On Tuesday, November 6, at 7 pm, I will be a feature reader in the Wild Writers series at the Poetry Jazz Cafe , 224 Augusta Avenue in Toronto.
Two of my poems have been published in the anthology Things That Matter.
The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians, by Stanley Fefferman, Aeolus House, 2018. 52 pages.
Fefferman’s poetry is a phenomenal verbal symphony of sound, lyricism, imagery, rhythm, and reason. A former critic, he knows music with the intimacy of a lover.
It is possible to appreciate The Heart of All Music without being familiar with the music pieces that inspire his verses because Fefferman’s themes, like those of Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 are worked “in a grand architecture” that becomes an open house invitation to the palace of music. His experience of the music becomes ours as he describes “the buzz of an autumn fly/dying over piano keys”, “A conversation between agonized strings”, John Hammond “driving a cargo of blues down the road/like a runaway mule train”. Nowhere does Fefferman allow his poems to become runaways. His talent is like a scalpel, leaving no fat, nicking no bones, no blood suppurating from a badly closed stanza. Fefferman’s poems take us on a journey from the “querulous conversations” of Schuloff, to Bartok’s “sadness so tender,” to Brahm’s “golden lightning of imagination,” and music that is “a look into the face of suffering/for reasons to sing as long as there is life”
I was inspired to google as much of this music as I could find online, but that is not necessary in order to read this book. Fefferman’s poetry is music to the inner ear in the brain’s poetry centre which then stimulates the production of serotonin making you feel good in a way that plain prose does not. Even his prose poetry tickles the receptors in the brain because these poems are lyrical, rhythmic and full of images, visual, aural, tactile and the metaphors are concrete. Imagery and metaphor are processed in the poetry centre of the brain.
I long for “the gesture of mind veering along the edge of an emotional cliff” in my own poetry but I am too much of a thinker, not enough of a feeler. Fefferman is both, allowing us to surf with him on feelings finally landing on the white sand of reason. Like the music he loves, his poems “replay themselves in the mind/long after the instruments are silent”. The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians is a masterpiece.
Penn Kemp. Fox Haunts. Aeolus House, 2018. 97 pp.
The way suburban garden fences are a line the fox crosses from the countryside to steal our chickens, is like the line fox, since time immemorial, has crossed from the countryside into our myths, into our dreams, into our literature and our language. Shenanigans is derived from the Gaelic word for fox. A skulk of foxes is the collective noun. Jimmie Hendrix sang of his “Foxy Lady.” And here is a stanza from Penn Kemp’s poem to Inari, the Shinto fox-god deity:
Fox girls dance beneath the twisted maple
calling their sister to transform from mist
as beguiling women with red in their hair.
Fox Haunts, Kemp’s 24th collection, is a meditation in 90 poems on a predator who is our closest neighbor and who is getting closer all the time as it’s habitat yields to subdivisions. The longest section of Fox Haunts, entitled “Urban Fox,” consists of poems about foxes Kemp might have encountered: her writing can be elegant.
It’s true you walk on toes like cats
like a ballerina of the wildwood.
Kemp empathizes with the drama of the hunt, the inside as well as the outside of it.
Fox circles her prey, closing in
on her victim in ever tightening
gyres. Her fixed glare freezes
poor rabbit into terror so pure it
dissolves to acceptance, suspended
acquiescence, adrenalin overload.
Almost like peace. Soft as comfort,
this compliance in the fox’s grasp.
Just a single shriek before the
At her best, Kemp’s narrative and poetry are transparent. She has variance in her voice: sometimes she addresses her images directly to the fox:” I come upon your prints on/muddy path, neatly, deliberately splayed.” Sometimes, she drops into a journalistic mode and addresses the reader directly in what sounds to me like chopped prose: “Like Canada Geese, Fox may/be adopting city life to avoid/ hunters, the tough slog of/country life. Clever fellow.” Only to follow that with a passage of the most startlingly direct poetry:
They look upon the easy prey of pets, soft
and vulnerable bichon frisés left outside
by themselves in the yard, those with no
defense but a petulant, startled bark —
before they are meat, carried off dangling
in the soft jaw of a mother triumphantly keen
on feeding her kits.
