Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Way We Read, or, Tuba Time

(I wrote this in 1999 after my second Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. It appeared in Riding the Meridian as part of a longer piece, "Bread Loaf Diaries." )

The entire enterprise of public poetry readings is a painful one
for me. When I first began performing my own work, a friend, an
elderly Maine poet named Wilbert Snow, saw how much I was enjoying it
and warned me, wagging his finger. "Creative contact with an audience
can destroy a poet. Look what happened to Vachel Lindsay!" That was 25
years ago, and I have still never looked up what happened to Vachel
Lindsay, lest it stop me from giving readings.

I love reading my own poetry in public, and I get compliments when I
do. I take no credit for this; I attribute it to the fact that my
poems are frequently comical, and therefore out of the mainstream.
Audiences know what to do about funny poetry: they laugh. Everyone
knows their part, and it is comfortable. But most American poetry and
poetry readings are deadly serious, painfully intimate, like a
prostate exam, dreadful but necessary, 90% embarrassment and 10%
unexpected thrill.

In case you have never attended a poetry reading let me describe one.
Imagine you have taken your sweetheart out for an evening of chamber
music at the local arts center. You join forty or fifty
highly-educated adults seated on folding chairs and wait politely. The
hour arrives. But instead of a tuxedoed string quartet, in comes an
11-year-old boy, dressed like Jimmy Olson on a bad bowtie day, wearing
a tuba, carrying a baseball bat, and with an overstuffed dimestore
photo album tucked under his arm.

The audience applauds. For his first piece, the boy--we'll call him
"the poet"--plays a brief series of scales on the tuba. The audience
takes a deep breath and holds it. The poet misunderstands this as a
signal to proceed, so he favors us with a second creation: he opens
his tuba's spit valve to eject a bubbly stream of sputum and
condensation, which splatters on the floor.

The audience, in rhythmic unison, sits perfectly still. Pleased that
he has been so entertaining, the poet drops his tuba and shoulders his
bat. He takes a few tentative practice strokes, swings for the fences
and smashes the bat into his own forehead. The audience averts its
gaze as he bleeds for several stanzas. The audience stares at the
ceiling, then at the floor. Thus encouraged, the poet, for a grand
finale, opens the photo album, which turns out to contain not
snapshots, but X-ray films, all revealing metastatic cancer in the
bodies of the poet's loved ones: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles,
wives, children, self, and historical figures. The audience stares and
gasps. Some weep, some snore. The poet closes the album, steps back
from the podium, bows. The reading is over. There is applause.

There are a dozen more readings to go this week. I can't wait.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A periodic table of the experiences

All 92 elements, attractively
displayed, available at
Worried about the radium,
uranium and thorium? They also
sell a radiation monitor.
All this collecting talk reminds me of a brilliant freelance physicist I once knew who was assembling a collection of all the natural elements in the periodic table. I sent an email to ask about his motives and methods. He answered within minutes with a firm "No comment." 

Nobody's required to answer random importunate questions from near-strangers, but I was disappointed. Otherwise, I would never mention the time that he accidentally inhaled a snootful of tellurium powder and had to be rushed to the hospital for chelation therapy. Tellurium, if it does not kill you, gives a distinctive garlic odor to the breath that has been known to last for months. I'm sure it's gone by now.

But objects aren't the only thing you can collect. You can collect experiences, you can make a bucket list and go fill your bucket with your heart's desire. Wikipedia, a staggeringly vast collection in its own right, says “An alternative to collecting physical objects is collecting experiences of some kind, through observation or photography. Examples include bird-watching; transportation, e.g. train spotting, aircraft spotting, metrophiles, bus spotting, see also I-Spy; and visiting continents, countries, states, counties, and national parks....”

                    OF SOME KIND

All the trains spotted, every state stepped in,
all the birds you have seen, did they see you?

And now think of all the girls you have kissed,
through observation or photography,

or boys, and exactly how they tasted,
and how few wanted even one more kiss.

Experience collects us, brings us back
to be stored dry, neat in a wide flat drawer,

but when the drawers are full, piles us up
in closets, in stacks of old wine cartons,

in a clutter in his heart, in a horde
of life to be relived.
                                 I don’t talk this way.

This is something new for me, this sounding
like epitaphs, like sermons on gray stone.

Sunday they pointed out where I’ll be buried
in Waitsfield, just up from the Mad River,

with all the rest of the family, all.
It didn’t seem to bother them a bit.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

While you're waiting for me, a poem by Marcus Bales

Thank you, Marcus. Guilty as charged. Stay tuned.

Villanelle: Waiting for Hungry

"I will write here every day, and there will be only one excuse for not blogging, and that will be writing poetry" – David Weinstock,

David promised he would speak
A little every single day
But we've been waiting for a week.

He'll probably say I've got some cheek
To chide him like a child this way:
David promised he would speak.

His backlog's big -- a little tweak
Of something old would be okay
Since we've been waiting for a week.

I know he isn't really meek:
He's slashed me like a limp fillet,
When David promised he would speak.

I hope he's on a writing streak,
And too intent for mere display --
But we've been waiting for a week!

Perhaps there'll be a little leak
On Facebook -- we can only pray,
Since David promised he would speak.

Our present prospects still seem bleak:
After all, he gets no pay;
But David promised he would speak --
And we've been waiting for a week.

Friday, October 21, 2011


You can't blame the Zanesville authorities for the complete non-communicativeness of this sign. They had a real live emergency on their hands, and hardly had time to call in a team of copywriters and poets for a proper brainstorm. But now that it's over, in preparation for the next time, let's create a better message.

Don't think it's going to be easy, either. This sign is a strict form. Three lines, seven characters max per line. That's tighter than haiku. It would take six or seven of them to add up to one 140-character Twitter tweet.

