in the standard G tuning, playing what amounted to a D “power chord” alternating with a D suspended chord, but the key of D didn’t seem to mesh with my voice.  I re-tuned the banjo to some odd tunings in the key of F, & that didn’t seem to work either, tho the banjo part sounded weird in all the best senses of the word—there were just too many dissonances in any tuning I tried.  So I decided to vocalize this in F, but using the Regal resonator guitar in drop D tuning, with a capo on fret 3.  I love the drop D tuning for modal songs.

Next month Mondays will be a bit different—between Hank Williams, Dock Boggs & Tom Waits, these last few weeks have been pretty dire!  No Christmas tunes, but something much more light-hearted—yours truly will be dusting off the ukuleles to play you some old standards—instrumentals all!  & yes, there will be an Alice of Wonder Band song of the month on the Monday prior to Christmas—& that one will be seasonal.

If you'd like some more music
—& poetry too—please check out the first installment of Music Theory for Poets on The Spring Ghazals blog.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy my take on “Gun Street Girl.”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Photo of the Week 11/28/10

Junco & Goldfinches in the Willow
View out our kitchen window
Saturday, November 27th

Tomorrow on Robert Frost's Banjo? The Monday Morning Blues! & once again, something new & unsual!

This week on The Spring Ghazals: music theory for poets!  I know there are a lot of musical references in the collection, & I'll be discussing those in the next few posts; & yes, there will be mp3s involved!  First post in the series should be up tomorrow morning.

Alcools? I've started to translate the next poem"Le Larron," ("The Thief") but I don't believe it will be ready for Monday.  If it's ready by mid-week I'll post it then rather than waiting until a week from Monday.  Please stay tuned! 

Banjo Feast #4

Happy Sunday morning!  For those who are looking for the Photo of the Week & coming attractions: not to worry—they’ll post about 2:00 p.m. US Mountain Time today.  In the meantime, I wanted to bring the Banjo Feast series to a close with two terrific banjo performances.

Interestingly, both the performers in these videos are probably better known for playing the guitar.  That’s certainly true of Taj Mahal—so much so in fact that the person who compiled this video uses shots of Taj Mahal playing guitar even tho he’s playing the banjo on this song.  Marcy Marxer isn’t as well known as Taj Mahal—tho she & her long-time music partner Cathy Fink deserve to be more widely recognized—but in her duo with Fink she does play more guitar, while Fink plays more banjo—of course they both play ukes & all sorts of other fun things as well.

& you may ask why—with all the great banjo foodie songs to choose from
I chose another video featuring Marxer, since she & Cathy Fink were featured performing “The Kitchen Girl” in one of Thanksgiving Day’s selections.  A couple of reasons—first, I just find the cello banjo a remarkable instrument, & this was a chance to hear Marcy Marxer playing it solo.  Second, there was something about pairing “Candy Man” & “Angeline the Baker” that I couldn’t resist.
Taj Mahal’s version of “Candy Man” draws elements from both the Reverend Gary Davis tune & Mississippi John Hurt’s different song of the same name.  Overall, however, Mahal’s “Candy Man” is closer to the Davis’ song.  The recording comes from his great 1969 double album, Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home.  Taj Mahal is a giant in the blues & roots music scene, & that’s an essential album by just about any standard.

There’s some fun puzzlement reagarding the history of the song “Angeline the Baker.”  It’s clearly connected in some way to Stephen Foster’s tune “Angelina Baker,” tho the melodies differ somewhat & the harmonic structures (that is, the underlying patterns of chord changes) are also different.  But the question remains: was Foster using an existing song as a template for his sentimental tune, or is the fiddle tune “Angeline the Baker” a folk derivation from Foster’s original.  I’ve yet to see anyone make a definitive statement on this.  In any case, Marcy Marxer does a rip-roaring job of picking it on her Gold Tone cello banjo!

Hope you enjoy the songs & check back in later for a wintery Photo of the Week!

Photo of Taj Mahal is by Wiki Commons user Tsui who makes it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Photo of Marcy Marxer is from the Flickr photostream of user jconn0403

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Banjo Feast #3

It’s Saturday, & as we move into the weekend proper, I expect a number of you are still working on Thursday’s turkey & trimmings: perhaps at the soup & sandwich stages now.  Here on Robert Frost’s Banjo, we’re back to our banjo feast with two interesting selections.

Both of today’s songs feature performers whose careers pre-dated the recording industry—their careers stretch back to the days of medicine shows & similar entertainments.  Otherwise, however, you might think that Uncle Dave Macon & Papa Charlie Jackson were quite different sorts of musicians playing quite different sorts of music—Uncle Dave Macon is thought of as an old-time “country” musician—he was a charter member of the Grand Ol’ Opry—while Papa Charlie Jackson would be classified as a blues player.

But they both played the banjo—& as we know from many sources, the genre-typing of music that’s a staple of today’s recording industry (& which seems to grow more & more particularized every year) is an anachronism when discussing the actual musicians & types of music played in the actual “old times,” especially prior to World War II.  A good discussion of this, particularly in the blues context, can be found in Elijah Wald's fine book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues.  

Anyway, from a banjo perspective, both Macon & Jackson were excellent players.  Macon’s
style—while idiosyncratic—may be a bit more recognizable.  He played clawhammer or frailing style, but interestingly, he often interspersed parts that were played with the fingers plucking upward rather than the downward stroke of frailing.  These days this is pretty much an "either/or" choice, & a fair number of banjoists play in only way style period, let alone switching styles in mid-song as Macon did.

Papa Charlie Jackson on the other hand, didn’t play the 5-string banjo or its 4-string relatives like the plectrum & tenor banjos.  He played a 6-string “banjo guitar.”  Tuned like a guitar, but with a banjo head, this instrument was much more common in the 1920s & 30s than nowadays (tho both Gold Tone & Deering continue to make these instruments)—besides Papa Charlie Jackson, the great Johnny St. Cyr from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five played a guitar banjo; & a couple of musicians whose careers extended later but who had roots in this era also were known for playing the instrument, namely Danny Barker & the Reverend Gary Davis.  Even Django Rheinhardt played some guitar-banjo!

Hope you enjoy these two songs (at least marginally “foodie”), & tune in tomorrow morning for two more as the series draws to a conclusion!

1st pic: Papa Charlie Jackson & his banjo-guitar.

2nd pic: Uncle Dave Macon & his 5-string banjo

Friday, November 26, 2010

Homegrown Radio 11/26/10

Happy Friday!  I trust all of our Stateside friends had a happy Thanksgiving yesterday.   Now that Friday is upon us, it’s of course time for Homegrown Radio, & sad to say, it’s out final go-round with Bernie Jungle.  As far as next month’s Homegrown Radio goes, that’s a bit up in the air, but I hope to have an announcement on that by Sunday.  Also, don’t forget that the Banjo Feast will continue tomorrow & Sunday.