Kemp is ‘entranced’ with the world of “Wily wiry trickster tales,” and devotes a section to ‘Fox’ references in the writings of Taliesin, Ovid, in the legend of Samson, in other Hebrew Scriptures relating to Solomon and Ezekiel, in Aesop, W.B Yeats and St. Exupéry, Akiro Kurosawa and Alice Munro whose father raised foxes for fur on a farm where he also kept ” Old horses in the barn waiting/their turn to be fed, to be feed.” As for the night sky, Kemp puts fox in the constellation Canis Major and Canis Minor, This bit of Fox arcana brings into close focus the mythical resonance of that beast in the human imagination.
After having the pleasure of reading Fox Haunts, and of writing down these few thoughts, I look forward to more hours with the book, looking into the stories behind lines like:
Fetch Laelaps, a bitch commanded to catch all
she chases. Let her seize that Teumessian fox!
Fox Haunts is one those rare books that can become a companion.
ABOUT PENN KEMP. She has been dubbed “a one-woman literary industry” as London, Ontario’s inaugural Poet Laureate and Western University’s Writer-in-Residence. Kemp was the League of Canadian Poets’ Spoken Word Artist, 2015. Her website is www.pennkemp.weebly.com
I received an email saying that depression is a very popular theme in poetry published online. I checked it out. True. Tons of them on Poem Hunter, Interesting Literature, Hello Poetry, Soul-Awakening. I spent some time reading through.
I found many poems to be raw howls of pain, and some, rhymed in stanzaed verses, a bit more elaborate, but frank enough to get across the message that the writer is in pain and has been for a long time, often with no hope for remission.
I was moved to sympathy. I also learned something about isolating details of depression for poetic expression. If I missed anything, it was “poetry”, the sense of a dimension beyond the personal complaint or within the personal complaint, the transforms the wordflow from complaint to poetry.
I would be very interest to host a discussion of poems about depression.
Meanwhile, here is a poem about depression (or sadness) that does have that second dimension, that context for individual depression (or sadness).
The Sad Shepherd by William Butler Yeats.
There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones and comfort him, but they
Among themselves laugh on and sing alway:
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Cried out, Dim sea, hear my most piteous story.!
The sea Swept on and cried her old cry still,
Rolling along in dreams from hill to hill.
He fled the persecution of her glory
And, in a far-off, gentle valley stopping,
Cried all his story to the dewdrops glistening.
But naught they heard, for they are always listening,
The dewdrops, for the sound of their own dropping.
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Sought once again the shore, and found a shell,
And thought, I will my heavy story tell
Till my own words, re-echoing, shall send
Their sadness through a hollow, pearly heart;
And my own talc again for me shall sing,
And my own whispering words be comforting,
And lo! my ancient burden may depart.
Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim;
But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone
Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan
Among her wildering whirls, forgetting him.
Stanley Fefferman hit Today’s book of poetry over the head with a poetry sledgehammer with his poem “Black Spruce” from Home Was Elsewhere. There we were ambling along, poetry happy, inside of Fefferman’s poem, liking this one, jotting the title of another down and then…
The last stanza of “Black Spruce” anvil punched Today’s book of poetry.
Don’t get us wrong, we live for those poetry moments when we are rocked, given the opportunity we would embrace the author, demand good drink in their name, and so on…
It is some sweet footwork going in inside Fefferman’s poems.
Black Spruce sway in the wind
I turn to them for solace
because they never complain
White paper consoles me
On its surface words appear
like cricket chirps
When I think of your goodness
I burn and become restless
Meanwhile, what to do?
When we are together
there is such a flowing
Then, what to do?
I want you to understand
star-crossed lovers are the only kind
Love is out of this world
Fefferman has us tangled up in Henry Miller carnal glee activity one minute and meditating the next and maybe that is the true Dharma. I will have to ask my buddy Bear, the original Canadian Buddha Bear.
Home Was Elsewhere rolls along in sort of content but still searching vibe as though Fefferman were navigating the reader into a specific channel. And he is. There is as much celebration in Home Was Elsewhere as there are questions.
Everything Closed in Acrylic
It is a sort of winter-day feeling
silent and clear
everything closed in acrylic
It is heart scraped raw quivering in dry air
longing for moist ‘membrance
not closed in dry poem –
official version of glittering moment –
but a sudden shock, snapped elevator cable
and us inside falling alive
It is gradual melting of stomach
unloved bones settling in socketry
loose and jingly
and all dead silence
glowing in your face
for no reason like a smile
Perhaps two birds twitter in the snow
and enormous blue jay thighs
rock a branch during takeoff
“enormous blue jay thighs” Whoosh. I wish I’d written that. Fefferman has the touch, a particular deft hand that elevates these meditations into poetry. A knowing that experience plus wisdom and the open eye is enough to fill our palette and every page.
