Songs for Insane Times

How a month-long concert bender restored my faith in humanity

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Big Thief at the Bottleneck, 10/12/17. Photo by David Wetzel

Reality has been a bit much lately. Fires, floods, shootings, Trump: Each morning I look at my phone to see if it’s all over, but it only seems to get worse.

I’ve tried various palliatives — overeating, football, ibuprofen — but nothing seems to do the trick. At times I wish things would just go back to normal, but then I think about how, for many others less fortunate than me, “normal” has never had a positive connotation.

I have, however, found at least one reliably soul-restoring activity lately: live music. While it doesn’t blot out the darker aspects of humanity, going to a concert feels like a healthy immersion in its best qualities — a way to pull oneself from the brink of despair while also having a good time.

For these reasons, as well as the quirks of the concert calendar, I’ve been to more shows in the first few weeks of fall than I did the entire spring and summer.

My KC live music bender actually began in LA, where I saw a headlining set by Kevin Morby, an Overland Park native whose songwriting and stage presence have improved with each tour. Morby’s band includes Meg Duffy, one of the most interesting lead guitarists in indie music, whose ornate, soulful guitar lines give each song a sparkle not found on Morby’s earlier efforts.

These days, Morby and pals call Los Angeles home, and several people in the Teragram Ballroom crowd seemed to know all the words. Between songs, a guy behind me said to a friend, “He’s got like this Midwestern, Kansas City vibe going. I’m digging it!” Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. LA digs the KC vibe? Coolness, it would seem, is a moving target.

To my Midwestern eyes, Morby looked serious and focused, his songs straightforward and perfectly on point. During a short acoustic set, he played “Beautiful Strangers,” his song addressing the Paris attacks of 2015, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the police killing of Freddie Gray. Part folk song, part prayer, the song urges listeners to keep calm in the face of violence and terror.

Why is no one else writing songs like this? I wondered. Probably because it requires exceptional skill and heart. I’d always thought of Morby as a good songwriter, but this was great.

The song was still in my head a week later, when it became all too relevant once again. Reading the headlines about the massacre in Las Vegas, I felt instantly numb — the brain insulating itself from what it would prefer not to understand. Morby’s lyrics echoed: “If the gunmen come, or if I die too young, I’m full of love.” Midwestern? Yes. Better yet: human.

The next day, I bought a couple of discounted, last-minute tickets to see The XX at Starlight. It would be my first visit to the venerable Swope Park venue since I saw the musical “Camelot” as a 5-year-old (which, come to think of it, probably explains the Arthurian nostalgia I feel every time I catch a glimpse of the Swope Memorial).

Thirty years later, Starlight is still beautiful, its trees, fountains and faux-Venetian architecture a welcome relief from bars, televisions and the real world. It was a perfect setting for The XX, whose songs about vulnerability, empathy and hope somehow sound even more intimate amplified from the big stage. The music was much clearer than I would have expected from the outdoor stage, with intricate light displays refracted in rotating, mirrored panels.

In the dimness, I focused on objects that captured the light — a pink glow from the stage lights in someone’s cup of beer, a moth pirouetting above the orchestra seats, a nimbus moon holding court in the clouds left of the stage. This is full-on sensory escapism, I thought, realizing that I felt OK again. Everything was still wrong in the world, but the concert had put it all on mute. I knew that not everyone had the same privilege, but I decided to indulge anyway.

The band did not dissuade me. Bassist Oliver Sim told the crowd they hope people can leave at home whatever is causing them pain so that they can have a good time at the show. Each band member thanked us for being there, sounding sincere in the way only the British can. It’s hard to know how much Las Vegas (or Paris, or Manchester) were on their minds, but The XX seemed keenly aware of the physical and emotional vulnerability of performing in public, and genuinely grateful we were taking those risks alongside them.