But for now, here’s Bernie talking about this month’s song, “Louie”:

some of my songs are fiction
but this one, like Josie, is simply real life events set to music
i guess i had a colorful life growing up in the backwoods of western PA

and if Louie ever hears this song, i hope he takes no offense, but laughs along with the rest of us and memories of our crazy times growing up

maybe a song that some of your listeners can relate to

hope you all enjoy the song, it's been a pleasure

Happy Thanksgiving !


We’ve enjoyed it too, Bernie—thanks!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Banjo Feast #2

Happy Thanskgiving!  or Happy Thursday, as the case may be.  The Banjo Feast continues, & there are two wonderful songs for you today, both featuring banjo & foodie themes: the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with Rhiannon Giddens playing clawhammer-style banjo, give us a sweet version of “Corn Bread & Butter Beans.”  Ms Giddens is joined by bandmates Dom Flemons on jug & bones & Justin Robinson on fiddle & vocal.  I had the pleasure of seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops in Chico, CA this autumn, & let me tell you: if you ever get a chance to see them perform, don't miss it.

The second song is Marcy Marxer & Cathy Fink's take on the old-time standard “Kitchen Girl.”  The latter song features Marxer on an instrument she helped design, Gold Tone’s cello banjo—also a dream instrument of mine!  Ms Marxer & Ms Fink have been performing together for 30 years & they are truly a delight, whether they're playing old-time tunes, children's songs or any of their wonderful experiments betwixt & between!  Marxer & Fink are also successful producers who have worked in the studio with artists such as Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Patsy Montana & many others.  & while I always think of them first in terms of the banjo, they're not instrumental monomaniacs—they also perform with various guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, percussion instruments & more.

If you’re not familiar with either the Carolina Chocolate Drops (see pic leading off the post) or Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, please take some time to check out their homepages & get to know these extremely talented musicians.  In the meantime, enjoy your day & a couple of banjo tunes!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Banjo Feast #1

Happy day before Thanksgiving all! Hope your preparations are going swimmingly, & for those of you who are traveling, hope your journeys are safe.

Of course, holidays can be mixed blessings some times—& with that in mind, I thought I’d offer a little something over the next few days to brighten your mornings, or whatever part of the day you may visit Robert Frost’s Banjo. & those who are enjoying a festive holiday—well, this should just brighten up your day a bit more, as it should for our many friends outside the U.S. who are free & clear from the Thanksgiving frenzy.

In an old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once observed that, “The way I see it as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo.” This, in Linus’ view, would cure existential angst. I tend to agree with Linus on this point—so I’m offering a banjo feast from now thru the weekend—excepting Friday, when we’ll be enjoying Bernie Jungle’s Homegrown Radio appearance. Otherwise, each morning thru Sunday, two banjo songs!

& not just banjo songs: as Thanksgiving is the foodie holiday par excellance, they’ll all be foodie songs too. Today’s selections are the enigmatically named “Rush in the Pepper,” performed by one of my favorite old-time banjoists, Cathy Moore of Banjo Meets World. Tho Ms Moore has a serious day job in a whole other field, she is a very talented player, & there are also some great instructional videos on her blog & her YouTube channel. She brings verve & an uncanny rhythmic sense to the banjo, & I always enjoy listening to her play. I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

The second video features someone else who was both a performer & a teacher—the late Mike Seeger, who was responsible for bringing so much old-time music to people’s consciousness from the 1950s until his death last year. Seeger was in his own way as much of an apostle of the banjo as his half-brother Pete, & in fact concentrated more than Pete on the real old-timey sound. Mike made much of his mark with the wonderful band, the New Lost City Ramblers, but he was also an accomplished solo artist who excelled on a number of instruments. Mike Seeger is playing one of the first tunes many banjo players learn, “Bile Them Cabbage Down” (“Bile”=”Boil”), but he brings a real artist’s take to the simple tune. He’s also playing a gourd banjo—this is truly vintage sound! Please note that Mr Seeger had some problems tuning the instrument, so the tune itself doesn’t start until around 1:50: take heart, all musicians who’ve ever gone thru that on stage—it happens to the best!

Enjoy! & tune in tomorrow for more of the Banjo Feast!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Writers Talk with HKatz

By day, HKatz is a mild-mannered graduate student.  By night, she’s a mild-mannered graduate student who writes.  At school she studies the human mind and is especially interested in young children’s developing language and cognitive abilities.  As a writer, she writes about anything that interests her (often the mind of a human or an anthropomorphized creature is involved), and she loves to play around with words.  When she was a teenager she won a bunch of writing awards from local to national level and had one of her one-act plays performed at a local playhouse.  For several years after she kept to herself writing-wise, though recently that’s changed; one example of this change is the existence of her blog, The Sill of the World, to which she welcomes you all.

On a personal note, I would have to say that The Sill of the World is one of the best blogs I read on a regular basis.  HKatz posts a feature each Sunday called “The Week in Seven Words.”  The writing in that feature is exquisite—HKatz writes with remarkable clarity & perceptiveness & the condensation of language available to a true poet.  Hope you enjoy her interview—I certainly did—& be sure to check out her wonderful poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pinky Toe,” on the Writers Talk blog!

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?
I had the first inklings in third grade, when I wrote a couple of stories, one from the point of view of a leaf and another told by a groundhog who loved to party all night.  But I think it was from seventh grade onwards that I came to understand that, no matter what else I’d be doing with my life, I’d need to write too.  My English class in seventh grade was structured such that part of the week was devoted entirely to creative writing, and it was the first time in my life that I wrote regularly; I loved it.  From tenth to twelfth grade I took another creative writing class with an inspiring and demanding teacher and wrote different kinds of poems, short stories, one-act plays, and multimedia projects.  I also wrote a novel in high school, and though it won’t be presented to the public eye in its current form (not if I can help it) I regard it proudly as my first major writing effort and will maybe rewrite it one day, as I actually like the characters and some of the ideas quite a bit.  In college I took more writing classes and in the few years following graduation I wrote almost entirely for myself and for a couple of people close to me.  Only in the past year or so have I started to be more public with some of my writing and to work on it in a more consistent and disciplined fashion.