Today’s book of poetry got a bit of the big brother feeling from Home Was Elsewhere. Not Russia – Big Brother, but the older, wiser sibling big brother who genuinely has both your interests and your future at heart. Fefferman is sharing the way of things, how they work or don’t.
Our morning read was held indoors with the furnace blasting. -18 C here in the nation’s capital this morning and when the crew started ice-cubing through the front door the coat rack started to resemble the Michelin Man, then Humpty Dumpty, and finally a pyramid of extra coats, sweaters, scarves, and hats. The pyramid was short lived. It all collapsed to the floor with a quiet and very well padded splat. Now there is a three foot tall mound of winter apparel in the corner of the office.
Milo, our head tech, has already determined that the pile makes for an excellent couch, and it is warm too. That’s where he sat for the morning read.
Growing a Mustache on Your Fingernail
Strike a gong:
walking alone on a sunlit morning in spring
or walking with your lover, hand in hand, on a
cold afternoon, talking about her husband’s career
or coming home to a surprise, a clean sink or
someone in bed with your wife.
Strike a gong:
sparkling champagne in crystal
raised to toast to the moment when
who becomes someone, becomes so what,
and the, the Imperial Dinner:
silver footmen behind each chair
or mother’s cooking, served in the kitchen –
noodle soup, bread, meat, and cold tinned peaches,
daughter takes her first steps in the living room,
grandfather, nearly senile, recalls the days of his strength,
while outside, a thunderstorm rages.
Strike a gong:
we all take off our clothes
and dance on the darkening green
between huge raindrops
pretending to dodge lightning bolts,
but really afraid
Fefferman explains his modus operandi in part with pieces like “Birdbrain” where he outlines the rigours of a solitary life of contemplation. The reader is left to balance the yin/yang of Fefferman’s Home Was Elsewhere. For Today’s book of poetry it was all happy exploration.
Fefferman, whether talking about love and/or carnal passion – or contemplating his space in the world, he is doing it with fine poems.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stanley Fefferman is an eclectic poet mentored by Louis Dudek in Montreal, Barry Callaghan in Toronto, and Allen Ginsberg in Boulder. He trained in meditation under Chogyam Trungpa, studied photography with Michael Wood and Jack Dale, completed graduate studies in homeopathy with Jeremy Sherr, and certified as a Regression Therapist with Roger Woolger. These trainings inform his poetry. Forty of his broadcasts aired on CBC National Radio. Hundreds of his essays on music, his performance photographs, and two academic textbooks were published in electronic media. Fefferman taught writing at Naropa University’s Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and founded the Atkinson Creative Writing Program at York University where he is Professor Emeritus. Home Was Elsewhere is his first collection of poetry.
Fefferman’s first collection registers, sometimes in the same poem, the tension between the call of an inner world of experience (the complexities of love, the layers of memory) and the equally insistent call from the world outside (landscape, birdsong, weather). What is it? the poet asks in one poem. What’s it like? he asks in another. And to answer these questions he repeatedly zeroes in on le mot juste or the perfect image as he does, for instance, in “Caroline’s Laughter” both jackhammer yammer and kamikaze bumblebee.
– Ricardo Sternberg
When I first heard Stanley Fefferman read his poems I was struck by their musicality, humour and wisdom. … His poems are meditations on moments in which he dissolves the boundaries between the self and nature, challenging us to reconfigure our perception of reality with playful words and phrases and lines that surprise us with their shifting tones of voice. It is a poetry filled with insight and gratitude.
– Laurence Hutchman
So many words were perfectly surprising, so many lines lifted off the page. Many poems had the pleasing shape of a circle, or a spiral, or a leaf either drifting from branch to ground, or rising into the sun.
– Randy Roark
Marc-Pierre Toth gave the first in a series of recitals of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas prefaced by a quick and lucid demonstration of the themes of each movement, the keys of their developments, so that when he played them, perfectly as far as I could hear, every passage fell into its place in the larger whole, and the four Sonatas from the four stages of the composer’s career also fitted into the timeline of the the Great Ludwig’s creativity. Bravo. Marc-Pierre Toth goes again at Gallery 345 in Toronto on Monday, November 6 @ 8 pm. Not to be missed
Over the river the shining moon;
in the pine trees, sighing wind;
all night long so tranquil—why?
And for whom?