Two nights later, at the Angel Olsen show in Lawrence, the vibe was more festive. It was Thursday night in a college town, and people were there to party, the triple homicide that happened outside the venue a week earlier seemingly forgotten. With her glittering jumpsuit, teased-up hair and playful stage banter, Olsen was in sassier form than her 2014 visit to the Riot Room, calling for tequila shots and joking about retiring to become a librarian.

Her music, however, sounded solemn, beautiful and very much of its time. On the climactic verse of “Woman,” a searing number about love and loss, Olsen sings: “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman.” You can hear so much in that final syllable, which she stretches out with anguish, her voice soaring before plunging back into the noise of the band. It’s a dare (white, male) listeners like me may be willing to accept, while also acknowledging that we will never truly understand.

The local acts I’ve seen this past month have been no less impressive. At a reunion of Lawrence musicians in town for an October wedding, I was reminded of how special a performer Suzannah Johannes is, how weird and fun a Drakkar Sauna show can be, how perfectly a Fourth of July song pairs with PBR and a nagging sense of regret.

A showcase of local composers at the Folly Theater, hosted by the Charlotte Street Foundation, reminded me of how much musical innovation is alive in Kansas City. During a three-song set of new music, J. Ashley Miller ran his mythology-inspired lyrics through a vocoder, while Pat Alonzo Conway musically weaponized cell phones in the audience to stage an unexpected intro to the meditative tones of his gamelan ensemble. The upbeat, joyful compositions of Bolivian musical polymath Amado Espinoza showcased the scorching violin solos of Tina Bilberry, and bassist Jeff Harshbarger debuted a composition that appeared in his head while suffering from viral meningitis, performed by a dozen guitarists obscured in the recesses of the balcony level.

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J Fernandez at Holy Cow, 10/13/17

On a much smaller stage, a DIY showcase by local bands The Shy Boys and The Fullbloods, and Chicago group J. Fernandez reminded me that the best shows are often $5 and require drinking beer in an alley because the venue has no liquor license and nobody want any heat from the cops. I saw a lot of people I knew, or knew by sight, although none of us wanted to talk through the music. It was an ordinary weeknight show that managed to feel like something special, if for no other reason than KC’s own Kyle Rausch adeptly played drums in all three bands.

But much like my beer buzz that night, the invigorating effects of my concert bender eventually wore off. After a show at the Bottleneck by Brooklyn band Big Thief — my second show in a row that week — I woke up with a headache, an empty wallet, and a wife who had run out of patience. It was a good run, and I’d gladly do it again, but for the time being it was back to the more customary evening routines of loading the dishwasher and reading stories to the kids.

Still, it had felt good to stand in a crowd of strangers and friends — drinking, smiling and nodding along to the beat. Watching performers of all genres, genders and geographical origins share their talents, I was reminded of how our species, while capable of hate, destruction and violence, can also produce moments of profound beauty, harmony and vision. Even in times likes these, the shows must go on. And we, for our part, must keep showing up.

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Addendum: Two new releases I’m super excited about — “Nothing Valley” by Melkbelly, the Chicago band my brother James plays drums in. It’s an amazing record. They’ll be in Lawrence Nov. 17 and KC on March 6. Earned some nice write-ups from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader and Pitchfork. I also really like the new John Maus record. If you fit into that weird venn diagram of people who like leftist neo coldwave synth jams and also watch football unironically, this video will be perfect for you. And in case you’re wondering where the title of this blog post is from, allow me to (re)introduce you to my good friend Kevin Ayers.

 

 

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An ode to the Entercom tower, and a new era in Westwood

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Tonight I am up late in observation of this being the last night of the Entercom radio tower dotting the neighborhood skyline. Sectional dismantling of the main tower is scheduled to begin tomorrow. The Mayor of Westwood sent out a message the other day detailing the deconstruction process, pointing out that a radio tower has been on site since 1933. For a city of just a couple thousand, this is truly a historic event.