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

The creative process is not infrequently marked by the need to write in inappropriate and inconvenient times and places; I’ll get an idea for a story (or for a way to revise a story I’m already working on) or a specific sentence will come to mind, and I’ll want to get it down on paper (and sometimes it’s not enough to just get the sentence or idea down – I need to start writing more and more, because my brain is already supplying a web of associations, characters, connections, plots…).  This has happened to me in the middle of exams (resulting in my teacher’s confusion as the margins around a set of equations or an essay on the Battle of Waterloo is filled with little jottings like ‘killed by a falling tree branch’ or ‘why not make them twins???’) It also happens when I’m sitting with other people at a restaurant, or five minutes before a meeting or appointment, or hours before a huge project is due, and it’s like an itch that comes over me and I need to write it down in whatever notebook I have handy, on the backs of assignments and handouts, badly labeled Microsoft Word documents, receipts, index cards (which I sometimes misplace, to my great frustration…); the itch might also come over me on the Jewish Sabbath, when I don’t write at all, so I repeat the words to myself or try to organize the thoughts in easily retrievable ways.  This unpredictability is a part of the fun and excitement of writing, and I’m thankful for it.

To be clear though - it’s not that I just sit around waiting for inspiration or illumination.  I write as often as I can, even when I’m not necessarily inspired to do so; and this is something I’m working to be more disciplined about – to sit and write and see what comes and resist strong tendencies to procrastinate – because after the first bit of heel-dragging, it’s often possible to be productive.  Even on the worse days, when the writing seems to dribble out like sludge, often there are dribbles that I can later work with.  I also love when writing surprises me.  I can have an idea of certain characters and what will happen to them, but then the characters might take over and nudge me in other directions (which can be amazing, or sometimes result in unworkable absurdity, which is at least amusing).  I’m thinking of a character I’ve been working with recently.  I meant for her to be a sharp and droll older woman, but she completely derailed and became a saccharine grandmotherly soul who tittered and offered freshly baked cookies as the cure for all of life’s woes…  and no, I didn’t want her to stay that way, and I’ve started to do some extensive re-writing to bring her back to the dry sharp-eyed dame in my mind, but I left the cookie-baking part in and that’s made the character more interesting.

For the poem (or whatever the heck it is) that I submitted to the Writer’s Talk blog – “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pinky Toe” – I share it here largely for personal, sentimental reasons (the earliest draft on my computer is from February 2001, though I’ve revised it and shown it to people since).  But I remember writing it because I was in a playful mood and had just talked with someone about whether or not there are things you can’t write about because they’re too inherently insignificant or dull. 

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)
I’m not familiar yet with traditional publishing processes.  As a younger and more inexperienced writer I often read about the slim to nil chances of getting something published, the cliques and fads that stifle creativity and encourage conformity, and how the quality of the writing in and of itself doesn’t guarantee publication.  But until I start sending out a lot of my work, I won’t know where I stand with traditional publishing; at this point I’m still writing mostly for myself and a writers group, and am working to revise and edit my work when I have the time.  I already have a strong tendency towards self-doubt, and I don’t want to let that hold me back; I hope to keep plugging away and figure things out as I go.

These days I publish most regularly on my blog, which I’m happy I started (I was wary about blogging at first and didn’t know what would come of it).  Thankfully I’ve met wonderful people online and have gotten great thoughtful comments and emails from readers.  Although I haven’t posted my own stories or poems there I might in the future.  On the blog so far I’ve been working mainly on one ongoing writing project – my ‘Week in Seven Words’ – and also sharing some photos and some commentary on fiction and poetry I read.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

Writing is solitary; other than that, I don’t know.  I’ve gotten some sincere encouragement from people close to me, urging me to keep writing; others see it as a nice hobby that has its place but is not really a practical use of time (and they have a point, while also missing the point).  I also worry sometimes that when I do start making my stories more public, people I know will think that they can figure me out or deduce things about me based on the writing; there’s a sense of exposure and scrutiny.  We’ll see how things go.

I think the main struggle with writing now is finding time for it, in light of the fact that I have relationships that I want to form and sustain and that I’m a student, which takes up an enormous amount of time.  Writing doesn’t always fit easily with what else is going on in my life, so that’s the main struggle; but I can’t see myself giving up on it either (if I go too long without writing I get terribly restless and feel like a huge pressure is building up inside).

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.
Offline, in January 09, I joined a writers group in my community.  At any given meeting there are usually no more than 10 people present, and the group is made up of several regulars as well as people who drop by on occasion; we meet roughly once every two weeks throughout the year, except for the summer, when the meetings are usually three or four weeks apart.  I love the group.  The members come from different backgrounds and have different interests as writers and readers, so they present a variety of perspectives on any given piece.  Most importantly, the feedback they give is clear, honest and specific.  The group encourages me to write regularly and be productive.  And they’re a lot of fun to meet with; we have wonderful discussions, and as a member I also get to see good writing in the works.

Online through my blog I’ve met great people too, and there are certain blogs I visit regularly (Robert Frost’s Banjo included).  So I feel like I’m part of an online community of people who love writing, photos, music and art.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

To persist in writing regularly and to manage my time better – even though I don’t like the expression ‘time management’ (it doesn’t capture the messiness of mental processes or the fact that even when you’re not doing anything in particular your brain might be working hard on something).  I suppose what I’d like to improve most is discipline – to make sure I’m regularly working on something, whether writing, re-writing, or finding potential venues for the work.  I hope to figure out how to fit writing into what is often an uncompromising schedule.  Sometimes I feel pulled in multiple directions and respond to that pressure by procrastinating too much, which is a kind of self-sabotage (though on the other hand, taking a break has its place too and can result in better ideas and writing…).  These things are tricky.

Since the end of junior year of college or thereabouts I’ve slowly been working on a novel.  Work on it has stopped and stalled at various points; I love the characters, but realized about a year and a half ago that there wasn’t much of a plot to speak of (just me making the characters stroll around and talk, which is great for getting to know them better but not so great for a coherent novel).  Fortunately by now a better story has emerged for the characters.  At some point I’d like to sit down and get it written.

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

I’m thinking of a piano in my parents’ house.  Mostly I played on the keys and loved it – the range of notes, the grand chords and delicate trills, the blur of sound when I held the pedal down too long.  And after I was done playing on the keys I liked to go around to the side of the piano, lean into its belly, and run my fingers over the strings; I loved those other noises too, the strange purr and whispery echoes. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Country Blues"

A happy Monday morning to you from wintery Idaho.  It’s another morning for the Monday Morning Blues around here, & this morning’s selection is one of the eeriest & spookiest songs I know: “Country Blues” by (or at least closely associated with) Dock Boggs.

