Color — Caste — Denomination: The Seventies and Me Part 3

I’m going to share a musical performance of an Emily Dickinson poem, but before I get to that, I’m going to continue my memoir-of-influences series on things that formed the idea of the Parlando Project earlier in my life. I’m going to try to keep it short, which will force some amputations, but I feel embarrassed spending much time on the small events of my single life. Those in a hurry, or only interested in the new audio piece and what I have to say about that, can skip down to the second section of this post.

At the end of the last post I had moved to Newburgh, a town on the Hudson river about 60 miles north of New York City. I don’t know if the town knew what to do with The Seventies, it seemed between eras; and in some larger sense I might not have known what to do either, but like the town I had a daily job to do, and kept doing it. Can we say that had some value?

I liked many of the people I worked and lived with during my five years there. I still think of some of them from time to time, and they were often kind to me. The folks who worked with me at St. Luke’s Hospital, particularly those in the Emergency Department, worked hard under significant limitations trying to do things that we could only address partway. I could say much of that under-addressed were systematic issues — and I’d be right — and the levers of those systems were outside our direct grasp. Another part of those limitations were closer to us, internal. I said I’d try to be brief. I said there would be amputations. Newburgh had a racism problem. The town, the region, was populated by stratums of immigrants, with the original European WASP colonials to Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican waves following on. Mixed in there were Afro-Americans who were there, as they were everywhere in the United States. I don’t know the exact demographic details, and I said I’d try to keep this concise, but I’d guess the Black Americans were first in the region from servant and slavery times, and then there was some low-paid and otherwise undesirable work that still may have seemed better than some parts of America for Black folks. Few poor people ever emigrate for marginal gains from acceptable situations.

That work had shriveled over the years, and what jobs there were, those other immigrant waves got some of the employment from the white folks who did the hiring. Again, I’m no expert, I may have some of this wrong, but when I think of the Irish and Italian Americans who can recount the derogatory tropes employed against their ancestors,* I still suspect that even within the cruel othering they received, they sometimes got, in practice, hiring preferences over Afro-Americans.

This led to the town, in the time I was there, with an underclass of underemployed Black folks viewed by too many of the white population as shiftless, ungrateful and unenterprising wards of the state. Think I’m amputating too much to say this was a prominent white attitude? Ten years before I arrived there was a controversy that was called “The Battle of Newburgh.” I didn’t know much of this specific history in 1971, but the attitudes were still easy to hear and feel while I lived there. Here’s a link to a 30 minute podcast on the 1971 controversy. Wonder what happened later? Here’s an article that updates things to 2015.

Back in my Emergency Room, The Seventies, we were the place anyone came when things broke down. Folks needing medical care that couldn’t pay. Victims of violence. Stressed out or addicted people. Worn-out old workers and beneath the working-class people. I worked the 3-11 shift, the busiest one in the ER. We’d typically get 50-70 such situations every shift. What could we do for them, right now, in our imminent place? Patch’em up. Give them a preliminary diagnosis and maybe a shot or some pills. Hand off a referral card to a medical system already fragmenting and requiring insurance levels of payment from various payers. Witness their deaths.

So those folks I worked with, who did this, were they racists? I’m not saying that. I can’t see into the hearts of them — not then, and not with any level of magnification now. I know we were frustrated with the people in and around the treatment beds at times, thinking that what’s close and in front of us was the most significant thing in what was going on. No, no, we’d no doubt say, that thought wasn’t from the color of their skin, that was what they did, or were doing, or weren’t doing. From what some of my coworkers said talking among our tired selves, I could hear racism, hear pat rationalizations. I’d be hearing this from folks on a modest paycheck given the responsibility of a past that isn’t even the past as Faulkner put it. Our actions were mostly care — yes I saw kindness too, even when our philosophies and capacities could not fully appreciate the lives of our patients and their families. Perhaps it was good that we were too busy to think about that incongruity. Would our care have been better if we — speaking now of the whole group of us, including myself — were less ignorant and more broadly empathetic? That’s certain. But such wiser folks weren’t there then, we were. Imperfection trying to heal what could be treated directly.

A couple of years before this, a songwriter was 40 miles to the north of me, goofing off with his Canadian R&B band buddies in a big pink house. Sing heavenly muse, he sang these lines:

Remember when you’re out there
Tryin’ to heal the sick
That you must always
First forgive them.”

To this day, when someone, almost always a white person, concludes some confession to me with a variety of the phrase “You might think I’m a racist because I said that.” I reply “You said it, and you might well be to some degree. So, what are you going to do about that, and about the situation that is before us?” Ignorance and prejudice may not guide us well in trying to solve things, to remedy faulty systems — so what efforts can reduce that so we can see more clearly? But beyond that, even though our thoughts and prejudices can make us work blindly or in the wrong direction, the injured and endangered may be more in need of helpful actions than faultless inner wisdom.

Is writing and performing poetry a helpful action? Well, it’s not clearly so as is binding wounds or performing CPR. Poetry is in the calling-attention business, including part I normally celebrate here as “Other People’s Stories.” With that focus, I feel conflicted in writing so much within this series which touches on individual and sometimes trivial things in my life. What good will calling those things to attention do? Perhaps it helps make you aware of the “unimportant” things in your life, or the dependencies we have in others who have broadened or deadened what we’ve seen and felt. It can be someone else’s story that helps you see the contours of your own story.

And then too, poetry is full of little, trivial things that poets write down to stand for the ineffable larger things. Can our lives stand for the larger things? They do I believe, or they can, in ways we never fully know.


Once more a chord sheet if you’d like to sing this too.


The Emily Dickinson Poem

Emily Dickinson has many poems where the small things stand for larger, and then she has others using more philosophical language — yet I was still struck by the first line of today’s Emily Dickinson poem. Poems sometime seek to grab your attention right at the beginning, and this one does that with a trinity: “Color — Caste — Denomination.” These things rule so much of our lives. We may think we don’t let them rule us, but then we see the next person is using them to guide them — or perhaps guide them in how they view us. How can that not affect us. How many next persons can there be without us sometimes being one of those next persons, or yielding to the next person in our lives?

A couple of short notes on things to mention in the poem since we’re running too long. Who’s a “Circassian?” It’s a Middle-Eastern Muslim-believing ethnic group largely exiled from their homeland by the old Russian Empire. “Caste” is a word given by Portuguese colonialists to a hereditary hierarchy they found in South Asia, but it has taken on new usage in modern America to describe the intertwined prejudices and discriminations based on skin color, ethnic background, religion, and economic class. Both terms show a breath in Dickinson’s reading and education. Even though Dickinson’s America was approaching or undergoing a war around race-based chattel slavery when this poem was written, Dickinson seems to give religious prejudice equal or greater weight in the “minuter intuitions” her poem holds that we use to obscure our common humanity. Some scholars have pointed to this poem as a comment on Irish-Catholic immigration in Dickinson’s region at this time which led to a substantial reaction from the existing Protestant settlers.**

My musical setting for it is simple, just guitar and voice, as I’m somewhat rushed for time — and then wanting to use what gifted time I find available when I can record acoustic guitar with open microphones that would otherwise pickup other noise. Though that may have been a practical reason, I think the simplicity works for this hymn from Dickinson’s alternative hymnal. You can hear my performance with the audio player below, or with this alternative, a highlighted link that will open a new tab with an audio player.


*Not doubting those stories — see the next note as we see that connect to Emily Dickinson. And I haven’t mentioned anti-Semitism in its Jewish and Muslim varieties. Or the ugly anti-Chinese laws and hate. Oh, and First Nations? I could go on. And that’s just America. I know I have an international readership. Other countries have their own varieties of this, as we’ll see too in Dickinson’s poem. We had all kinds of supposed levels of intelligence and moral fitness that bedeviled us then and now.

**As I mentioned in one of my favorite posts on the roots of Emily Dickinson, her mid-19th century Amherst Massachusetts region had Afro-Americans, mostly in her time in servant class jobs. As she grew into adulthood, the Irish immigrant wave started to displace them, and anti-Irish sentiment ran high. Emily’s brother Austin, who she was close to, at least dabbled with the notorious anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. When young Austin was assigned to teach Irish immigrant kids in Boston, he found the job stressful. There’s a letter from his sister Emily where she jokes that it sounds so bad for him that he ought just as well to go and kill some of them, referencing in the same letter a notorious Boston murder case with anti-Catholic connections. Generously, I sense Emily the satirist there, but this kind of edge-lord humor, then as now, can just be “just joking” license as well. I think: Dickinson, for all her independence of mind, was part of systems, just as you and I are. Even Transcendentalism, the time’s new thought movement that sought to open up cultural enquiry, was not without racism and prejudice. Emerson’s “American Civilization”  which I presented part of earlier here, and which is contemporary with this poem, contained portions with racist ethnography.