The tower’s peak has been a familiar presence in my backyard reveries, blinking red through the tree branches, a pattern whose meaning — if there ever was one — I never discerned. Once in a while you could see it get struck by lightning. The tower has kept good company over the years and I’m going to miss it. Still, if the school district does wind up building a new elementary school on the site, it would be hard not to call that an improvement. Only a few years ago they weren’t sure if Westwood View would stay open at all. Fortunately it looks like it will, and our daughter starts Kindergarten there next fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to propose that the smaller tower be preserved on site. Even if no longer functional, it’s like our own mini Eiffel tower, certainly much nicer to look at than the power lines and water towers that dominate residential skylines everywhere else. Once the main tower is gone, its cables cut and mounts uprooted, I would also like to see a good portion of the land restored to its pre-tower purpose: sheep farming. So far I have brought up the sheep farming idea to a few colleagues and even the mayor, though I’m not sure they took me seriously. But I actually think reintroducing sheep farming, or other agrarian activities, would be a progressive move. Look how popular Overland Park’s Deanna Rose Children’s Farm is. Families flock to that place like it’s the last working farm on earth. In addition to wool, the Westwood sheep would also provide a humble terrestrial counterpoint to the now-outmoded tower’s sonic, sky-spanning grandeur.

Even with the small tower, new school and working sheep farm, there might even be room for a few new houses. Possibly even — gasp! — a tasteful townhome or two. Whether to allow multiple family dwellings is currently a big issue of contention in my neighborhood, where people display “No Medium Density!” signs as if promoting some humorless new fad diet. I even thought about dressing up as “medium density” for Halloween last year just to spook the neighbors, and a couple times I’ve even sketched the words MAXIMUM DENSITY in the driveway using my kids’ neon sidewalk chalk. When I see the “no medium density” signs, I can’t help but wonder who exactly we are trying to keep out. Will it really destroy the fabric of the city if a few families who can’t afford several hundred thousand dollar homes are able to live in Westwood? I know there are good reasons to be wary of residential zoning changes, but I also think we should be open to discussion on the issue. (As always, feel free to do so in the comments, provided you use your real name).

My main argument, whether it be for sheep, diversified housing, or some other issue, is that a city’s character necessarily changes over time. We might not always like it, but we can make an effort to shape that change for the greater good. I’ve talked with developers, city planners and consultants who were impressed by progressive attitudes and approaches in Westwood, yet also taken aback at how much public opposition there is to things like townhomes or bike lanes. I’ve talked with residents who appear baffled by the notion that anyone would even consider challenging the single-family status quo. I’ve fallen on both sides of these issues myself at times, often rolling my eyes, if occasionally in opposite directions.

Cities and neighborhoods also go through cycles. Urban areas are becoming denser again, which has a ripple effect on inner ring suburbs like Westwood. The KC streetcar doesn’t extend to 45th and State Line like it did in my grandparents’ time, but at least there is a KC streetcar again. New business are opening, bolstered by people’s desire to walk somewhere close or locally owned. People ride bikes to work and want (deserve, I would argue) protected lanes. Even Woodside Village, the upscale apartment building I wrote skeptically about years ago on this very blog, has proven viable in attracting residents and tenants, while also encouraging new investment along the 47th Street corridor.

Earlier this evening I walked past the tower with my family and saw the sun set behind it for probably the final time. I’ll miss the tower’s gravity and lightness, the way it seemed to be a divining rod for whatever mood or atmosphere was hidden in the clouds. I realized I will *definitely* never climb it now, and not just *most likely never* climb it (a bit of a somber thought, as a former schoolmate died years ago after falling from its summit). On a positive note, I will finally be able to play my Fender wah-wah guitar pedal without signal interference from talk radio, sports scores and weather updates, which my 13-year-old self would be delighted by.

Yes, change comes to us all, even here in Westwood. Tomorrow the communications tower comes down, but the communication itself continues. More than any outward landmark, it’s what defines us as a city.

UPDATE: At 10:37 p.m. Tuesday evening, the tower was still standing. Now it is raining. I suspect it will still be there tomorrow, if maybe not the next day.

(All links courtesy of Shawnee Mission Post. In lieu of defunct radio stations and print newspapers that no longer cover neighborhood issues, I highly recommend subscribing to SMP for Westwood-related news and updates).