For those of you who don’t know, Dock Boggs was a coal miner who also happened to be an extraodrinary banjo player.  In fact, he was successful enough with his music in the late 1920s to record a number of sides for Brunswick Records.  Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit the recording industry hard, & musicians in southern rural areas weren’t recorded as much in the 1930s as in the previous decade.  Unable to make a living with his banjo, Boggs pawned the instrument.

However, when Harry Smith issued his landmark compilation, The Anthology of American Folk Music, two of Boggs’ songs were included: “Country Blues” & “Sugar Baby.”  Both are extremely dark songs played in different modal tunings that Boggs favored for such old-time fare.  As was the case with several of the musicians featured on the Anthology, Boggs was sought out, “discovered,” & found himself in a whole new musical career from the early 60s until his death in 1971.  Mike Seeger was particularly instrumental in getting Boggs his new start.

It must be said that “Country Blues” is a real banjo song—not only did Boggs play it this way, but Doc Watson also did a wonderful cover version in a somewhat different banjo-playing style.  Also, to my mind a guitar can't capture the modal feel the way a banjo can.  That being the case, why am I playing it here on a resonator guitar?

First, I’m not familiar with the odd tuning that Boggs used when recording this song (f#CGAD), but the instrument clearly has to be in some form of modal tuning.  The modal tuning I’m most familiar with on the banjo is the so-called “Sawmill tuning,” & I simply couldn’t come up with anything using that tuning, or even using the common G-major tuning while playing in D minor (technically, more like a D suspended chord), that seemed to work.  Also, fact is: I’m a better guitar player than a banjo player.

So this is played on my Regal resonator guitar tuned to double drop D—in other words, both the highest & the lowest strings are D, rather than E as in standard tuning.  I recorded the song both in D & then in Eb by using a capo on the first fret.  I actually liked the D version better, but there seems to be a glitch in the recording itself, so I’m sharing the Eb take with you today.

Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Photo of the Week 11/21/10

Snow Squall East of Sage Hill
North Grays Creek Road
Indian Valley, Idaho
Saturday, November 20th

Tomorrow on Robert Frost's Banjo? The Monday Morning Blues! & once again, something new & unsual.

Stay tuned....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Homegrown Radio 11/19/10

Happy Friday!  It’s time for some Homegrown Radio with Bernie Jungle—so let’s see what Bernie has to say about this week’s song, “Penny:”

this was recorded on a home computer by Scott Greiner a few years ago
and features Kathleen Gacek on vocals, recorded on my laptop live
that is, after trying it with overdubs we had to just sing together into the same mic at the same time

but then quite a few overdubbed vocals at the end just for fun

hope you enjoy

I know you will enjoy it!  & a quick reminder: you can purchase Bernie Jungle’s solo cd on CDBaby right here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Writers Talk with Jack Hayes

Hello folks—it’s me!  No, I mean it’s really me.  Due to a change in scheduling, I’m the Writers Talk interviewee this week.

Y’all know me, right?  OK, here’s a brief bio, just in case:

  • Jack Hayes-born Bellows Falls, VT 1956
  • Educated University of Vermont (BA); MFA in creative writing/poetry from the University of Virginia, 1986.
  • Some publications in magazines, three self-published books: The Spring Ghazals (poems 2008-2010); The Days of Wine & Roses (San Francisco poems 1989-1996); Nightingales in a Stateside Zoo (Charlottesville poems 1984-1989).  All are available here on Lulu. 
  • Maintains this blog & a few others.
  • Plays guitar & banjo & ukulele & performs on same.
  • Has lived in Westminster, VT; Burlington, VT; Charlottesville, VA; San Francisco, CA; & Indian Valley, ID, where he currently resides with wife & fellow writer/musician Eberle Umbach.
  • Apologizes in advance for interview’s length.

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

After an initial go at this question, it now strikes me as a bit of a moving target—I mean my identity as a writer has been quite fluid over a long period of time.  If I’m looking at the question as asking “when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer,” then I’d say it was probably when I read J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit at 9 or 10 years old.  Upon completing the book, I immediately began a novel of my own, which my mother has preserved to this day.  I do not plan to publish it or my other juvenalia, however!  From this point—1965 or 1966—I thought of myself as a writer—& wrote on a mostly regular basis—until I stopped writing 30 years later in 1996.

But there were other points of “identity” along the way.  For instance, until I was in my mid 20’s, I thought of myself as a fiction writer who occasionally dabbled in poetry.  At a certain point in the early 80s, I saw that my strengths were actually in poetry, & I put fiction writing on the shelf—permanently, it would appear.  It’s odd to think of this now, but it was only a couple of years before applying to MFA programs in 1984 that I’d actually started writing poetry “seriously.”  But the years were so much longer then.

& then, there was the period from autumn 1996 until spring 2008 when I didn’t write at all.  What was my identity then?  Ex-poet?  I actually went out of my way to bury that identity—I turned down offers to come to San Francisco to read, for instance, & in terms of creative life I thought of myself as a musician.  & how do I see myself now?  My identity locally is still that of musician.  Yet I continue to write poetry, even tho from a certain perspective I’m struck by the absurdity of that. 

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

This is really the hardest question for me, as I don’t particularly like to discuss process—maybe it’s my superstitious side—always on the look-out for a possible jinx.  A couple of general points: first, I’m not very big on revision—since I look at my poetic process as being in large part improvisational, I generally stick with what I come up with in the first couple of drafts (not counting “false starts”).  Thomas Hardy said something to the effect that a poem “loses its freshness” after a few drafts, & I find that to be true for my writing.  I do know others rely on many drafts—hey, whatever works.

Because my poems are improvisational, they tend to be creatures of the moment—in my mind, at least.  I’m intent on the process while actually composing—then it slips away once the poem is completed.  I rarely look back over past poems unless I’m compiling a manuscript or looking for something to post, etc.

But I’ll try to write about the “Grace” poem sequence—four prose poems that punctuate the various sections of The Spring Ghazals.  At a certain point in February of this year I realized I needed to be finished with composing the book—since the fall of 09 I’d been aware of The Spring Ghazals as a “book,” not just some poems I’d happened to write recently.  There was a lot of turmoil involved in writing these poems, & I reached a point where I said, “this has to be done.”  But I realized I wanted some connecting thread—some sequence that would comment upon & also tie together the books’ thematic elements. 

Why did I decide to use the prose poem form?—I can’t recall specifically, but I love the form for its flexibility, & that was no doubt a consideration.  Why did I call the poems “Grace?”  I’ve tried for 2-1/2 years now to look on the poems in The Spring Ghazals as offering some sort of psychic redemption from some severe turmoil.  I believe it was important to me to try to reach a poetic space where there was some “grace” amidst the welter of images & emotions.  Did “I” succeed?  As far as the “I” that’s a fictional narrator goes, yes, I believe so.  Beyond that?  Next question.  You can read the “Grace” poems sequence on the Writers Talk blog—or you could purchase The Spring Ghazals!  See next question.