The most remarkable thing I can think of regarding Emily Dickinson and Irish-Catholic prejudice is that she ended up working elbow to elbow with Irish maids on her rural homestead that retained elements of its former farmhouse work-load carried with other poor first generation Irish immigrants as the hired help. The longest serving maid, Margaret “Maggie” Maher — did she recall Irish poetic bards and song? When Emily’s precious packets of her remarkable poems, overran a portion of a bureau drawer, Maggie offered up her immigrant’s trunk, in which she’d carried her all to America. When the Dickinsons decided they didn’t like the likeness in the oft-seen daguerreotype of Emily we rely on now, they tossed it out, and Maggie rescued it and kept it. Maggie worked beside Emily as she cared for her invalid mother during her prolonged illness, and she then cared for Emily as she lay dying. She was a loyal worker, but it’s said Emily told her to burn the poems. Then, she didn’t obey. When Mabel Loomis Todd was given the task of arranging the poems for posthumous publication, I read that Maggie did housework for Todd to free up her time for the editorial efforts.

And here’s the final thing, as final as death’s equivalence that today’s poem recounts. When Emily Dickinson died, she, this descendant of one of the town old-guard WASP leaders, asked that her coffin be carried by the Irish workers of her homestead. Aren’t you glad you read footnotes, patient reader? You can read a summary account I relied on for much of this in this academic paper available via JSTOR. It’s author Aife Murray expanded her research into this book, which I read a few years back.

Opening to Rooms: The Seventies and Me Part 2

I have a new audio piece today, combined with a continuation of my Parlando Project influences-as-episodic-memoir series. The audio piece uses text from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons worthy in itself — but what suggested it was a question that reading about Stein brought to my mind during The Seventies when I started to look into her life and work a bit.

Despite being nothing like an expert on Stein, I could fill this post with stuff about what she did and how she went about doing it. I’m going to make a summary of that a footnote, though that’s worth reading if you know even less about her than I do.*  There’s one detail from Stein’s life that hooks into my story as I entered The Seventies. I’ll come back to that. Watch for it.

In the last post I’d left college in 1970, disconnected in the aftermath of the political activism post Kent State and my failure as a young editor of my college’s student newspaper. I wrote of some musical and poetry experiences in the early Seventies there. Another thing was both continuous and changed at this point: I needed to find a job. This was continuous because I’d most always worked from my middle teens. I’d had paper routes, did odd jobs for the local bank, and besides my work in my second year with the school paper, I’d been what was called a “work-study” student working most days in the college cafeteria. Although it didn’t occur to me then, I suspect the more well-off students may have noticed that I was doing kitchen work while they were only concerned with regular college life, but this continuousness of work was ever more complete from the time I was 20 until I was past the age of 65. Another way to say that was that I worked full-time hours all those year with no more of a break than a worker’s vacation. After leaving college I worked frying hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant and on a factory floor making vertical blinds, but in 1971 I was back in my small Iowa college town looking for work. I went to a nursing home in the town, thinking they might have kitchen work. Instead, they asked if I wanted to work as an orderly/nurses aide.**  I took that job.

So, if work was continuous for me, what was changed? In some expectations one is supposed to find one’s career in their 20s. I had decided earlier that I wanted to write. In some other lifetimes perhaps I would have found an entry-level writing job, in another I might have wandered into something with politics. I’m not sure however if those alternative livelihoods would have suited me, for reasons I may discuss later in this series.

My job in the nursing home was in the Extended Care Facility, the wing for those patients who needed more-or-less complete bodily care for the rest of their lives. Many were completely bedridden, and many of that portion also unable to communicate. I worked the overnight 11-7 shift with one RN. I’m guessing we had around 20 patients in the unit. Our night work was turning the incapacitated every four hours to prevent bed sores, to clean up the incontinent and their bed linen, and to occasionally minister to those who awakened, often with some level of anxiety and agitation. It was hard physical work, and I will confess that I let the physical work deaden me somewhat at first to the Sisyphean nature of their lives and my tasks with them.

Cubist PU 3!

If one has a lot of triangles to move from Iowa to New York…


I moved to New York state to stay after a few months of that, carrying everything my wife and I owned in the bed of a rusty 1960 Chevy pickup truck that I’d purchased for $200 from my wages. The truck was so rusty that I could see the tires through holes in its floorboard, but other than a hydraulic clutch that would reengage itself if depressed too long, it ran OK in its rattly way. Back in New York I was living in a poor, mostly Black section of Westchester, renting a room from an elderly Mrs. Whitted who had a framed life-time membership certificate to the NAACP on her living room wall. I worked there first in another nursing home, a much fancier one in upscale Westchester, on the day shift this time. There were more staff there, but some elements of the care bothered me.*** Being low on the care system org chart I chose not to try to remedy that, and left for a job working on a med-surg floor at a Catholic hospital on the overnight shift again. The regular charge nurse on my floor was Miss Watson, a young highly competent Black Anglo-Jamaican with an impeccable English accent that would match a Sidney Poitier. We worked along with an LPN and at least one female aid (usually one of several Afro-Americans with a Great Migration southern-American accent) to complement my coverage of the male side of the patient census. I fully enjoyed working with Miss Watson. The most peculiar absurdity of her life that I got to observe was when patient relatives came in around the change to the morning shift after talking on the phone with Miss Watson. They’d assumed a starched-white Englishwoman, and so the recognition scenes when they arrived and saw her dark black skin always had me stifling a laugh. How much humor Miss Watson could consistently find in this might be another matter.

These orderly/nurse’s aide jobs paid a dime or so over minimum wage. The work was physically hard and even at its most basic levels it involved deep responsibilities all out of proportion to what it paid. Around this time, I came to embrace this necessary and underpaid work. It provided an inescapable, palpable, meaning to my life, something that struggling over a poem or prose draft could not demonstrate objectively. It allowed me access to all kinds of people in a wide range of economic classes and backgrounds. Occasionally, I thought of the members of my generation who served in the military, some drafted, and I told myself this was my service.

Eventually I moved up to Newburgh, New York, which will need to be another post. I worked my last overnight shift at the hospital and then I hitchhiked up to Newburgh at the end of my shift. I’d already gotten a job at St. Luke’s Hospital there in the Emergency Room. I’d work the 3-11 shift there the next day.

Are you waiting for Gertrude Stein to return? Here’s the connection. I can remember reading about the little Paris apartment she and her partner, edibles pioneer Alice B. Toklas, shared with Stein’s brother and a wall-smothering collection of Modernist art bought directly from artists that she knew, and the world would know later. It was there Stein lived from 1903 after leaving Johns Hopkins Medical School short of a medical degree.

As a time-travel destination that place is five-star. Artists, writers, critics, composers who once needed only to travel geographically to go there, wrote of it in their memoirs. A famous place.

Gertrude Stein in front of paintings

Gertrude Stein in front of some of the Modernist paintings collected in her Paris apartment.


You know what I thought reading of that apartment? Yes, there was wonder. How did they figure which artists to collect? He, she, they, all of them  were there, people before the pronouns. So and so met so and so there? Hemmingway finding part of his prose style in this small apartment — and from a woman?   But my most nagging thought? Something else, another question: “Who paid the rent?”****

Many (most?) writers have the ability to be motivated by that experience, though in reading I can tell some are, and others are not. I myself am inconsistent. I have written and performed poems here that the richest and most comfortable person in my time might have written or could easily relate to. And then again, I may overselect poems whose speakers are in extremis.

Some take a commercial-first approach to their art, making sure it earns the rent money. My nursing work from age 20 to nearly 40 illustrated a variety of life to me, but it also allowed me (with worries) to pay the rent.*****  Others take a cause-first approach, advocating with their art resolutely for remedies to what they see. Could my nursing work have reduced that aspect of my writing? That has just occurred to me. I’m not sure, though looking back I’m more at glad I didn’t have to point to my writing, and later my music, as what justified my life. And “Other People’s Stories?” Each day in the Emergency Room you’d meet up with other people’s stories. If your own were limited, or intractable, you could move their stories forward.

I had found a job that in those days allowed one to pay the rent. Inside that conceptual room, paid for by working with the sick and injured, I worked on the writing. And those years of unbroken work, of clock-in every working day, and rotating shifts? I suspect a habit retained as this Project approaches 700 pieces this year.

Today’s audio piece is from Gertrude Stein’s still controversial, still avant-garde, collection of “Cubist poems” Tender Buttons.  That book is divided up into three sections: People, Objects,  and Rooms.  I performed the opening to the final section, Rooms  today. Tender Buttons  remains gnomic. Though the words themselves are plainspoken, a straightforward meaning is most often hard to make out. My performer’s working theory during the recording was that she’s making a statement about Modern Art and Cubism. Rather than a center and conventional panorama, Stein holds for more perspectives at once. She seems to be advocating for something not just decorative or the easy dessert of sentiment (“silver and sweet”). She sounds a “Life is real, Life is earnest” almost Longfellowean note when she says “A preparation is given to the ones preparing.” She perhaps compares a conventional painting with a center and a border to an empty dress, flat on a hanger. The final paragraph/stanza moves, synesthesia-wise, to music where the flowing facets of a Cubist painting may show a sequence of time.

opening to the rooms


Though printed as prose, the musical rhythm and rhyme of this poem arises with any earnest effort to read it aloud. If one was to modify it to conventional lineation, parts might almost pass as Emily Dickinson, albeit the more obscure and compressed Dickinson.