 

 

Artboards

 

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Recently a design of mine was featured on the MoBank Arboards, a double billboard canvas that features rotating visual art, photography and design from Kansas City artists. On the other side are two images by artist Jillian Youngbird. You can find them at 125 Southwest Boulevard near the old Hamburger Mary’s spot, just down the street from the westernmost Town Topic. My design will be up until June or so. I was excited to be part of this program, which is one of my favorite public art initiatives in the city. Thanks to MoBank and the Charlotte Street Foundation for the opportunity, installation, and overall support of local artists. Below is my statement about the Artboard, which you can either read or ignore in favor of drawing your own conclusions. I suppose there is no good reason you can not do both.

It’s easy to say what you would do in someone else’s shoes, but what about our own? What keeps us from doing what we want to do? From being who we want to be? Are these forces external, or do they come from within? To entertain one question is to invite a host of others.

For my Artboard, I wanted to present something that at first appears to be a marketing campaign until the viewer realizes it’s not actually advertising anything. Instead it poses a surprisingly personal question in order to encourage contemplation. 

The backdrop is a panoramic photo I took in 2016 on the Rozarks Trails, designed by community volunteers near the memorial arch in Rosedale, Kansas. It’s a scenic place, but not overly dramatic — in the middle of the city, yet unseen by most. The natural beauty, light and detail are a reminder that the search for self is also reflected in our our outer environments.

 

‘This is what democracy looks like’

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First tennis, then outrage.

After watching a recording of the Australian Open final Sunday morning, a welcome respite from the national news, we turned our phones back on and saw a protest against Trump’s executive orders on immigration was scheduled to take place at Kansas City International Airport in less than an hour. Within a few minutes we were making signs and getting the kids loaded up for the drive out to Terminal C.

There was no real question of whether we should attend. On Friday night, I’d posted an angry Facebook screed about the travel ban, and on Saturday I exchanged messages with a friend who had just learned that her Iranian-born / German-passport-holding boyfriend would likely not be able to join her to visit her immediate family in the States. They were super bummed, but also the first to point out how much worse the situation was for all the refugees and others whose lives had been upended in an instant.

As another friend of mine wrote on Friday, “This is why I wept on election night, not because a candidate I supported lost, but because I listened and understood what the policies of the candidate that won meant for this country.” For native Kansans, there’s a special horror in seeing our own former Secretary Kris Kobach behind Trump’s immigration policy. Kobach’s methods of trying to prove/prevent voter fraud were thrown out at the federal level, and he was unable to prove even a single case of voter fraud taking place in Kansas, where he is now widely regarded as a xenophobe and a disgrace.

On the radio this morning, I heard someone saying how “at a humanitarian level, (the travel ban is) an abomination.” I figured it must be some partisan public radio commentator. But no, it was former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden. Later, I read a thread from an American civil servant in Iraq explain how the executive order is not only heartless, but makes us dramatically less safe. Even the Koch brothers and NASCAR stars are against it. The world has truly turned upside-down.

There are many more stories than I care to link to here. Ever since Steve Bannon said that “the media should shut its mouth,” a statement that by logic extends to every one of us who reads or watches the news, I haven’t been able to read enough. But if one isn’t careful, the head-spinning cycle of news-reading outrage never stops. So being able to show up on a decent Sunday afternoon and express our opposition with a bunch of fellow Kansas City residents felt like a nice alternative to sitting around and feeling helpless.

The protesters at KCI included students, older people, students and quite a few families. It was a diverse group, certainly a much larger crowd than the expected 500-600 people. Most of us were there because we thought it was the right thing to do. For others in the crowd — a family wearing headscarves, for example, whose children of different ages were walking around taking pictures with their phones or smiling — I imagine it’s much less abstract.