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

I’ve written about this quite a bit both on this blog & on The Spring Ghazals blog.  When I was younger, in my 20s & 30s, I published in literary journals.  At the time, I fully expected to follow the conventional route to a career as an academic poet, with a tenured professorship either as a writer or a scholar.  Somewhere along the way, I rebelled against this.  However, I think in retrospect that there was a problem with my rebellion in that I didn’t carry it all the way thru; while I remained prolific in terms of poems written thru the 90s, I didn’t really figure out how to “effectively” develop a poetic presence outside the mainstream.

When I started the Robert Frost’s Banjo blog, I didn’t intend to post my own poetry—actually, tho I’d written several poems a few months before starting the blog, I wasn’t writing poetry in August 2008 when the blog launched.  At a certain point I did start posting poems, & I was struck by the fact that the poems probably had a larger audience than they would have if published in book form.

But as regular readers know, I decided to self-publish both my poems from San Francisco & my poems from the last couple of years back in February of this year.  Why did I opt for putting the poems in books?  They were being read & appreciated on Robert Frost's Banjo, & the blog has a good readership in more than one sense.  But a blog is not a book.  As far as creative writing goes
—poetry in particulara blog may mimic an anthology in some ways; at its best, it may mimic a serialization.  But at least using current technology, it can't replicate the experience of a book of poetry.  

Given that I wanted my poetry to be experienced in this way—because assembling the manuscripts had been itself an act of makingself-publishing seemed like a “no-brainer.”  I knew the grind (& expense) of sending poems out to lit mags & contests in order to build up enough publications to shop a manuscript, & given the fact that I’m not pursuing a potential academic career, this conventional route made no sense to me.  These days, with print-on-demand, self-publishing ranges from free to cheap, & I found the actual task of uploading manuscripts, etc. to be pretty painless.  In the case of the recent poems, I even shelled out a modest amount money for a better distribution package, confident that I’d more than break even on this.

But the aftermath of publishing has been mostly filled with disappointment, which is always a bad force to allow into one’s creative life.  Sales for both The Days of Wine & Roses & The Spring Ghazals have been very slow—as of this writing, we’re talking single-digit sales for each book.  Now, I know there’s no real money in poetry, because there’s scarecely any market for it, especially in the States, but I did expect more than this.  It’s also frustrating, because I have a tendancy to brood on what I may have done wrong—not publicized enough, publicized too much, publicized ineffectively
or: is the poetry just plain no good?  At a certain point, one’s ego gets caught up in this & if you’re not careful it can be quite detrimental.

So I don’t know where I stand vis-à-vis publishing “going forward.”  It’s quite possible that if/when I publish more poetry, I’ll do it privately, just for distribution among close friends.  This is more than a bit of a ponder these days.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

Who thought up these questions!  As the old song goes, “If they asked me, I could write a book.”   But I don’t know if I can answer this question in any succinct form.  Here’s my attempt at doing so: “some of my best friends are writers”—no seriously, it’s true!  I’ve always gained inspiration from writer friends, & I generally find their way of viewing the world congenial to mine
—furthermore, we all love words, so it's fun to talk with with them or correspond with them.  On the other hand: my tendancy to entangle relationships in the poetic writing process has wrecked havoc both on some important relationships & also, I think, on my own psyche.

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.

With the very significant exception of my wife, Eberle Umbach, my writing community is all in some sense virtual, since Eberle is the only writer I know locally.  Obviously I do see some of my “3-D” writing friends from time to time, but at this point we’re far dispersed geographically, so most of the communication is online.  I do have writer friends in California who I get to see a bit more regularly. 

But I must say, I’ve developed some very satisfying relationships with writers that I know only virtually.  Although only a handful of people have purchased The Spring Ghazals, a few virtual writer comrades have really gone out of their way to publicize it, & I appreciate that so much.  I also think the Writers Talk series has helped me to expand my virtual writing community & get to know some folks better.  Twitter has been a really good tool in this regard
—just saying, in case you're still among the doubters.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

To keep writing—I don’t mean this in a flip way.  Stopping is always an option—I did it once before.  But ultimately, I don’t think stopping is good for me.  Continuing despite the fact that it seems an absurd exercise is necessary for whatever part of me might be called a soul.

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

Ruling out some favorite instruments as not being quite appropriate, I’d have to say the upright bass.  Rhythm is a strong element in my writing, but I think I succeed in creating some music as well—at least outlining the chords!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adams County Makes the News - Council Leader #24

The Adams County Leader
Published Every Friday by the Council Publishing Company. 
Eighty-nine per cent of the stock of the above company
is owned by F.H. Michaelson.
F. H. Michaelson Editor and Manager

February 2, 1917
One of our contemporaries finds consolation in the fact that in the high cost of things, no concern has obtained a monopoly on the Aurora Borealis.  Since the Aurora usually displays its Borealis at a height of some sixty miles or more, it has been reasonably safe to date-- but, brother, with the advent of the flying machine, there’s no telling just how long before it will be selling for umpty cents a pound.

July 13, 1917
C.W. Holmes, Council, Idaho
Dear Sir: The bounty on squirrels will not be paid until after the first of next year, as funds will not be available until then.  In the meantime, you may notify parties claiming bounty to save the tails.  Full information will be sent you at an early date.
Yours truly, H. G. Bodle, State Veterinary
February 2, 1917 


The Weiser Commercial Club is, we note, keeping in close touch with developments in the North and South Highway situation in which Boise is working to have the route changed to go through Long Valley.  Influential members of the club, armed with facts and figures that might be unfamiliar to members of the legislature who do not live in this part of the state, have been at Boise to assist in spreading among legislators a knowledge of true conditions.  The people of Weiser believe that a clear presentation of facts is all that is needed to insure that the highway will be built through Council as previously planned.  The Weiser American says:

“For fifty miles through Long Valley, the Boise-McCall link would be higher than the summit of the Weiser valley route.  The lowest possible summit on the Boise-McCall route would be nearly a thousand feet higher.  Regarding the distance, the mileage from Weiser to Lewiston is 50 miles less than from Boise to Lewiston, to say nothing of the easier grades and the lower altitude so important except perhaps for 60 days during the summer.