You can hear my performance with a drums, bass, piano, and electric guitar quartet with the player gadget below. No graphical gadget? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.


*These footnotes are going to be long, and are for the more curious. They’re not necessary to enjoy the audio piece.  Stein is easily classifiable as equal to Apollinaire and Ezra Pound (both of which she knew and interacted with) for influence on the emerging Modernist movement in the first quarter of the 20th century. Her influence on English language Modernist writing is not consistently admitted or admired, but her influence also extends to Modernist music — and along with her brother Leo, she’s absolutely central to the development and appreciation of Modern art.

The most amazing thing about her pre-Paris youth is that in a 19th century when women’s education and careers were constrained, she attended Radcliff (meeting, being mentored by, and admired by, William James) and then sought to become a medical doctor through graduate work at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her center of interest was how the mind and its perceptions work, something she was studying at a time when Sigmund Freud had just started publishing. She dropped out of Johns Hopkins before graduating however.

**Job titles and even jobs listings were routinely gendered in 1970. Orderly was a male job, nurses’ aide the woman’s. Training for either was generally informal and on the job. Later in the Seventies I barely started an academic RN program, but affording the classes and especially the time and automotive costs of traveling to the nursing school put the brakes on that. Since I worked in teaching hospitals for over a decade after this as an aide hand-in-hand with nurses, interns, residents, and staff doctors, I learned a great deal of practical knowledge along the way. Administering medicine was not legally allowed, but I eventually did much of everything else the LPNs and RNs did. Afterwards, I always called what I did nursing, as it was a better description of my role for most of that decade-plus. In the middle 70s I helped in a small way to train early EMTs and given how much I liked the pace and variety of work in Emergency Rooms, I might have gotten into that line of work if I had come along a few years later.

The gendered job titles may have faded out as the Seventies progressed, but some of the work remained gendered. Despite having a poet’s level of athleticism and large muscle development, I was often called on to move or lift heavier patients, or to help restrain out-of-control people. Given how many stories there have been in recent years of people killed while being restrained (one in the news this month) I have wondered retrospectively if a different fate could have involved me in such a case. As things worked out, I never injured anyone while restraining them, though besides wear and tear I got a couple of minor injuries.

***I suspected a co-worker of patient abuse. I was new — they’d been there for some time. I had nothing concrete, and other longer-tenured coworkers thought they’d seen more, and that was part of my unease. A better person would have tried to organize a complaint and urge an investigation.

****Did you go to this footnote to find the answer? I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the details. Paris was dirt cheap then, there was some Stein family wealth, and the idea of artistically curious Americans of some means being gifted with broadening time abroad was common. Another Stein sibling, Michael, who also lived in Paris, has been cited as the man who handled the family finances there. The Stein bought-cheap-then paintings eventually became capital gains. At one later point someone noted a missing painting from the crowded apartment walls and Stein explained “We are eating the Cézanne.”

*****I’m no economist, but it’s my understanding that rent and housing costs have risen compared to the wages that of job earns now. It’s not my intent to engage in a walk-uphill-both-ways misery Olympics, just to explain some things that led to making this Project. Has any economist explained how jobs like the ones I held then, which are physically hard, unpleasant in some elements, demanding of all-shifts work, are at least mildly dangerous, have a chronic shortage of workers (much less good ones), and can have a life-and-death level of need and responsibility, yet pay less than much easier jobs for which there is a surplus of applicants? In my last few years of hospital work I moved to being a ward-clerk: typing, paperwork, general workflow organization and support (all of which I did as a nurses aide, as well as patient care) —and I then got a small raise.

The Seventies and Me

There’s a saying, oft shared with a wink among my post-WWII generation, “If you remember The Sixties, you weren’t there.” In many cases I think this misses its mark. The forgotten decade should be The Seventies. And this is not true just of that generation’s personal stories — while objectively the Seventies has just as many years and minutes as the preceding decade, there’s much less romance to it.

Earlier this spring I indulged in writing in a condensed yet round-about way about some influences that led me into creating the Parlando Project. To remind readers, I’d decided as a teenager that there was something attractive, even exalted, about poetry and this was entwined with an eclectic appreciation for music as a listener. Let me also be clear in summary about this: this was instinctive on my part, mysterious in that no one encouraged these interests.

Now more than 50 years later, these things are still somewhat beyond my understanding. I believe I have some ability to create phrases that seem a good shape and use for language, but I did not understand poetry all that well. Nor was I particularly well read. Even now, if one goes beyond poetry to novels, nearly everyone interested in literature has read more than I have. And poetry? My reading of contemporary poets was not extensive. My observation was that this was not so unusual in my generation of young aspirational poets then. Sure, we knew the greatest hits in the anthologies. A City Lights Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg might be on our shelf of books, maybe an e. e. cummings or a selected or collected here and there.*  But at least among the non-upper echelon college creative writing students I crossed paths with, there was less reading of our contemporaries than I believe one would find currently.

Yet, on these small bits of evidence, I had decided that I was a poet.

Music? Note that I said “listening” above. Despite that single song I wrote on a borrowed guitar late in The Sixties, as I entered The Seventies I neither owned nor played an instrument. I was a howlingly bad singer, even more problematic than I am now. Therefore, my connection to music was as a listener.

As my story now enters The Seventies, what had changed there? Rock music in the Sixties and The Seventies shared many overlapping musical stars, and for those of my age, a likely compiled survey of greatest records would roughly balance in numbers between the two decades. But, somewhere around 1973 something had changed in the music scene —and it wasn’t merely the “27 Club” deaths. My own summary analysis, informed by reading a great many first-hand accounts written by others, was there was a change in drug usage. Heroin addiction wasn’t even the worst of it. Cocaine seems to have inflated egos and tasked musicians with a need to accumulate working capital to keep being famous and high. **

So much framing to start my Seventies condensed memoir —and yet incidents of my life to extract to explain the eventual Parlando Project from the early Seventies are slim! After the post-Kent State flame-out of my short college career and the associated failed college paper editorship, I ended up moving to New York. I hung out at colleges with my peers sometimes, though college for credit was an Eden I was exiled from. I got married, another story too complex, and too peripheral to the eventual idea of the Parlando Project. Still, I can think of three things in the first half of The Seventies that connect somehow to the Project.

I hung out for a season with a college radio station at Westchester Community College. Though the “radio” part was limited to wired connections to audio speakers on the grounds, the students worked to do their best to portray the newly expanded playlists on FM radio. New promotional records came in constantly, expanding what music I would have been able to afford to hear. One young host I hung out with had an informed interest in and programmed contemporary Jazz records. Other students taught the student DJs how to slip cue vinyl LPs on the turntables, which I found fascinating. The hosts worked their own basic but serviceable board to mix in the records or their mics. I gained appreciation for the perfect segue or flow in a set of cuts. Once in a while since, I’ve thought of an alternative, hip-hop or club DJ infused life I might have developed. Didn’t happen, though I later got to watch radio on another level.

Here’s the second story: when I had enough money free, I enrolled in an American literature class at SUNY New Paltz and lucked into the classroom of H. R. Stoneback.  I recall one class were Stoneback asked us what relationship music, and folk poetry and music, might have with literary poetry, the very question I deal with in this Project now. He continued examining some points while playing an acoustic guitar. He was also the person who first informed me that many Emily Dickinson poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

This last one is a more peripheral story, but it connects. At another non-enrolled college situation I was ghostwriting a column and stories in the school newspaper ostensibly under the name of the woman I would marry, who was an enrolled student there. Now I’m not sure if the student newspaper editor was enthralled by the writing or his more carnal desires to sleep with the young woman, which he eventually did. He also edited the school’s student literary annual. I got the wild idea to see how many poems I could publish in it. I grabbed my portfolio of poems I had written at this point, retyped up some of those poems on a variety of typewriters attributing them to various assumed names, and submitted them. As I still do, I wrote in several styles, further establishing the numerous poets as plausibly different people. When the annual came out, I was around a third of the issues’ selected poems, and one was singled out for an award by an English department professor. He couldn’t find the student. “Did anyone know him?” he asked around.

That last story in itself, like many a good poem, has several facets to gleam or blind you. I could explore those — but perhaps I, the author of the scheme and the telling, has a distorted or glare-obscured view. What is it I draw from that tale, that might apply to this Project? I enjoy variety. I enjoy not being myself, and I often am most accepted when I am not myself.

Branched Song

I recall writing this sitting in a old college classroom building, not sure what it was to be about, but knowing the  poor condition of the brick tuck pointing. 7 years later in the  ‘70s,, I made it into the song the title says it could be.