Most of the signs at the airport protest looked like they were written in a hurry. Many of them were disarmingly personal. “I am a Muslim who loves Kansas City.” “I am the son of two peaceful immigrants.” “I am a person, not an alien.” These signs reminded me that the people being maligned by our government and fellow citizens are not distant phantoms, but our very neighbors here in this city. As I scanned the signs, I found myself making eye contact with the people holding them, exchanging nods or glances as if to say “I see you; thank you for seeing me.”

Our 4-year-old daughter brought a picture of the Statue of Liberty that she had drawn at our encouragement. On the drive to the airport, she explained to her brother that the statue means that “people from all over the world are welcome in Kansas City.” Her localization of Lady Liberty was charming, if a bit childlike. And yet that same sentiment echoed in the first chants we heard at the protest:

No ban! No wall! Kansas City welcomes all!

I thought the event was a good showing by the people of Kansas City. It was peaceful, made up of people of all ages, with an atmosphere where it felt like anyone would be welcome. As mayor Sly James later told the crowd, “You’re doing it the right way.” Although there were predictably a lot of anti-Trump signs, it’s also not hard to imagine disillusioned Trump voters eventually deciding they don’t like what’s happening and would like to speak out as well.

I also liked that the protest was held outside Terminal C, the airport’s unimpressive international wing. Gathering in that liminal space, which all of us have traveled through at some point, made the event feel refreshingly ordinary, like we were all just standing around waiting for our arrivals or departures and looking out for each other’s freedom of movement in the process. I later learned that similar (and significantly larger) protests took place at airports across the country, a symbolic but meaningful connection to our fellow citizens.

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Standing behind the airport barricades, it was hard not to think of what it would be like to be stuck in a generic airport lobby or waiting room without a valid ticket, unable to visit friends or family, being asked strange questions, our personal documents confiscated or rendered suddenly valueless. If we don’t want to go through that ourselves, it stands to reason that we should limit that experience to as few civilians as possible, reserving such methods only for specific security threats.

Other nations are paying close attention to what we are doing. It’s naive to think that their governments and citizens will not treat us accordingly. Our ability to travel, study and work outside our borders is not a given. If we throw respect, diplomacy, due process, good faith and common sense out the window, the opportunities my generation has enjoyed to go virtually anywhere in the world will likely not extend to the next, even in nations with which we’ve traditionally enjoyed friendly and peaceful relations.

Do we really believe that a blanket ban on hundreds of millions of people will actually make us safer in the long run? Do we really want to take actions that will limit the ability of ourselves and our children to travel freely and safely to other countries? If we do believe these things are important, is a hurried, unilateral executive order the right way to go about addressing them? If you supported Trump for perceived tax/financial benefits, at what point does the infringement of others’ human rights make it no longer worth it?

I expect that in the coming weeks there will be additional attempts to divide us as a nation, whether it’s by gender, religion, class, race, sexual orientation, political party, urban/rural residence, you name it. We should not let that happen, especially not by unvetted actors in government, hostile strangers on the internet, or via labels and libels hurled at one another.

My plea to anyone reading this: Talk to each other. Read newspapers, blog posts or magazine articles from different sources, cities, countries. Make up your own minds. Reject the violent and oversimplistic “punch a fascist” / “hang a journalist” extremes. Exchange ideas as respectfully as possible, establishing your own talking points rather than parroting those so helpfully provided for us on TV or social media. Interact in real life whenever possible. Stay positive. Go to protests, or stage your own.

As another civil servant from the Bush era argued today in The Atlantic, this is a “clarifying moment” in our country’s history. Neutrality at a time like this is not an option, and the stances we take — or don’t take — will continue to define us as for years to come.

Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.

The author was addressing conservative thinkers, experts and politicians in that statement, but he very well could have been talking about us.

Our taking part in a protest yesterday was a tiny thing, but you’re going to see more and more like it. Maybe next time I’ll see you there.