“It is also well to emphasize the fact that the Weiser valley route is the one selected by the previous commissioners after comparative surveys and later endorsed by the land board.  By the Weiser valley route, the towns reached would be Nampa, Caldwell, Fruitland, New Plymouth, Weiser, Midvale, Cambridge, Council, Fruitvale, Starkey Hot Springs, Tamarack, New Meadows, and several smaller stations.  These facts coupled with the further fact that the Boise-McCall road would pass through 30 miles of uninhabited canyon and then only touch small stations except Roseberry and McCall makes the Boise contention ridiculous.”

February 2, 1917

Corrected weekly by L.J. Rainwater.  The following quotations are the prices paid for produce by the Council merchants. 

Eggs.……………………….. dozen 40 cents
Butter, creamery…………… pound 40 cents
Spuds………………………. pound 2 cents
Onions……………………… pound 3 cents
Cabbage …………………… pound 4 cents
Apples.……………………... box $1.00
White Beans………………...10 cents
Colored Beans………………8 cents
Squash……………………… pound 1 cent
Pop Corn……………………    pound 5 cents

February 2, 1917

The use of the word “damn” in a government bulletin has brought a newspaper discussion as to whether it is to be considered profane and unsuited to polite society.  Possibly if one were driving a pair of mules in a lonesome place and the off mule let its off foot and slammed one on the shin, the word, void of prefix, would be permissible.  Personally, we are inclined to admit that we might chance it.  But we suggest that if any person desires to put the questionable word to an acid test, he ask his mother, wife, or daughter to use it within his hearing.  For instance, if Ma burns the biscuits, have her say, “damn the luck.”  If your wife likes chocolates, have her say, “they’re damn good.”  If a few such demonstrations do not convince you that the word in question is to be counted among American “cuss words” the editor of the Leader will admit that he is no philosopher.

February 2, 1917
Taken up about the first of January, one bay yearling filly with a small star in forehead, branded X on left shoulder.  If not claimed and proved by owner, she will be sold according to law for cash on the 24th day of February 1917 at 10 o’clock a.m., at my place in Indian Valley, Idaho. 
H.L. Joslin, Constable

LOCAL ITEMS, 1918-1919


The last census report shows that there are more than six million farmhouses in the
United States and additional records of the same character show that a very large
proportion of these homes are supplied with running water.  Certain of these investigations which had to do with farm home life showed that a great and unfair burden has been lifted from the shoulders of the wives and daughters of American farmers by the installation of farm water systems.  I can install a perfectly satisfactory water system in your farm home at comparatively small cost to you.  After you have used it you would not part with it at three times its cost.  While in town, call and see me.  Am prepared to quote you on anything in this and other plumbing lines.   
Archie Poyner, Plumber, Council, Idaho

"Shubert" Paying Big Money For Coyote
Catch 'Em—Skin 'Em—Ship 'Em
We want all the Idaho furs you can ship,
Coyote, Lynx Cat, Muskrat and all other fur-bearers


Do Your Lighting and Cooking The Clean, Economical, Sensible Way—By Electricity

A man may get tired of ordinary tobacco—but never of Real Gravely Chewing Plug.

Have you placed your order for millfeed?  It's going fast and if you wait you may be too late.  Telephone or write at once.  Fred Cool.

The Girls' Canning Club met at the home of their instructor, Mrs. Andrew Hutchison, on Wednesday afternoon.

The report that is going around about Frank Haworth is only supposition, as he has not written any of his relatives the nature of his injuries; just said that he had been in the convalescent hospital in France since March and didn't say anything about the nature of his injuries either.

Several parties of camping tenters are in close proximity to the orchards, awaiting the opening of the fruit harvest.  The fruit is good, wages are high, and help seems to be coming in sufficient quantities to make everything a success.

Mr. Bliss is at the home of Louis Annia.  He is looking after orchard interests and adding to his packing shed so that when completed, the floor will be 24 x 66 feet.

Ripe Peaches Now Ready
Peaches 1 cent per pound
Bartlet Pears 5 cents per pound
Bring Your Baskets
The Mesa Orchards

compiled by Eberle Umbach

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


[Hope you enjoy L.E. Leone's latest!]

The Doors Are Closing, Please Stand Clear Of The Doors
I called it a mouse, but the truth was . . . rat. Almost stepped on a pigeon, dead, on my way to the train.
At the Fruitvale Station there were cops everywhere, helicopters circling, and a bright, crescent moon.  As I sat there on the platform, admiring it all, and the chill of November in general, the oldest man in the world came shuffling over with a cane and a hat.
I made room for him on the bench. How old are you? I asked.
You see those hills? He said.
They were purple in the slivery moonlight, and there was of course water between us and them, the bay.
I’m the oldest man in the world, my old man said. Oh, I could have hugged him alright. I’m a hundred and fifty, he said. Let’s level the playing field, he said. How old are you, he said, young lady?
How to say? How to say? You see those helicopters? I said.
He seemed surprised, or maybe just being polite. Are you as old as helicopters? he said.
No, I said. I’m going home from work. I’m a nanny. Chop chop chop, went the helicopters. I said, I’m 47, and I’m ten. Older than you. Newborn. I’m working on omniscience.
What are the cops about? I said. Do you know?
He shook his head. No.
It was a trick question. I knew, I was just curious if he did. The white cop who had shot the young black man at this very station a New Years or so ago had been sentenced finally. Leniently. Two years, versus a lost life. An unarmed, face-down, already restrained life.
I could see what they were afraid of, the city of Oakland. And why the news vans were all so terribly excited. It was there! It was real! Riot, mayhem, even a peaceful protest. Even if, within my limited field of ocular vision people were, like me, just heading home from work.
The old guy …
He didn’t get on the train, damn it, I would have liked to have sat with him, more poetry, more brain teasers. But he wasn’t going, like me, to San Francisco, so I would have to settle for someone else’s half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle. Fell asleep under the bay. Under the weight of all that water, I dreamed a puddle of blood, the puddle, which I slipped on, fell in, skated over, cooked with, took a bath, and missed my stop.
At the end of the line I woke up, got off, rode the escalator, stepped over a sandwich, up the opposite platform, and boarded a train going the other way. For a while I looked out the window at Daly City, then I fell asleep again and didn’t wake up until the other end of the line. Dublin. Just one of the hazards of my profession! You fall asleep on BART, change sides, fall asleep again, and then the next thing you know you are homeless, huddled under a big coat in the last seat of the car, impossibly old. Day after day, this is all that you have: your coat, your years, your dream, the fluorescent light, the rumble of the track and the crackly voice of a driver. Except between midnight and five, when you sit outside with the pigeons and watch the sky, waiting to eventually be recognized. One of the babies you used to sing to sleep. Drunk but okay, walking home from the bar.