I’ll continue later here with another post on how The Seventies developed for me — but let’s honor this Project with a musical piece. Today is the anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death, so maybe I should honor her and Professor Stoneback? Shame, not enough time after so much writing about myself. How about an example of one of the kinds of poems I was writing then? I looked through old recordings digitized from cassette tapes, and found this one from the 1990s which is an example of one type of  poem I wrote near the end of The Sixties and set to music in the later Seventies. It’s a different gothic sensibility from Dickinson, and I may have been starting to show an interest in French Symbolists, though I don’t recall reading them until later in The Seventies. It’s called “Branched Song.”   Graphical player for many below. No player? This is an alternative link to open a tab with a player in it.


*Note these poets, while alive during The Sixties, were obviously much older than my cohort, but they were also for the most part post the textbox canon inclusion line. Frost, Eliot, Sandburg, Wallace Stevens made it under the wire for the tail-end of the canon in the Sixties, though all but Stevens were still living in The Sixties. Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, were special cases, maybe there or not, though I recall seeing them first in textbooks in that decade. I did read, as did some others of my generation, Richard Brautigan and Leonard Cohen, who like the Beats were not considered canonical then. But both of those “young” poets were born in The Thirties. I also read poets in the New York School, particularly Frank O’Hara (born in The Twenties!). Black Arts and Afro-American poets came into my ken later in The Seventies. Note also, how scarce-to-none were the women. Not even Millay, who my father knew and read.

**”Rock” was a tag that started to be used in later Sixties to separate “serious” popular music from what was felt then to be the merely commercial and only incidentally and accidently artistic “Rock’n’Roll.” This transition is a complex subject, and it can’t be reduced to a footnote. Rock was open to a variety of influences then, but it was also far whiter and therefore less American than Rock’n’Roll.

And here’s a question that could be debated at length. Would the music changes have happened without then-illegal drugs? And even if something like the Rock transition happened, would it have been as wide-ranging and open to altering expectations? But beyond the Sixties’ evidence on those questions, the Seventies says there’s a rat-train of pipers to be paid. Another imaginary question: if everyone magically went into rehab in 1972, how much better would later Seventies music and what followed on have been?

Meeting Music and Words; a personal history. Chapter 4 “Dialogues of the Zappalites”

OK, it’s time for my Frank Zappa story. I’ve told this story a few times, but it’s appropriate that I tell it here as part of this series where I discuss the ways the Parlando Project’s meshing of poetry and music became an idea, and  an idea I could implement. This post will be exactly as short as I can make it in order to move the story from Francis Poulenc to Frank Zappa.

Last time in this series you met Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon. During the year the three of us were all at this small college south of Des Moines in Iowa, we worked on an “underground newspaper” called The Gadfly that Dave and his partner ran. The content consisted of a mix of things, often with a strong satirical streak, commenting on politics, culture, and music. The capsule overview younger people of later generations get of The Sixties* is that every white young American was a hippie, everyone had long hair, and we all lived in bohemian haze coincidentally stoned and angry at political situations and injustices. The reality, as I saw it in Iowa then, was that 1968 was not that different from 1961. One common complaint reflected in The Gadfly  was that the problem wasn’t just The Establishment, it was also our own cohort (at least the ones we were living among) who seemed mired in apathy. We thought new ideas and some ridicule of the old order might change that. Were we, and others like us elsewhere, slowly changing things? Observations differ.

Then came the spring of 1970, when for a brief moment the political activism spirit seemed to change in the matter of a couple of days.

My friends Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon had left for another college in the fall of 1969, Beloit in Wisconsin, where they hoped they would get a better education and find a more responsive group of students. I remained at the small college in Iowa where I had become the editor of the official school newspaper at a premature age. Over the school year, that responsibility slowly spiraled out of my control. I had no idea how to lead a group of people (still don’t). My working theory was to let them exercise their talents and see what happens.

Here’s what often happens under that scheme: many people will valorize what they think is their talent, then not actually exercise it. What will some conclude from that? That they must be restricted yet, somehow — that the actuality that they can’t deliver must be due to outside forces. For those, any extra degree of freedom doesn’t free them, it exposes them.

If you’re considering that carefully, you may wonder, is that what I was suffering from as well? I’d been given this opportunity/responsibility after all. Was I ducking it? Was I not taking advantage of it? I will say this: I wasn’t blaming outside forces, I was blaming myself. The romantic me wanted to see others blossom. The romantic me thought that blossoming was a natural process. Like an inconstant gardener, I was looking at a lot of failed plantings.

Then the spring of 1970 arrived, and with it the shootings at Kent State University, shortly followed by further deaths at Jackson State in the context of the now official expansion**  of the Vietnam war into neighboring countries. This led to an extraordinary expansion of activism on college campuses around the country. I was frankly surprised at the speed and the rapid spread of the college student response, even after the shootings. There had been for at least a couple of years an eminent fear among the young men regarding the draft risk, which while it had helped fuel the anti-Vietnam War efforts, it hadn’t engendered this level of response. Tens of thousands of Americans, our generational contemporaries, had died in the combat, and that’s just considering “our side.”  Activists being shot or killed wasn’t new either. Activists knew all this. I knew this. What had I discounted was that the Kent State shootings were at a very ordinary midwestern university, that dead included non-activists who just happened to be between classes, and that the dead included women.***  Across the country hundreds of colleges were shut down by a fast-rising wave of student activism, including my little Iowa college.

As quickly as the tide of activism rose up, the wave subsided. Our college-based headquarters and its plans for increasing political pressure to end the war depopulated as students returned to home or summer jobs. Eventually it was a few people in an apartment on the town square, lieutenants without any troops.**** I left for New York in an adventure I don’t have time to recount today.

Returning that fall, I was living in a sort-of-commune in the college town, without any funds to attend college, trying to figure out what I should do. Not only didn’t I know that, I didn’t have any idea how I would know that. That’s when I heard that Frank Zappa was going to play at Beloit, at the college my friends had left for over a year before.

I probably heard this news by reading it in a letter. Yes, younger readers today, there was no other way. There was no Internet. There wasn’t even timely press coverage of national tour dates, everything being done through local promoters and short-lived rock concert halls. Phone calls beyond your city were “long distance,” charged by the minute and too costly to use for entertainment gossip. I found out in 1970 the same way as someone would have exchanged this information in 1870.

My interest in Zappa had grown over the two years since I’d first heard Zappa’s Mothers of Invention on recordings. I didn’t realize it fully, but wider music listening and observing Don Williams’ ability to construct music on the fly was mixed with another rare thing my small college supplied me. This little college 20 miles south of Des Moines, with enrollment of barely a thousand students, had a burgeoning opera program. Opera of course is — what does it say up at the top of this blog? — a place where music and words meet. The opera curriculum would grow over the years, but at this time the program was still emerging. The theater used for performances (also the site of some of my classes) was a small old building, with seating for a few hundred. I’ll summarize one part of my experience in this: to see opera sung in a grand opera hall, with elaborate sets and pricey tickets, with a complete orchestra, is a very, well, operatic  way to view the realization of that art. All art is artifice, sure, but the human connection to me in those situations is stilted. Not so, opera sitting a few yards away from another person singing it, perhaps even a person your own young age who you might see in your classes or on campus. That’s another experience, far rarer.

You have not likely seen that impact reflected on my adult life, or on the Parlando Project that you know here. For one thing, my voice is not operatic, it’s barely a singing voice. Yet I can write this today, that I remember seeing for one exact example, a performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites,  and being carried away about what performed music, voice, and words could do in that small space. It may have helped that this opera makes an extensive use of recitative.

Listening to Rock music in my daily life then in The Sixties, it occurred to me, who in Rock could bring something to opera? Besides the differences in the use of the voice, or the nature of projecting character as opposed to ones seemingly authentic personal voice, there was the problem of extending the instrumental colors. My thought-answers then? Jim Morrison, who had performed a bit of Brecht/Weill on the first Doors album, and Frank Zappa, who claimed the ability to be “a composer,” and was even allowed to demonstrate that he could compose for larger ensembles including orchestral instruments.*****

That I could consider that was consistent with Zappa’s brand then. In those early, heady days of Rock Criticism, it was a given that Zappa was a genius. He wasn’t the sort of musical act that many people listened to with addictive, ear-worm pleasure, sure, but still a genius. Well, there were those smutty lyrics, and an assumed swimming pool of contributory drugs, but still a genius. It was The Sixties, we assumed impossible things could happen, but we still felt genius was rare and worthy of note.

So, a chance to see this genius in a live concert, this artist whose recordings had opened up other considerations for me, couldn’t be missed. I drove there, 300 miles, with other share-the-gas people in a Fiat 1100D.

Zappa at Beloit concert poster

Cost of the concert? $3. An amount similar to my portion of the share-the-gas cost too.


The concert? Not life-changing. The acoustics in the fieldhouse hall were atrocious, and our seats were in the galleries far from the stage. The music was good, but with the sound bouncing around and the typical poor vocal PA of the time, the result was a mixed pleasure.

We got back in the little car to head back to Iowa. Finding our way through the unfamiliar streets we saw another car occupied with hair as long as ours inside. That car contained some young women. For some reason they wanted to share with the fellow freaky-looking folks that they knew the hotel where Frank Zappa was staying and that they’d been invited to visit him.