(protest photos by Jennifer Wetzel)

Blogging in the dark

I realized earlier this evening while reading a compilation of Paul Bowles letters given to me for Christmas by my sister that the kind of blogging renaissance I wish to bring about on this site is unlikely to succeed, if for no other reason than the intimacy I’m looking for is inherently inimical to the format. It’s too scattershot, a blunderbuss aimed into the intervoids rather than a clean feather-penned dart thrown with discretion and from a safe distance.
A blog post will never be as private as a journal, but is probably still too personal to be of interest to a wider public. If I think of the people who might read this I’d rather address them directly. “You looked wonderful in the photograph you posted tonight.” “I am glad to hear you are OK.” “Your baby is beautiful. I can’t wait to meet her.” “I miss you and I hope that I see you again at some point in this life.”
A blog post will always be inferior to a letter. All the same, people I know and love and temporarily lose touch with do occasionally click on this site, and I’d like to give them something to read.
As I type this there is a rapidly accumulating layer of ice all across the city. They’ve even rescheduled the football game, so you know it is serious. News reports are running about how everyone is stocking up on generators, white bread and ice-melting salts. It’s Y2K all over again, with even less of a threat to our survival as a safe and overfed species. Schools were canceled across the metro yesterday even though we didn’t get a drop of snow or ice. It all makes me want to get involved in extreme mountain climbing or something in which there’s an actual threat of peril rather than this contrived and artificial panic.
Right now I’m drinking a glass of Leopold Bros. absinthe, which is certainly the best small batch absinthe made in Colorado. Having forsworn the neighboring state’s other green intoxicants, this creamy herbal spirit suffices quite nicely to simultaneously dull and awaken the senses. I’m complementing it with “The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986,” a 2-hour compilation of instrumental trance-inducing proto new age music just released by Light in the Attic records. It’s mesmerizing. I highly recommend, especially if you own a bottle of absinthe and a candle and a basement with a comfortable couch and/or floor rug.
One of the minimalist composers whose work I’ve been enjoying is Eliane Radigue, a French composer. All I knew when I first heard her was her name, texted to me the other night by my friend Todd. I was about to go on a long walk to the Plaza and along Brush Creek before the holiday lights went off for the last time. I put on the top track of hers on Spotify and listened to the music that began as a drone and shifted only gradually. I walked for several miles before looking at my phone and seeing that the running time of the piece was over an hour. It was a fitting soundtrack for empty winter sidewalks, contemplative and pleasant, especially along with the Christmas lights and the creek’s year-round-gushing fountains.
Until I passed under one of the bridges and saw the stirring of people camped out in the cold. The music turned darker almost at that very moment. I walked along further down the waterfront, hoping not to be seen, thinking of what I might have to offer but realizing I had nothing. I began thinking about death, not as an idle musing but because I couldn’t help but think about anything else. I wanted to skip forward to the next track, but since this was an extended piece I felt like I needed to see it through. When I looked at the title of the piece I saw the word “mort” in the title and realized that’s what this was about the entire time. Let the thoughts come, then.
People are afraid to talk about death, a friend of mine said recently after I called to extend sympathies. It makes them uncomfortable, he said. They don’t know what to say. He thanked me several times for reaching out, not realizing how much of both those things I was feeling at that moment. It’s better to try, though. Even though I’ve so far been spared serious loss and only know what it looks like indirectly, I still think we should talk about it. How has losing someone close to you affected the way you view and live your life? These are things I’d like to hear about. Things we can all learn from.
However, lest anyone complain that I am leaving them on a morbid note, I will close by recounting some inspiring signs of life I saw today as well. At the Museum at Prairie Fire, an impressive new complex south of Kansas City, the unusual creatures exhibit featured an entire exhibit on my favorite microscopic animal, the tardigrade. Also known as waterbears, tardigrades are bizarre eight-legged critters that look like something from a science fiction film turned into a plush toy.
By retreating into a dormant state known as “cryptobiosis,” waterbears can withstand insane levels of radiation and even survive a couple weeks in outer space. I saw one of them beneath a microscope all blurry and wriggling, indifferent to my spying, unafraid of nuclear war, election results or ice storms. To paraphrase Keats: the next time I have fears that I may cease to be, I will think of the hardy tardigrade, and go on blogging blissfully.
The ice is really coming down thick now. I wish it wouldn’t do that. Snow is aesthetically so lovely, while freezing rain is gross. Freezing fog I could live with. Freezing fog would probably inspire me to go for a long walk even though it’s almost 1 in the morning. My friends in northern California, where it is only 11, don’t appreciate my romanticizing of fog. But when it comes to unusual atmospheres, here in the Great Plains we take what we can get.