L.E. Leone
© 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Lost Highway”

Happy Monday, folks—& once again a Musical Monday on Robert Frost’s Banjo.  If you saw yesterday’s coming attractions, you know that I really wasn’t sure what I was going to record for today’s song; earlier I’d talked about posting just instrumentals for awhile, but I knew I felt like singing a song.

On the other hand, it’s something different: a song associated with Hank Williams—tho actually written by the great, if not as well-known Leon Payne—played slide style on my Regal resonator guitar.  Sort of country meets blues, which seems eminently appropriate to this tune.  For those who are curious about such things, the Regal is tuned to open G, & I’m playing with a brass slide (as usual).   I'll also probably play around with doing this one on the banjo.

I’m trying to shake things up a bit on the music front.  Hope you enjoy this one!

Finally: there's a great review of my book of poetry, The Spring Ghazals, up at the Tangerine Tree Press blog.  Please check it out—this is the link.

pic shows Highway 395 south in Oregon

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Photo of the Week 11/14/10

Three Burros Along a Fenceline
Monday Gulch Road
Indian Valley, Idaho
Saturday, November 13th

Be sure to check in on The Spring Ghazals! There have been some exciting new posts there recently, including one about an interview, which you can read here on the Tangerine Tree Press blog—many thanks to Sheila Graham-Smith!  Also, one final reminder: today & tomorrow are the last two days to purchase The Spring Ghazals at 15% off (by entering coupon code LEAF305 at checkout).  Sales have been extremely slow, so I'm hoping some of you will want to take advantage of this.  You can purchase The Spring Ghazals at this link.

There won't be a Monday post on Alcools. The next translation isn't completed yet (again).  Completing a translation of "Le Larron" ("The Thief") is a priority in the coming week!

& tomorrow on Robert Frost's Banjo? The Monday Morning Blues! Not sure what, exactly, but it'll be here.

Stay tuned....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Half Moon

for MH

a cup half filled with time
a willow tree spilling

a silver cloud
a star tattoo on the upper arm a
blue moment

a sip of tea on Clement Street
a calla lily a recollection a

a telephoto lens trained on an-
other time & place a blank
calendar page

a cup of shaved ice a
1930s Windsor banjo a
waning moon

Jack Hayes
© 2010

Hope you enjoyed this new poem, which was inspired by my misreading a friend’s comment on her beautiful photograph of a half moon.  What she actually said was, “I’m trying to think of this as a cup half full time.”  What I read was, “I’m trying to think of this as a cup half full of time.”  Admittedly, I believe there were hypens in the original comment, but I didn't let that deter my misreading.

In other news on the poetry front: I recently was interviewed for the Tangerine Tree Press blog about my book The Spring Ghazals.  It was a challenging & insightful interview, & I’m delighted by how it turned out.  Many thanks to Sheila Graham-Smith for the fine work she did on this!  Hope you’ll check it out—you can do so at this link.

Finally—not to belabor a point—if you’re if you’re thinking of buying The Spring Ghazals, what better time to do it than when you can purchase The Spring Ghazals for $10.20 instead of $12.00?  All you need to do is enter coupon code LEAF305 between now & 11:59 p.m. on November 15th when you checkout with The Spring Ghazals at Lulu.  Here’s the link for purchasing the book.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Homegrown Radio 11/12/10

Hi folks, & happy Friday.  It’s time for some more Homegrown Radio with Bernie Jungle, & let’s get right to it!  Here are the lyrics & Bernie’s back story to his song “Josie”:

Josie drives a school bus every day, I can hear her tire chains
I was hoping for a day at home today
Josie doesn’t have to say a word, only look up in the mirror
That’s enough to make you shut your mouth and wish
She’d watch the road

Josie, Josie

Josie driving sixty miles an hour, where the limit’s twenty five
It’s amazing that we’re still alive
No one ever puts their body parts, out the windows of her bus
Josie knows just how to drive, the fear in us
And watch the road
I wish she’d watch the road

I’m so scared I think I’m going to die
Trees fly past just inches from my eyes
And I wish I had another cigarette
But I left them in my gym bag on my bed

Josie Josie etc.

Josie sits at home in panty hose
With a sandwich and a beer
She can hardly wait to go to sleep and steer

Josie is a true story about a bus driver I had in Western Pennyslvania in the late sixties and through the seventies taking us to school through grade school and high school. She prided herself in getting us there, even when most of the other bus drivers went home.

This song was written while looking back at her from the vantage of our tenderloin apartment in San Francisco when Kathleen and I arrived in 1995. It is indeed an old song, but has never been properly released. This version was recorded and mixed by Scott Greiner, who so generously recorded a bunch of my songs a few years back. They’ve gotten a little lost in mix-down but I hope to put them all out soon, in some form or another, so here’s one way eh? Most-excellent drumming by Adam McCauley.

Also, I must say that I intended to write new material each week and I tried, and did succeed in finding forgotten song parts and working up lyrics for some others, but nothing but new lyrics just didn't come. What did happen though was that I’ve been more involved in songwriting that I’ve been in a long time spending all my free time doing so. I’m grateful for that. Nothing really came together this week that I’d like to share but hopefully next week. So for now, an old but rarely heard song of mine, and I hope you all enjoy.

Thanks for all your kind words on last weeks song!

Thank you, Bernie!  Hope you folks enjoy this great song!

Pic of Bernie Jungle in the graphic is by Amy Snyder

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Writers Talk with Mairi Graham

Mairi Graham is a portrait and landscape painter and a writer. She also makes sculpture out of the rusted detritus of our agricultural and industrial past. Her father believes this is a form of insanity but has been known to help carry fifty pounds of dirty metal half a mile over rough ground. She posts her poetry at Secret Poems From The Times Literary Supplement. In another life she writes about late 18th and early 19th century women writers.

On a personal note, I'd like to mention that the poetry on Mairi's blog is remarkably good—her skill with language, image & form are first-rate, & the thematic depth of the poems is always compelling.  Given my high esteem for Ms Graham's poetry, I'm most gratified that she agreed to participate in the Writers Talk series; & I'm even more gratified that she has been a staunch supporter of my own poetic efforts.  Don't forget to check out Mairi's poem "Hölderlin Masked" on the Writers Talk blog.  & now: on to the interview.

When did you first realize your identity as a writer? 