Of course we believed them. Of course we followed them. What did we assume was to happen there? Some sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll orgy? I’d just turned 20. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, or how I’d figure that out. So, why would I worry about might happen for the rest of some single night in October?

When we arrived, the bunch of us from the two cars, maybe 8 or 9 people, spread out around the non-descript motel room. A couple members of the band were checking in with Zappa. There was a short discussion at the doorway between Zappa and George Duke about what Duke had played at the concert, which got approval from Zappa. The band that night, though billed as the Mothers, was new, containing vocalists who had once been part of the pop band The Turtles, now billed as “Flo and Eddie.”  One of the young women from the other car bounced on one of the beds. Most of us seemed like me, passive, waiting for something to happen. Zappa turned his attention to us, asked us what we’d thought about the concert. There was some short discussion. I think I may have mentioned that a lot of the material seemed new. Best as I can remember, that was accurate. Zappa replied that they were doing some of the old stuff too. Memories fail, but I believe “Concentration Moon”  was replied as one of the veteran numbers. The male part of the room had some hard-core Zappa fans, who started to geekout on questions about the band’s history. I recall one asking about Doug Moon who had played with early versions of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Were they trying to impress the genius with their knowledge, even in the midwest, of the places Zappa had come from? Zappa replied Doug was some guy who’d worked at a gas station. Zappa was patient about the questions, however trivial. At one point he took out a movie camera and filmed us in the room. I remember he moved in close to my face as I was missing one bow on my eyeglasses after that part had broken, and I had no funds to fix or replace the frames yet.

Here’s a few things Zappa conveyed to us in the roughly hour that I, and maybe others in the room, didn’t know before meeting him.

When asked about his doo-wop music parodies, including the Cruising with Rueben and the Jets  LP,  he corrected us that he liked that music. He spoke about Fifties R&B records he was inspired by. Since the lyrics in those songs were satiric, I’d assumed the music was also something he held in contempt. Far from it, he lit up talking about this. In The Sixties there was a widespread critical assumption that good music was “progressive,” meaning that we were to drive our plows over the bones of the dead, so this was news to us.

He nonchalantly corrected any impression that he was inspired by drugs. How he did this without sounding like a “Listen kids…” PSA I can’t exactly recall.

He seemed genuinely interested in us, and what we thought about the music — though at times, such as when he wielded the camera, the idea that we were natives and Zappa was an anthropologist occurred.

For me, the important thing happened near the end of our time in the room with this “…But, a genius” guy. I asked him how much of the show was improvised and how much was composed. He went over to the side of the room and picked up an oversized portfolio. Opening it, he showed it to me. Multiple staves of music, a rather full score as I recall. Dialogue written out, seemingly informal and back and forth, as if the band members were speaking off the cuff. In retrospect, I believe I was looking at scores for 200 Motels which would be filmed a few months later with a full orchestra. As he showed me this, he talked briefly about the effort he put into it, which the score showed. I was immediately impressed with the formality of the effort to achieve what seemed like chance informality. There must have been some serious seat-time in getting that done. The intent of it!

Imagine instead if I had somehow visited the hotel room of Jim Morrison in 1970. Perhaps my romantic notions of the creation of art would have gathered more poète maudit forces. Did something in my subconscious connect what Frank Zappa conveyed that night with William Blake, who when not out talking with the visions of angels, was innovating printmaking techniques and making books with his own skills?

After that significant side-trip, we left the room and returned to Iowa. If you’d asked me that day, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life — not a whit more — but what I did have was a piece of information, and an outlook. From that night I could remember that doing  was a large part of doing something with your life.

This is already a double-length post, so enough for today. To tip my hat to Mr. Zappa, here’s the LYL Band roughly approximating one of his later tunes in a we’ll-give-it-a-go live performance.

We flattened Zappa’s music and arrangement here, but as the video points out, if Zappa were performing this song today he’d be sure to include more screens than just TV.


*This oversimplification is more accurate about youth in The Seventies than the Sixties, even the final three years of The Sixties. In terms of clothes and hair, look at a range of contemporary photographs and film from the actual Sixties. Beards and long hair will be sparse on the young men, not movie wardrobe department common. Yes, use of marijuana and other drugs increased during the last half of The Sixties from a very in-group secrecy thing to a sizable minority, but in doing so it lost a bit of its bohemian rhapsodic connotations and became just another illegal high like drinking alcohol before the age of 21 had previously been. Real “counter-culture” bohemianism in an artistic sense had grown from the beatnik Fifties — maybe even doubled or tripled — but was still something a single digit percentage of people engaged in with any seriousness.

**In reality, this regional expansion of the conflict had been going on by proxy and by secrecy for a long time — but in the run up to the Kent State shootings it had become stated policy, driving hard-to-escape fears that there were now going to be additional para-Vietnam Wars.

***This is a complex point, one I need to leave off too briefly. Women of course were involved in anti-war activity before Kent State, but it occurs to me that this small factor may have been more important than recognized in adding to the explosion of activism in the spring of 1970. In case you’re wondering: yes, the anti-Vietnam war organizations, like the counter-culture, weren’t significantly less patriarchal than the rest of Sixties society — and though it may rankle some, I’ll add this as well: the victims at Kent State were also white.

****Any reading this who participated in Occupy Wall Street or the Black Lives Matter activism of this century may have a moment of recognition here. The emotional high of sensing that something is finally being said loud enough, that mass pressure is finally being brought by an unprecedented number of people is shared from this time. The emotions following, when such movements crest and seem to dissipate, need to be considered too. Here’s one piece of wisdom from someone else from this time worth listening to.

*****Will some Classic Rock oldster reading this think “Well, Rock Opera, what about the Who’s Tommy?” Tommy had yet to be released.

Meeting Music and Words, a personal history. Chapter 3

Here’s more of my condensed history of what showed me ways the Parlando Project could be done. I’m continuing, though I’m needing to disregard some fear or wisdom (can we ever tell which is which?) that I’m talking too much about myself, a person of little consequence. What keeps me going? While I write this expecting that what I’m trying to talk about is of interest to only a few, I continue in the hope that for those few it’ll be of value. While I love some music loved by millions, that’s not all of musics to me. And poetry, the supplier of the words used here, is a strange art: omnipresent yet under-considered. Combining literary poetry with non-commercial music is not the way to millions of Internet clicks. I’m hoping for individual interest — yours, valued readers and listeners, and I appreciate that attention.

There are democratic and utilitarian reasons to care about majorities, but most majorities upon a closer look are made up of smaller groups. And too, few majorities are born that way, they start and accumulate smaller groups. “I contain multitudes” said Whitman — multitudes of smaller groups, inconsequential taken to themselves. He called his book Leaves of Grass,  not The Biggest Damn Lawn You’ve Ever Seen.   If we’re lucky in life we will have found small places, families, affinities, constrained spaces we can contain and explore. In some of those places people will make art, that encapsulated way we exchange our inward handful-grasps of the outward world.

So, I was talking about the end of my teenage years, as I was off to what would be a shortened not quite 2-year experience of college in The Sixties. I’m going to next write about three artists of that time that I was introduced to while still in Iowa, each of which left seeds of what years later would make up the Parlando Project.

In my very first day at college, I was walking in the center of the little campus when I happened to strike up a conversation with a stocky man in a cape. I’m not talking a Superman or Batman cape. No, this cape had a full collar and could be buttoned at the top. It was more of a 19th century woolen military cape, or like the green cape that musician David Crosby liked to sport around the same time, though Crosby and his scene wasn’t anywhere near the two of us in Iowa. This caped crusader had an interesting conversation starter: “Do you know who the Fugs are?” he asked.

Here’s what I knew: I seen a mention of them as an outrageous act in the New York City area, with unprintable lyrics that could only be cited by their suggestive titles. “They’re a dirty rock’n’roll group” I replied. I was better or worse then for capsule descriptions.

“Do you know who the Mothers of Invention are?”

“They’re another one.” This was nervous inarticulateness on my part. Though I had not heard a note of their music, I had read their leader’s insightful essay in a Life magazine round-up of what was starting to be called “Rock,” the “’n’Roll” having just been significantly dropped by doughy critical burghers due to a new appreciation of the all-protein counter culture. Zappa’s essay perceptively pointed out that culture is always present, always countered of fitness and absurdity in some mix.

This minimal performance on my part must have encouraged the caped one. We immediately conspired to get our dorm room assignments switched around to share a room. I think he may have had a preliminary dorm assignment secondary to being a football player. Later I would see that both his legs had simitar scars from knee operations secondary to his high school football career.

The caped guy’s name was Jimmy Scanlon, he was from Chicago. He’d seen those groups perform, had their records. His plastic record player was a little fancier than mine, and had two small speakers that swung out from each side, a stereo. I soon got to hear all those two group’s records.