All poetry is local

Last summer I had a poem featured in KC Studio magazine. I’d met the editor, Alice Thorson, during a studio visit, and she encouraged me to send her some poems after seeing the concrete/zigzag poems I had taped up on the wall.

It took me a few weeks to send anything, since I hadn’t written any actual poetry in years. The poem-ish things I had written were more design than language-based, funnel-shaped clouds of text that took the reader (if there was a reader) in several directions at once. I spent several nights cranking out pages on the refurbished Lettera 32 I keep on the work table in the garage, with the door cracked open to let the rain in a little bit. Jenn found most of them disorienting, but liked this one, and so did Alice. I called it “To Alfonso, Gardener of Moon-Dried Tomatoes.”

I didn’t know the magazine had come out until my friend, poet Jason Preu, sent me a message. The only other people I heard from were a senior editor and my managing editor at work, and some friends of my parents. One of my parents’ friends, intrigued by the title and confused by the byline, apparently thought it had been written by my father. “It’s so neat that your husband writes love poetry,” she told my mom. “But who is Alfonso?”

All of which drove home the mildly unsettling reality that publishing poetry in your home town is not necessarily the most comfortable experience. In Ben Lerner’s book-length essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” he frequently quotes the Marianne Moore line about poetry (“I too, dislike it…”), musing about how admitting that you write poetry as an adult is a dangerous thing to say, in that you invoke not only resentment of the writer (“can’t you find a real profession?”) as well as resentment of self (“I used to appreciate/write poetry, but somehow lost the capacity to do so”). Lerner’s analysis of the leisure vs. industry conflict surrounding poetry from Whitman through his own career is an interesting one that certainly holds true to my experience.

At the time, I felt a bit awkward about how something I wrote in a moment of inspiration and honesty was being interpreted by my elders as something curious, secretive and homoerotic. But I’m over that now. Any embarrassment I might have felt is canceled out by the knowledge that I did my best to write a good poem, beginning with a line that came out of nowhere and provided the central motif of flight (“there are only so many sounds…”) and sustained throughout the work itself, which is addressed to someone who has suffered loss but come out resilient, closing with a passage that is an almost direct homage to Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

(Lone quibble: I’m still not sure why exactly I wrote never as “ne’er,” except perhaps to double down on my sense of poetic entitlement to do whatever I want. It certainly helps one’s confidence to write from commission rather than as a submission, perhaps to a fault.)

But here (yes, finally) is where it gets interesting. At the time I wrote the poem I had no idea who Alfonso was exactly. I did have a recipient for the poem in mind, but I had no clear reasons for choosing that name. Until just last month, when re-reading my favorite anthology of Latin-American poets in search of a Nicaraguan poet whose cosmic verse I remembered liking. And there it was, “Space Song,” by none other than Alfonso Cortes.

Cortes wrote his best poetry in lucid intervals between schizophrenia, and his Hölderlin-like struggles with sanity combined with his extraordinary vision and lyrical gifts were exactly what I was addressing in my poem — to Alfonso, to myself, and to the reader. The moon-dried tomatoes are of course the poems themselves, the lines we store up and hold closely, the songs we compose in the quiet moments, while flying true if not exactly straight. If you write poems (or make works of art) and release them to the world, you’re going to confront a lot in yourself that is naive, clouded, embarrassing. But sometimes they work, or stick, or soothe — providing a postcard of somewhere you might have forgotten but can now return to.

In the end there’s nothing like waking up to find out your dream was real. Heirloom moon-dried tomato-poems. The inner treasures we inherit from ourselves.