Brian Sonia-Wallace was selected to pen poems at the Mall of America. In a shrine to consumerism, he regularly brought visitors to tears. This account was published in The Guardian Tuesday 10 October 2017
In March of 2017, I responded to a ridiculous post that a friend shared on Facebook.
“Apply now! Mall of America seeks writer-in-residence to celebrate its 25th birthday!”
A quick Google search turned up reams of articles skewering the residency as nothing but a shameless publicity stunt for the biggest mall in North America, deriding the idea that a writer would come and be inspired by a Nordstrom or its customers.
“Hey,” I thought, “if the supreme court says corporations are people, why can’t a mall have a birthday? It even has a parent company!”
Competing to stand out in the longest of long shots against 4,300 applicants for the mall residency, I wrote an 800-word poem and sent it as a PDF so I could include unsolicited pictures of my typewriter in action with crowds of adorable children. In corporate America, I understood literary merit wasn’t what I was selling. I was a photo op, an interactive novelty and, though corporate clients usually only learned this in retrospect, a budget therapist.
The poem with which I sold myself to corporate America ended with these lines:
is about writing as connection – poetry as a service industry.
This is a vision of poetry as it can be,
brought down from the ivory tower
and into the mall, out to the public,
bards spinning tales in Viking marketplaces …
What is a mall but the repository
of our collective desire?
… And what,
but the shortest distance
feeling and expression?
This was my setup: each day, for four hours, I’d be stationed at a different place in the mall. I’d arrive at the standard-issue mall-white table and chairs and set up my typewriters – a teal Olvetti for myself, and a Smith Corona I’d painted orange-yellow and decorated with roses, which I kept facing outward as an invitation for kids to try a typewriter for the first time.
Over five days, I would write poems for a hundred people who came up to me and answered the question: “What do you need a poem about?”
Every time I write for strangers in public, I’m nervous. I always wonder: will this be the time, the place, where no one wants a poem? But even at the mall, when we set up to take photos, people stopped and I breathed a sigh of relief. Poetrywould work, here, next to Wetzel’s Pretzels. When a middle-aged woman just passing by learned that I was writing poems based on any topic people gave me, she barked, “My word is Disney!” so quickly and aggressively that I jumped.
The first person I wrote for was John, my de facto boss at the mall. He started things off with a surprising burst of vulnerability.
John wanted a poem about his son. The son was a father himself, now, and this would be part of his gift for Father’s Day that Sunday. John told me about a trip to Disneyland for his 50th birthday that his son had surprised him with, about raising a kid as a single dad, and his hopes that the next generation would do better than he could. He and his son share a love for Disney, he told me, those Florida vacations a point of easy intimacy in a world where grown men are rarely allowed to show their feelings to one another.
When I asked their favorite Disney story, John said: “Peter Pan.”
The boy who never grows up.
I’d never been a Disney kid. Though I grew up just an hour from Disneyland in California, my one trip there as a kid with my mom ended up a disastrous slog through heat and endless lines, and we’d never gone again. Because my hippy parents refused to allow a TV set into our house, I even missed out on the perpetual loop of Disney classics on VHS that acted as surrogate parents to raise so many in my generation. Suffice it to say, I did not understand Disney.
But I at least knew the story of Peter Pan, and I had some ideas about dads. I digested everything John told me, through the typewriter, while he watched, into a poem that started:
We never stopped believing in faeries…
we were lost boys, both of us
There is no one
I would rather
not grow up with
I was about halfway through reading the poem out loud to John when he started to tear up.
All of his staff was gathered around, with a camera crew from the local news station to boot, and this silver-haired man, who was the reason I was here in the first place, just bawled and hugged me and disappeared.
Big, bold … and broken: is the US shopping mall in a fatal decline?
Day one, I’d made my boss cry, and he liked it.
But John wasn’t the last person to cry in front of me outside of Nordstrom. The mall team was keen that I track certain metrics so that they had fun facts to share on social media: number of poems written, number of steps walked around the building’s cavernous interior.
After my first day writing, I started keeping another tally – the number of people who cried. It happened every day, like clockwork: four or five people would come away from our interaction with water streaming down their faces, weeping openly in front of the Lego store.
In the end, 20% of all the people I wrote for in the mall wound up in tears.
When people come to a mall, especially this mall, they come to scratch an itch. People come to the Mall of America with intention. They are looking for something. Sometimes it’s ice cream, sometimes clothing, and sometimes it’s just reconnecting with family. Old folks who come for exercise in the morning give way to afternoon shoppers and diverse families in the evening, tourists and immigrants alike indoctrinating their kids in Americana. Everyone’s in a special state, somewhere between empty and full, invisible and seen. The mall boasts that it’s the number one tourist destination in the midwest, with 40 million annual visitors. It might not be the Happiest Place on Earth, but it’s big enough to be “of America”.