Let me write first about The Fugs because they are by far the least known and admired of the three artists I’m going to write about, and that’s odd since they were pioneers who I believe directly influenced other artists we now remember as the pioneers. Richie Unterberger, a man from a later generation who looks back at this time calls them “Arguably the first underground rock group.” That’s something I’d say too, even though the core of the Fugs were not musicians in any functional way. They were instead anarchist/beatnik/poets from New York City who just on guts decided that they could get together and sing in 1964. In this instinct they were directly influenced by the short-lived jug band fad that emerged in the folk music revival. The idea of the folkie jug band was this: rather than relying on the individual stage presence of a single performer at the mic (underrecognized: that’s difficult!) you could get up with a bunch of vaguely related instruments and make a somewhat coordinated noise. But the Fugs were distinct from that fad in these ways: their material was politically and socially outrageous, clearly making no play for commercial markets, they soon added musicians who played electric instruments, and they couldn’t sing. Am I being too blunt about that last part? Call me experienced here: this is a pot calling that kettle. They were pitch challenged, they didn’t have, nor did they attempt, pleasing vocal timbres, and they recorded anyway.*

Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should. A decade before CBGBs that is what this was. And they performed a lot in the city. The Velvet Underground had to be aware of them as they were both forming within blocks of each other simultaneously. Did Bob Dylan think of them when creating the most ribald and playful Basement Tapes songs? No matter how fully formed Frank Zappa’s ideas were, did he at least see his Mothers as competing in the same atmosphere when they both had extended runs in rented theaters in NYC?

Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should.

Those things happened from going on guts. From believing the things you are apprehending have value. It’s too limiting to call this competition, or rivalry, it’s the mutual demonstration of possibility.

Before I leave The Fugs, here’s a very Parlando Project thing about the Fugs. They were poets themselves, and yet they formed a band. They performed other poets work regularly.** When Dave Moore and I started performing ten years later I (we?) described what we were aiming for as the Fugs performing with the Yardbirds.

The Fugs repertoire was political, satiric, scabrous and — well, very sex-positive. But they could carpe that diem with the poets too. Here’s my rendition of a Tuli Kupferberg song “The Garden is Open” that I performed a few years back.


Since I wasn’t in New York or connected directly with any of this, here are a couple of accounts of the Fugs from those who where there. One by Fugs founder Ed SandersOne about Tuli Kupferberg’s life.  And this account of how the musical scene including the Fugs interacted with the general poetry and art scene in NYC.

What about the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa? Wait. Though Jimmy Scanlan and that same year Dave Moore too, introduced me to these two groups almost as a pair, you’ll need to wait for my Frank Zappa story. And there’s a third artist that I was discovering in my late teens that helped me formulate this Project. We’ll get to him too.


*I’ve had long suffering partners in my life, what with the kinds of music I am too well drawn too. Most of them couldn’t stand more than a few minutes of the caterwauling of The Fugs. I wouldn’t blame you either — but I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s parable about what a beautiful singer, Sam Cooke, said about this: “Voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” I love music. I love the beauty it can manifest, even without words. If I had to choose a world with only beautiful singers or only truthful singers, I’d take the latter.

**Ted Berrigan, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Burroughs, Charles Olson, and of course band founders Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg were poets themselves.

Meeting Music and Words, a personal history. Chapter 2

As we celebrate National Poetry Month this spring, let’s continue with my condensed memoir with footnotes of how and why the Parlando Project came to be. Last time I was leaving home for college in The Sixties.

I was an undistinguished student, able to connect with some teachers and subjects and unable to connect with others. I think I went on to college because I still had curiosity and desire to learn about some things and because I had no other firm idea of what I wanted to do other than write poetry. Even the naïve teenager in me knew that poetry was an exalted vocation but a dreadful-paying job. The fool in me thought that if I was good enough with poetry, things would take care of themselves. Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.

Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.

There was another reason to attend college in The Sixties if you were male. There was a military draft. Depending on where you lived (draft bards were local, county-sized, units and their quotas and pool of 18-26 year olds to fill them varied) most of the most eligible would be drafted to serve 2 years in the armed forces. The “most eligible” part was the trick of the inequality of this system.*  Those married with kids or students were put in a “deferred” level. With the rising deployments in the Vietnam war in The Sixties, concerns about the common inconvenience of military service were escalated into a fear that “I’ll be drafted, sent to Vietnam, and I’ll be killed.” **

Because my experience with school was in a small town, small school, I went to a small college of just about 1000 students, one still in Iowa, Simpson College. Road not taken thoughts could wonder: what if I had been more adventuresome? The English Literature department was largely younger professors who taught the smallish classes directly. One of those younger teachers was a quiet but scholarly type who loved St. Thomas Aquinas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m no Thomist but he did introduce me to Hopkins. Another had a full John Berryman beard and curl-dangle cigarette ash while he talked on. He loved Norman Mailer and encouraged unconventional thought. I picked up the idea that French poets were important in the emergence of modern English poetry, so I tried to take French for my language requirement. As remains the case to this day, I found myself entirely unable to form the correct sounds to pronounce the words. My young French teaching professor had a great story though. She’d taken the position at Simpson, located in Indianola Iowa. That summer she went to Indianapolis Indiana ready to start her professorship, and upon arriving asked for directions to Simpson.

Here are two people near my own age who I met at Simpson who changed me and eventually the Parlando Project.

One was Dave Moore, who readers and listeners here already know. How’d we meet? I met Dave in my first year at Simpson when he led an unconventional service at the school’s chapel. He read the words to Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”  and made them vivid even as unaccompanied spoken word and then he read a poem of his own. I had to get to know him — and did — because here was another poet. Dave’s influence on the Parlando Project is impossible to understate, but in this era, Dave left Simpson for another school to further his education at the end of my first year. He’ll necessarily return often as this memoir continues.

In my second year at Simpson I took an inexpensive catalog-store acoustic guitar with me to college for just a few weeks at the beginning of the school term. It was an instrument that belonged in common with my siblings. In an act of cargo-cult magic one day, I remember walking around the little campus with it hanging by a strap across my back, like I was on some cover of a folk music magazine. I ran into this skinny guy wearing a Levis jean-jacket who said he played guitar too, and he invited me to his dorm room.

When we got there did I notice then that his guitar was likely better than my family’s shared plywood egg-slicer string-action guitar? No, I didn’t know anything about that then, but it was no-doubt a quality instrument. When he took it out of its case (his guitar had a case!) he tuned it up quickly and started to play a bit of this or that, and then launched into a piece he informed me was called “Vaseline Machine Gun.”

One or two of you may startle as I say the name of that guitar piece. It appeared later at the very end of The Sixties on a record by its composer Leo Kottke with the it-can-afford-its-understatement title of “6 and 12-String Guitar.”   Within the smallish world of steel-string acoustic guitar instrumental music that record is a landmark. The album’s energetic playing in an original style, the polyphonic lines going on all at once from a single instrument was impressive — still are, though players have had decades since to try to work at that level. The record’s showpiece, the cut that was meant to make your jaw drop the farthest is “Vaseline Machine Gun.”   So, you one-or-two know what I felt sitting a couple of feet away from someone playing it live in a small Iowa college dorm room in The Sixties. Here’s a 2-minute live version of the young Kottke playing it for the rest of you.


OK, you’re back. That skinny kid, a year younger than me, nodded at me with my plywood catalog-store guitar, one that I’d figured out three or four reliable chords on to be rung up with vigorous strums. His manner was hip, cool. “What do you play?”

One could  write a whole chapter on that moment, that interchange. I write poems and attempt-to-be-short blog posts. I said, “I don’t really play.”

The skinny guitar player kid’s name was Don Williams. Like Dave Moore, there are other Don Williams, some of them better known than others. With that common a name, I’ve never been able to find him later in life. He was from the Minneapolis area, where Kottke was based and where he could have heard him in local coffee houses. His family had money enough to afford him the better instrument. He had the funds and inclination for lessons in that city, and the wherewithal to absorb them. He dropped the names of Twin Cities guitarists Dean Granros and Dean Magraw, who I suspect he may have taken those lessons from. I hung out with him some, heard him play more. He had an amp and a Howard Roberts model Gibson electric guitar too. If I was to meet him again, all these years later, I’d thank him for initially imprinting me with the broad possibilities of the guitar, acoustic and electric, and in particularly with bottleneck slide.

I went back to my dorm room. Sometime that fall before I had to return the guitar to the family home, I took a short poem by another Simpson student I knew, Keith Hill, and using that and those few chords played with some make’em pay up strums, I wrote what I will later call the first Parlando Project song, decades before there would be a Parlando Project. The poem was called “Eat At Joes”  and Keith Hill was aiming for a gently satiric mood. I adapted or misconstrued it as an indictment of go-along acceptance. More than 40 years later I still remembered it well enough to attempt it with Dave Moore and the LYL Band. You can hear that remembered version with this highlighted link, or with the graphical music player below.

What happened next? Why did I stick with the idea of literary poetry combined with music?


*There were other deferments. Some professions were still deferred as I recall. Homosexuality along with mental illness was considered a no-go, though as throughout history, gay people served. Medical deferments were issued, and for those in the know during the era there was a saying “No one is too healthy to not have a reason for medical deferment.” If the proponents of conscription debate that it promotes an equality of service and sacrifice, the reality of the system manifestly reflected racial and class-based castes. I wasn’t analyzing this at 17, but it wasn’t subtle people!