(note: you can actually subscribe to print editions of KC Studio for free. It’s an excellent publication that makes it much easier to keep a pulse on what is happening in the Kansas City arts scene)

musique, 12/12/16

Let’s talk about music for a little bit. As I recall in my early days of blogging there wasn’t much point in having a blog if you didn’t use it to share or talk about music you’ve been listening to lately. Especially when it arrives in thematically specific waves, as it has for me lately. If a bit darkly so this time around.

Last night I video-conferenced with some family members about planning a summer retreat, which we decided to hold in Albuquerque, a town I have been to once before and can now spell with ease. After the booking went through I wanted to send a celebratory confirmation song their way, but after listening to Neil Young’s “Albuquerque,” I remembered just what a downer it is. Not surprising, as it’s from “Tonight’s The Night,” the 1975 album written around the same time two good friends of the band died.

I remember Andrew strumming this song in the dorms, and how the lyrics about “fried eggs and country ham” sounded so unexpectedly serious. I guess maybe you’d remember it too if it was someone’s final meal, which is possibly what Neil’s singing about here, or just a breakfast from simpler times recalled after someone has passed away.

It’s a good song, and it gets stuck in my head, and it’s not the first serious or dirge-like number to lodge there lately. Last night I also watched Patti Smith’s performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony, performed on behalf of Bob Dylan. What a brilliant and beautiful way to accept the award by proxy, with Smith’s singular ability to inhabit the song’s gravity, lyricism, starkness and urgency through her voice and presence. I was crying from the opening minute until she unexpectedly stopped, which took me out of the moment completely, especially after my attention strayed to the comparatively boring article surrounding it. When I read the part about how Dylan wrote it in a 17th-century ballad style, I got distracted thinking of another, even more heartbreaking ballad in a similar vein, Abner Jay’s “Lord Randall.”

This, to me, is as heavy and soulful as it gets. The thickness, resonance and bounce of the upright bass keeps it lively, while Jay’s voice and the song itself ache with loss and memory. These things have been on my mind lately, and I didn’t realize how much so until I heard this song.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death, at age 16, of one of my grade school friends. A group of us are gathering to mark the occasion, but I won’t be in town and have been trying to organize my thoughts about the occasion, bringing language to it in a way I could not have then, looking at it from a parent’s perspective as well as a peer’s, retroactively applying all of our cliches about mourning to see if they fit. “He lives on in all of us,” is a cliche yet true statement, in all of its varied individual permutations. But it’s also murky, mysterious. Lives on how exactly? Easier for me to define are ways in which someone influenced you. What did they have that you admired, that you wanted to incorporate into your own character? In what ways did you consciously hope to be different? In a more general sense, how much of us is us and how much is other people?

I don’t know, but I do appreciate being able to inhabit and explore these feelings even so far removed from the occasion — and the person — that inspired them. I thought about all this while walking around in the stillness of a 27 degree near-full-moon night amid the glimmering Xmas LEDs. One block away from me was a tree wrapped in tiny silver lights, the stuff of near-Narnian/Biblical visions. Another few blocks away a neighbor’s tree was decorated with a bunch of those blue and white lights in which the color seems to drip down the light strands, willow-like, so that the branches look like they are melting, or weeping. It felt a bit like I was tripping, so supreme was the emotional-visual transformation of my everynight suburban surroundings. Making it even better was this soundtrack, the entire 2015 album “Odyssey” by Rival Consoles. The sound textures, light twinkles and winter temperature all intermingled perfectly.

So I’ll end on that shimmering note. Or I would, if I didn’t have one last song in my head this past 24 hours. The Kinks’ “I’m On An Island,” is the ideal ditty for anyone currently wishing for a bit of isolationism (physical, mental or otherwise) from our current national climate.

It’s also just a fun song.

I’ll be back with more another time soon. Maybe next time it will be a mini-collection of songs that touch on death but in a more uplifting and ethereal way. I can already think of a few…