When I stalked the mall with just my notebook, scribbling observations, it earned me no end of sideways glances from families and shoppers. What could this dude be writing about? Us? This was a place for uncritical experience, not methodical reflection. I was a poor spy, and middle America, actively assimilating under their bindis and hijabs, shrunk away from me and my notebook.
But behind the typewriter, when people knew for certain that I was writing about them, I transformed from spy to priest. As the temporary darling of the mall’s publicity machine, pilgrims began to search me out. Some people came back day after day.
Empathy became addictive, beautiful moments stacking up, gift-giving and gratitude and people crying. People started bringing gifts themselves, making offerings, and gaining absolution: “I read about you in the Star Tribune,” or “I saw you on the TV.” They brought me their own poems, their photographs, newspaper articles they’d clipped out which they thought might interest me, handwritten lists of places I should go to write, birthday cards because they’d heard it was my birthday.
Poetry at the mall: ‘Twenty per cent of all the people I wrote for in the mall wound up in tears.’ Some of the people told me about other pilgrimages they’ve made, Tibetan meditation retreats to concerts in other countries. A young Korean American woman asked for a poem about her favorite Korean pop star. “My sister and I have been in this fandom for ten years,” she told me. “As a poor college student, I spent all my money to get to Hong Kong and Hawaii for concerts.” There was a comfort, she said, in admiring someone so much that you’d literally cross oceans to see them for two hours. Another woman stopped by a few days later with a story about a solo three-day trip to California to see her K-pop crush. She’d spent 13 hours in the sun arguing with security, finally breaking down in tears mid-concert at how simultaneously worth it and not worth it the whole experience had been.
The people who came to the mall seemed to have this terrible longing to speak and be listened to, to be witnessed. A base, human need to break from the constant impersonal bombardment of consumer culture that lives in that space and to sit, in silence, with a stranger who was there explicitly to care about personal stories.
Lots of people would ask how much the poems cost – in a citadel of commerce, unless the free thing is a sample to lure us into buying, nothing is free.
At dinner, John shared his story about hiring her, about how she’d worked all over the park in minimum wage positions, temping on this project and interning there, persisting. In this millennial world, to keep a job, the key was not to have the best credentials but to cling to the targeted employer and refuse to let go. The word “passion” scared me for what it revealed about the deeply held convictions corporate employees are required to hold.
But there was a homemade quality to the mall. I’d been afraid that the team would be corporate drones, but they were star-crossed lovers and single dads, and they loved kids and rollercoasters because they were kids themselves.
Abby and Nathan talked about finding each other, at last, after tough times, a relationship that blossomed despite painful reminders of the past. “Battle scars mean you’ve survived,” Nathan said. He was a single dad raising his son, a 10-year-old from a previous relationship with awesome green hair, until he met Abby.
‘I’d been afraid that the team would be corporate drones, but they were star-crossed lovers.’ told me that they were their own worst enemies, struggling against the self-doubt they carry. They had a pressed earnestness when they invited me to their family barbecue. What emerged was a realness desperately constructed through consumption and imitation, fandom not as a distraction but a weapon and a shield against the painful vicissitudes of family drama and divorce and the loneliness of drowning in a grown-up world.
The goal of the mall wasn’t just entertainment, what Abby and John and Nathan and the whole crew were trying to create, by making each mall experience a story, was feeling.
As the mall reached the end of its day, I made my way to Nickelodeon Universe to catch the end-of-day light show, designed to make getting through a day at the mall feel like a celebration. Nathan talked about the challenge programming a light show with a glass ceiling under an airplane flyway, trying not to blind pilots ferrying passengers to every corner of the United States.
Under the dancing lights, elementary-school age kids with faces painted like skulls jerked and cavorted while smoke rose from the ticket booth. A woman’s voice that sounded like it was ripped straight out of an animated kids’ movie crooned a pop song: “We’re always here – always heeeeeere for you!”
At the end of every day, the mall closed with this light show and song. In an age when malls are closing left and right, the story of physical experience abandoned in favor of online shopping, it was a promise.
Juniper Vol.1 No.2 is loaded with superfine poetry, gutsy, skillfully writing-for-reals work. Check it out. https://juniperpoetry.com/volume-1-issue-2/