**Like a lot of historical remembrances, this is accurate in terms of the believed myth and inaccurate in terms of the reality. In generational talk of “Boomers had it easy compared to…,” this level of existential risk for teenagers seems somewhat forgotten. Still, not only did most Boomers not get drafted — due to that range of deferments and the size of the pool — most draftees never went to combat even during the height of the war. None-the-less, this perception of a real risk is an under-acknowledged motivation for the growth in the antiwar movement then. I don’t know if anyone has written of this, but it seems to me that this was also one substantial reason that college enrollments increased even above the demographic bulge, which then helped set the expectation that college was a pre-requisite for many more jobs. Racial and class-based caste systems again.

Meeting Music and Words, a personal history

While continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I must apologize for resorting to regular blogging form and writing about myself today. That sort of thing works for many, but I tend to run on a bit when I do it. It must take a long time to bore myself.

Why, when, did I decide to do the Parlando Project, this odd little idea to combine words, mostly literary poetry, with not-exactly commercial music? It wasn’t something I toddled off to grade school knowing I wanted to do. I had no great early childhood connection to poetry. I was exposed to the children’s poetry in my mid-west, mid-century tastes: Longfellow appeared, illustrated. The D. Seuss of my time then was Dr. Seuss, not Diane. My interest in music was greater, despite having no discernible musical talent or outlet. The wife of my little town’s school superintendent taught a music class, which was mostly music appreciation, little samplings from records of the orchestral repertoire. My peers found this impenetrable and boring. Since I was something of an outcast I decided to listen to what was so outré in their just-teenage world. Around the time I myself entered teenagerhood I got a gift of the mid-century handheld device, the transistor radio. I would bike around my town and outskirts with its faux leather case strap wrapped around my bicycle handle-grips, twisting the little plastic radio’s orientation with my fingers so that the stations from far-off towns aligned with its antenna. Was I listening to rock’n’roll, that mid-century strain? No. At first I was listening to an AM station that was one of the pioneers of what later became public radio, and this station programmed classical music.

Rock’n’roll was the music of those that distained that music appreciation teacher and distained me. If many then and now read the sneer or assertion in rock’n’roll as the music of when-in-the-course-of-human-events independence and freedom, I heard it as the music of those that didn’t care much for me. But I eventually relented. I wanted to look at the music the rest of the teenage world was hearing, thinking it might be a window into their interiors. Maybe it was a bit of survivor’s reconnaissance.

I found some of what the Top 40 station played interesting. This was in the era which the American pop music histories sum up as post-Elvis, pre-Beatles, describing it as dire and worthless. Were the teenagers of that Ike to Kennedy time, even if subconsciously, wanting more, wanting better? I dunno. For myself, I didn’t know any better. It was a mix of Brill Building girl groups, Black R&B, folk music/country and western* crossovers, late period crooners, and novelty records that would shame a modern TikTok sensation in their silly sensationalism.**  Unlike my peers who were closed-off to me, there were voices there speaking secrets, their moods and moments.

Want to know why the Parlando Project musical pieces are all over the map in terms of musical flavor? This is the child-is-the-father-of-the-man reason.

Poetry? I admire the knowledge and deep interests of academics, while somehow worrying that poetry is seen as having an academic requirement for reading or writing it. You didn’t need to go to school to listen to the radio. There was no MFA for the Brill Building, Motown, or Slim Harpo, at least not then. Still, I have to be honest, like many who continue to read poetry that they won’t be graded on, it was a teacher again, Terry Brennan, a recent St. John’s of Collegeville grad, who taught an English literature class in my little 100-person high school who introduced me to poetry as possibility. Did I understand poetry? Does one need to understand what one is drawn too? I don’t think so — a little mystery may even help. Much of it was beautifully inarticulate to me, phrases that said with inevitability, descriptions that were exotic, situations that I hadn’t lived, or lived in any understanding whatsoever. I loved Keats and Blake. I found out Blake was the original DIY Indie, who wrote, illustrated, engraved, and published his work, mastering what technical, logistical, and creative work was needed to realize his art. I loved a capsule description of Blake I found in the back of one of my parents’ old textbooks that they had saved. It went something like this: “He wrote early charming lyrics showing real talent, but later descended into incomprehensible writing suggestive of madness.” Writing without limits! I was ready to sign up.

On the day after Christmas, riding in a Dodge station wagon filled with my sisters and parents, rolling between Minnesota and Iowa, I wrote my first poem. I was 16. I thought it rather marvelous that I could write such a magical thing. A year later, the last Christmas I was to spend in my childhood home, I got enough money to buy a cheap record player and three LPs. These inscribed, foot-square, vinyl circles were the adult music, the things that could contain the igneous something that was starting to get called “rock.” Rock as a name seemed solid, monumental, permanent. I suppose in much of my cohort it still is — childhood transition music sticks with you. These are the three LPs I bought with the leftover money: The Doors “The Doors,”  Bob Dylan “John Wesley Harding,”  and The Rolling Stones “Their Satanic Majesties Request.”   In reverse order they imprinted me with love for Mellotron and ramshackle pretension, spare acoustic guitar arrangements and one-room songs without bridges or choruses, and poets who wanted to front a rock band that had listened to some Jazz and Blues records.

Parlando Inspiratins 1

Of those 3 LPs, maybe only the Dylan retains current esteem, yet all were considered significant in their time.  Blake & Keats? Well, it’s poetry, so the answer is complicated, particularly in the United States.


Music, various, and words, mostly poetry, exploring other people’s stories — yes, I can still see the damage there. While we’re not to the Parlando Project yet, this is enough for one post. Let me leave you with a Parlando Project audio piece, words from another poet recalling that era, Ethna McKeirnan’s poem of “Stones”  that seemed permanent as she moved through her life.  Player below for most, backup link for the others. McKiernan’s final new & selected collection including this poem is available here.


*Little known fact: C&W and folk music were often thought of as the same or aligned genres then. The 21st century Americana thing was how things were considered circa 1960 as well.

**Look up “Ahab the Arab”   for one such example. Can I call it transgressive? Can you call it cultural appropriation? Fatima has less agency in this tale than Clyde (the girl-group Brill Building songwriters might have made her the main character.)  If you’re on the borderline of acceptance, I’ll tell you that Jimmy Saville had the UK cover-version hit with this.

National Poetry Month 2023 and I introduce this Project to newcomers

In the nearing 7 years since the Parlando Project launched we’ve normally celebrated the US National Poetry Month with increased activity. This year that celebration is conflicting with some other factors which are keeping me from a focused plan for NPM. That said, one goal of the #NationalPoetryMonth activity here has been to draw new readers and listeners to what we do. So, it’s probably a good idea to let new eyeballs and ears onto what to expect if they visit our archives of over 650 audio pieces released, pieces featured and expanded on with the nearly 900 posts since we kicked things off in 2016.

You see one motto up in the header of this blog and elsewhere: “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”   I take words — usually not my words, but words their authors likely intended as literary poetry — and combine them with various original music — music that I generally compose, and increasingly often play myself in one-man-band ways.

2023 NPM poster_800

Sometimes what we mean takes time to discover. How do we relate to something else, the differences, the things similar? That’s a metaphor. Make the metaphor musical, however you do it, and that’s poetry.


A few readers may figure — perhaps even a listener of a stray Parlando piece they see linked somewhere — that there’s a convention, a style I follow when I do this. I hope they’re mistaken. I’ve always intended to not do that. The people that have influenced, or unintentionally given me permission to do what I do, made music and word combinations in different ways.*  I try to use all those ways, and hope to stumble on some others. I will sing the words, but just as often chant them, talk-sing them, or resort to a freer, spoken word cadence — thus the origin of my Project’s name.

I try to keep the audio pieces short, almost always less than 5 minutes. I try to keep these blog posts shortish too, less than 1,000 words — and though I sometime fail in keeping those goals, I try to keep my failures in check. And not all the realizations of the words with my music and performance work for everyone, or most, or perhaps anyone. Some of them are even embarrassing to me, but I leave them up in our archives you can see separated into months to the right of this post.

Why do I do this? Manyfold reasons. Some of them? I like the challenge, the variety of verse, the variety of music. I think poetry is musical speech, and making even more of the musical component offers a different way to enter the words for the listener. Consider how you might enter into a song you grow close to, over listens, over time. At first it might be a phrase, riff, or refrain that catches you, or a general tone you feel, but then some new nuance may come to the fore. Or how a song you thought an abstract construction of words can from new experiences, experiences inside or outside of the song, somehow become more realized and concrete.**

This is how poetry lives, it’s the only poetry. Poetry does not live on reputations or silent copies printed, it lives inside you, a single reader or listener, as sound that may eventually saunter up closer in sense. This is what I celebrate all year, and some more so during National Poetry Month.