My mother used to read the dictionary for fun and her favourite answer to any question to do with words was “look it up.” I had to write a poem for a Brownie badge when I was about ten, and realised poems were a great way to use all those words I loved but couldn’t work into playground conversation. I’ve lost the poem but remember it was about “nature” and contained a good deal of gemstone imagery, and sparkle and dew. In grade six, I came across the word “torque” while I was supposed to be looking up something else in the classroom dictionary. From Latin torquere, to twist. It wasn’t the scientific or mechanical definitions that caught my eye but the necklace or armband made of twisted metal, worn especially by the ancient Britons and Gauls. I was smitten, and I knew immediately that there was a story attached to the word, and that I had to figure out what it was. That I was duty bound to do so, because no-one else would or could. That’s the thing about stories, in whatever form. If you don’t tell the ones given to you, they’re lost. A sensible child might have been crushed by the weight of responsibility but I just got a pencil and started to work.

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

I work in all three areas and I suppose there are similarities between the approaches. Somehow an idea comes to me. In the case of a novel it’s usually an image that needs to be expanded on, or explained. Two men sitting under a pier in the rain, for instance. One of them a poet and one a man with no memory. That sort of additional knowledge arrives with the image, in much the same way information is given in a dream. I often write poetry to prompts chosen from the Times Literary Supplement, choosing what strikes me as I’m reading. What strikes me depends to a certain extent on what sort of mood I’m in, and whether the image evoked is one that resonates. “
Hölderlin Masked,” for instance, jumped out at me one day, as suggestive and interesting. Ideas for essays always spring from curiosity over some detail of something I’ve read. Why, for instance, did the anonymous author of a manuscript in the Princeton library claim her novella was “imitating” the 18th century German dramatist August Von Kotzebue. Or, why did Jane Austen so much prefer the hero of one unspecified book to the hero of another? And what were the books in question? Nothing earth-shattering in any of these instances, but it’s the way something opens out that’s of interest.  Curiosity is the common denominator. Whatever I’m writing, I move from idea to research. I want to know as much as possible about the subject I’m tackling, mainly in order to get hold of that “opening out” aspect . In the case of a novel, I want details of setting and history. A lot of details, as the details are often where the interest of the thing is hidden. I might visit the place and take notes and photographs, and then research background material.  Even a poem requires some research, a little or a lot, depending on the subject. In the case of Hölderlin, I read about him, his life, his work and the mask or hood the doctor in the asylum he was confined to put on his patients to keep them quiet, and somewhere I came across the fact that he fed and watched birds.  Once the research is done – hours, weeks, months, depending on what it is I’m working on – I let it all sit and stew for a bit. Or for years.  I write late at night, between nine in the evening and three in the morning. Six hours of uninterrupted peace and quiet.  I don’t mind the dog snoring or the cat purring but I don’t want to hear anything else. If I’m writing a longer piece I’ll try to put together a sketchy outline, but things grow organically and the outline often changes. Poems seem to form themselves in my head. I write them down as they’ve occurred to me and then revise and expand what I have. Whatever I’m working on, revision is the most important part of the process.  I revise as I write and I go over prose dozens and dozens of times. Poetry seems a more spontaneous form and I sometimes work on a piece for just a few days, with only minor shuffling and revision, often in the interest of internal rhyme, or metre.  In the Hölderlin poem I wanted something that played with the idea of a world inverted, topsy turvy, so I worked on placing the rhymes at the beginning of the lines of two of the verses instead of the ends, and then allowing the other two verses to break out of the restrictions of order or form. The revisions were mainly about getting the rhyme and tone to work with the subject, and matching the bird imagery to the emotional and physical reality of incarceration and mental illness.

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

Small independent presses interest me. Places that will deal with a manuscript because it’s good, or has the potential to be good, even though it’s unlikely to make a fortune.  I have very little interest in the large publishing consortiums that rule the business, or in most of the books they put out. They waste resources, both natural and human, and seem sadly uninterested in advancing literature. A bad book by a known name always seems to trump a good book by an unknown. I know that’s not true in every case, but it’s true in too many. The role of the literary agent underlines this. The responsibility for sorting books has been shifted away from the publisher, making the priority of the business clear. Only a manuscript that will bring in enough money to make it profitable for both the publishers and the agent is worth considering. In order to do that the first question asked about a new property has to be – “Is it promotable?” instead of “is it wonderful?” “Who wrote it,” often plays too large a role in considerations. All of this leads to the policy of one big blockbuster over a dozen books with smaller sales potential. I suppose it must make good business sense but it doesn’t make good reading. I like traditional books – ink on paper – and will go out and pay for them, but I also like the great wide world of internet publishing. I post all my poetry on a blog. If you read it, I’m delighted. If you comment on it, I’m doubly delighted. Many more people read my work there than would if it was on a shop shelf, and that’s worth a lot to me. It’s worth more than whatever small amount I might have made if I’d published it in the old fashioned way, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time I don’t have sending things out to journals. Someday the poetry establishment will pay attention to online work but for now, it seems as if poems on paper are the only route to recognition. Your blog is unlikely to make you the next poet laureate or get you a post as writer in residence anywhere in the real world. On the other hand, I publish my articles in scholarly journals that don’t pay a cent for them but make them easily available to people with similar unaccountable interests and lend them a whiff of respectability. I’m also interested in the possibility, tossed about in various places lately, of patterning publishing on the music business. Offer your work to an audience and ask for a good will offering. Something akin to the storytellers of old. Most writers suffer from a compulsion to share. They want someone to listen.  Most people want to be entertained. A nice symbiosis. If the listener likes what he hears he can toss something into the hat toward keeping  body and soul together and more stories coming. Will it work? I’m eager to know.

How has being a writer affected your relationships? 

My dog thinks I spend too much time writing and not enough time playing ball. My cat thinks I don’t work hard enough because sometimes there’s no warm lap available when she wants to nap. My bird – a blue celestial parrot – wouldn’t mind if I worked from seven in the morning till seven at night, as long as I thought out loud and let him help with the typing. After seven, he just wants me to be quiet, whatever I’m doing. My husband is an academic and works about eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. I’m sure he’s happy I have something to keep me out of trouble.

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.

 One of the wonderful things about the internet is its ability to deliver like minded people into your living room, wherever you are. I know a few writers but I don’t see them often, and when I do we don’t sit and talk about writing. In fact, I’m terrible at talking about my work. But in the virtual world there are lots of people who love to write about writing. You can show them your work and they’re often incredibly generous in their comments, or you can look at someone else’s work and share your thoughts. It doesn’t matter what sort of question you have, someone out there has an answer and wants to write about it. The only problem is time. The more of it you spend chatting online the less you have for writing.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

To improve. Uninteresting but true.

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

Optimally, a ‘cello. It has been described as sounding most like the human voice. It’s the emotional range of the instrument that appeals, its capacity for great intimacy, and poignancy and sorrow and ebullience. It’s something to aspire to. In reality? Probably a kazoo.