*Perhaps I’ll write more about, and thank more, those possibility creators this month? To name some of the models for Parlando: Beat poets and their immediate predecessors Rexroth and Patchen reading to music, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Fugs, those English lute composers like Campion and Dowland, Tom Rapp, whatever William Butler Yeats planned to do with his bespoke psaltery, Rabindranath Tagore, what alternative hymnal Emily Dickinson was internalizing when she played her Homestead piano, Frank Zappa, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, the American blues poets from Charlie Patton to Gil Scott Heron, Anne Sexton and her rock band, Laurie Anderson and her expansion of Ken Nordine and his “word jazz.” I’m also aware of “art song” — and appreciate both the achievements and the limitations for my purposes of that long established form of combining literary poetry with complex musical settings and melodies using orchestral instruments.

**One of the reasons I trust that you may find these experiences when the poem is carried to you inside a musical environment, and buffered there, is that I very often have had that experience composing and recording the Parlando musical pieces. I start out not sure what a lyric means or thinking I know something of what it means, only to find that there’s an entire other something or somethings there the 5th, 10th, or 20th time through it. The very act of putting the poems words into my mouth illuminates things, the exact question of how to utter them throws light from out of my dark throat.

Winter 2022-2023 Parlando Top Ten

It occurs to me that it may have been a while since I’ve reminded new readers what the Parlando Project is, has done, and tries to do. It started as an idea around 2015 to focus on something I’d done off and on for decades: to combine other people’s words, usually literary poetry designed to be seen on silent pages, with a variety of original music.

I did this not only because I think it’s fun, but because the process allows me to more deeply absorb some sense of what the poets are trying to convey. At least for me, I can read a poem with my eyes and sense that there’s something wonderful there — but then to read it aloud, perhaps even to sing it, allows me to inhabit it, to visit the environment inside it, as if one is deep inside some forest, awash at a water-brink, or walking down its street or inside some meaningful building.

Reading a poem silently is like looking at a picture. Performing it aloud is painting the picture with the words still wet.

Early in the Project many of these performances were with others, most often my long-time musical partner Dave Moore. For a number of reasons those opportunities have decreased. These days the typical musical setting here is composed, and all the parts played or scored, by myself. I’ve done a handful of pieces in the Project without instruments, but that’s unusual. I think that even though they are played by a one-man-band I want the words to have companions. Even the loneliest poems can have these here.

I do these pieces myself, not because I have great confidence or a high appraisal of my musicianship. Far from it. I compose and play the parts because I’m available. I’m an amiable contractor to myself, I enjoy playing different instruments, and I’m unafraid to dive into a variety of musical environments. My estimate is that most musicians who hear what I produce for the Parlando Project are unimpressed by this work, in that I almost never get responses from them when they are exposed to it.*  My guess is that is because I use simple ideas, and my realization of even these basic conceptions via my own playing has imperfections. My musical “thing” is more at participatory folk music or the punk/indie ethos — and though I try to produce good work here, and I’ve put effort into that, I don’t consider many of the Parlando Project pieces the best realization they could have. When I’ve taken to putting up chord sheets of some of the simpler acoustic guitar pieces here in the past year, I’m thinking that a better singer or player might take them to a better musical place.

Hepcats of Venus

Imaginary band gets down in beatnik cellar. Illustration shows my younger self & spouse in the center. W. H. Auden taps his cig on the ashtray in the foreground. Behind the drummer, Gertrude Stein considers Virgil Thomson.


Now let’s get on to a brief rundown of the Parlando pieces that were most liked and listened to this past winter. I do this countdown style, from 10 to the most popular. The highlighted titles are links in case you’d like to see what I wrote about the pieces when I first presented it.

10. All Souls Night by Hortense Flexner.  Long-time readers here will know I like to go beyond “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” here, and this spooky piece by a little-remembered author from the time of WWI continued to be listened to long after Halloween.


9. “Uncle Sam Says” by Waring Cuney.  This one, jumping forward to the WWII era, is almost cheating, as Cuney, a friend of Langston Hughes, engaged here in straight-out songwriting with bluesman Josh White. I’ve been playing a bit more bottleneck slide guitar this winter, and that’s what I used to accompany this message song about a segregated military.


8. “Now Winter Nights Enlarge” by Thomas Campion.  Speaking of songwriters: poet, musician, and Elizabethan-age physician Campion also intended this to be sung — although, as with “Uncle Sam Says,”  I didn’t use the original music for my performance.


7. “The House of Hospitalities” by Thomas Hardy.  A poet who spanned significant chunks of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hardy was well-versed in poems of rich remembrances, as in this Christmas season memory of holiday celebrations past and gone.


6. “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” by Emily Dickinson.  One of three appearances by this crucial American genius, this one a jolly remembrance of a cooperative harvest time in Amherst.


5. “I’m Afraid to Own a Body” by Emily Dickinson.  An opening line or two in a poem can grab even the most inattentive reader sometimes, and this poem’s opening pair of lines certainly did so for me this winter.


4. “Fairy Song” by William Butler Yeats.  Like many a Yeats poem, this one beguiles you and me with its lovely word music. Then I read the play whereupon the poem appears and discovered that its context is exactly that for the song’s singing fairy: a beguiling away of a distressed person from their heart, hearth, and home. That wind that opens this poem is chilling once you know.


3. “I felt my life with both my hands” by Emily Dickinson.  I cannot say authoritatively what Dickinson intended the context of this poem to be, but I read it as an examination of body dysphoria, though I’m unsure if anyone else has “read” her poem that way. As I have sometimes done, I’ve performed this with what I call an “Inline Epigraph,” quoting a line from a Lou Reed’s song “Candy Says”  before the concluding section of Dickinson’s text in my performance. I often think of poems as being in conversation with each other.


2. Railroad Avenue by Langston Hughes.  I spent an enjoyable but inconclusive time searching for the “real” Railroad Avenue, thinking it could be like Van Morrison’s Cyprus Avenue or a NYC address in a Frank O’Hara poem. Couldn’t find it. May be it’s only mapped in Hughes’ imagination, a construction for the purposes of the poem. Long-time reader rmichaelroman reminded us in comments that America’s separations often are lined by being right in one’s memories from the “wrong side of the tracks.”


1. “I’m Gonna Make Love to my Widow ‘fore I’m Gone” by Frank Hudson.  Another bottleneck guitar piece that readers and listeners liked a lot this winter. Well — a self-penned piece about good old-fashioned winter randiness made it to the top of the Top Ten. Go figure. They’re talking single digit wind-chills and a March snowstorm as this week ends up here in Minnesota. Codger cuddling is carbon-free heating people!



*I ascribe this to politeness on their part. I tell myself that I overvalue the audacity and aims of what I do, when simple competence with simple ideas might be preferable.

A video about “Stage Fright,” or then about being a public artist

I just spent a half-hour watching this video recommended to me by a stranger elsewhere online. I knew. and still know nothing, about the man who talks here, despite a documentary being made about him a few years back.

Why did it hold my attention, even though it’s partly about that documentary and a career I don’t know? Well, he’s an engaging talker, and the interviewer here too is excellent, but that wouldn’t be determinative. One of this project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories,” but obviously in a world of current billions and more than a millennium of poetry to consider, I’m going to ignore or pass by most people’s stories. Maybe it’s his age and his obvious engagement with art, while being old enough to be my father? I’m old. I’m still engaged in this Project. Old people still facing that situation may be the link that connected me.

As someone who currently rarely performs live in a room of listeners, the subject of “stage fright” isn’t a pressing issue for me. The early parts of this interview do speak to that issue, reminding us that it is not a unique, shameful, issue — but one that is rather common among performers. No, it’s not so much stage fright that I myself am most interested in. Rather, I’ve been increasingly promotional with the more than 650 audio pieces and accompanying posts that have accumulated here over the past six years. I frankly feel a mix of unseemly self-interest and objective self-delusion as I do that. These acts of promotion are still novel enough for me that I can, for now, press on past those feelings. And since it’s been harder to create more pieces, or as complete a realization in them of what this Project tries to do, this task — which embarrasses me — allows me to think I’d doing something in place of that.


What I find is the deeper message then of this man’s account is that there is an element in art — subject, yes, to the clouding of our egos and neurotic urges — that is beyond ourselves. More than 20 minutes in, in what becomes the conclusion of the interview’s story arc — the thing everything before has been building to — Seymour Bernstein articulates that place.*

Can we visit that place consciously, acknowledge that we want to abide there at least a little while?

For an audio piece, here’s one of the early pieces of this project I’m most proud of, another older man of music speaking about that art. Weston Noble, spoke this about music at his retirement, and I wove his words into some original music. You can hear it with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted link.


*So, should I give it to you in pull quote form, a TL:DNR assistance to the harried reader who doesn’t have time for the half-hour interview? I debated this, but decided that no, it would lack impact without the build of the story telling itself by the method of it’s telling. I decided, you might be too likely to shrug, and the precept would roll off your consciousness. And earlier in the interview Bernstein makes another recommendation that may be valuable to writers and composers: that a balance of re-creation and creation is helpful.