So here's your assignment,which could go two ways.
1) Compose a highway sign that will actually prevent collisions and save lives with a useful warning.
or 2) Write the coolest sign imaginable.

Got it? I'll go first:




Now your turn. If my comments box gives you any trouble, email sign copy to me at

The Button List

Fifty-six men, including John Hancock, put their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Collectively they are known as The Signers. In 1833, William Buell Sprague, who was not born until nearly 20 years after the Declaration, invented a new hobby: collecting the signatures of all 56 signers. There are two things that need to be said about this.

One is that inventing a hobby for yourself is an admirable achievement. But inventing a hobby for other people to follow...I don't know. It seems like an odd and slightly sketchy act, nearly anti-social. I say this on a hunch and practically no evidence, so I could be wrong; I welcome your counterexamples.

The second is that by defining the set to be collected so precisely, Sprague set in motion a long-term rise in the price in the autographs of all the signers. Some signatures were relatively easy to find, some were less common. But the scarcest of all is that of Georgia delegate Button Gwinnett.

Why? Because Gwinnett, during his 41 years of life before the Signing, for whatever reason, happens not to have put his signature on many pieces of parchment or paper that survived. Nor could he do so afterward, as he was fatally wounded in a duel in 1777. Unlike signer Ben Franklin, who lived twice as long and seems to have spent nearly every waking minute writing letters, Signer Gwinnett didn't sign much of anything else.

That made Button Gwinnett's signature the Babe Ruth rookie card of the Signer list, the rarest and hardest to find, even if you are willing to spend a fortune. The latest Button sig changed hands for over $750,000.

Every collection of any kind that is based on a list will include one Button, one piece more rare than the others. And if very many people are clutching the same scavenger hunt list, it's just the law of supply and demand. The rare piece soars in price, because everybody's got to have it. 

In book collecting, the Button is the first edition of the first book of a very famous author before he got famous, so published in a small press run. In comic books, it's Spiderman #1, because Marvel was a fringey company and because Spidey was such a jerk. And if it is your heart's desire to own one license plate from every state, your Button is Hawaii. Nobody drives here from Hawaii.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cover Story

Chatting with poet friends about the relative merits of different approaches to writing cover letters for manuscript submissions, I came up with the ultimate cover letter. I don't think I will be actually sending it.

Dear Editor,

Thank the man who delivers this,
he has risked his life for art.
I am being held by the Taliban,
or possibly the CIA, hard to tell,
in a tiny bamboo cage somewhere
I am not sure where but it is hot
and dusty, and I am hot and dusty
and the only thing that keeps me alive
is writing poetry and hoping
it will appear in a journal like yours.
My guards let me out of my cage
five times a day for prayer
and if I were a Muslim I would pray
but instead I use the time
writing poems in the dust with a stick
where my friend finds them
and writes them on cigarette papers
that are easily concealed
and after they have served their purpose
can be filled with tobacco and smoked.
You living in America can have no idea
of how much people smoke around here,
wherever that is. They roll their own
but prefer American cigarettes
when they can get them. I don't doubt
that I could buy my freedom for as little
as two cartons of Marlboros
but did not think to bring any with me
as I was being kidnapped. I am not,
I must assure you, an MFA candidate,
nor a professor of creative writing,
not a careerist full of ambition, no.
My only ambition is to survive
and someday, inshallah, see a copy
of your journal containing even one
of the poems before you now,
and I cannot rule out the possibility
that if my poems appear in your journal,
it will focus attention on my captivity
that might save my life. I hope
you like the poems.
David Weinstock
Somewhere hot and dusty

To get from Aardvark to Army, you must go through Alabama and Alaric

I promised to write more about collecting, and the urge to "Collect the Whole Set!" which is an idea that animates and energizes a surprisingly large segment of the economy, as I learned during the two years I accidentally spent in the world of investment-grade rare coins. But actually, I already knew it from an earlier experience.

Remember how supermarkets would sell encyclopedias, with a new volume available every week? The first volume was priced very low to get shopper and child hooked. My mother bought me Volume 1 (Aardvark-Army) of the Golden Book Encyclopedia for 49 cents, and proceeded faithfully to buy the rest of the set until I had all 16, and I pretty much read them all, skipping only the long articles about each state, always accompanied by a map dotted with little symbols of whatever that state grew or dug or manufactured. I did not care, I still do not care, what they grow or dig or build in Alabama. (I am however very interested in how Alabama is going to grow, dig or make anything when it starts to enforce its lunatic new immigration laws.)

And then there was Alaric, king of the Visigoths. Every supermarket encyclopedia since Gutenberg includes an article on Alaric, a fact which was not lost on a man named Alaric whom I met in Cambridge in the late 1970s.. When I told him I knew his name from my encyclopedia, he revealed that he had purchased dozens of Volume Ones from many different sets, at great introductory prices, just to have the Alaric articles. From him I learned that not everybody needs or wants to "Collect the Whole Set." This discovery has influenced my own collecting life, on which I will say more soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011



You should have a bag already packed
with what you’ll need if the worst should happen.

Keep it in your car. Never leave without it.
It is your only chance to make it through.

Clothing for all conditions: think layers.
Think hot, cold, camouflage, and funerals.

First aid, medications, comforting books,
weapons, a flashlight, and means of escape,

and food, food enough, for how many days?
I cannot answer that. The rest of your life.

Imagine that much food fitting in one bag.
You could not carry that bag very far.

When the bag is empty, fold it up.
Discard it safely where no one can find.

Undress. Disarm. Stay where you are right now.
The worst has already happened

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Science should be popularized

by Martin Gardner  (1962)
Writers who "popularize" science for the rest of us--Lucretius, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Gina Kolata, Rebecca Skloot--are sometimes looked down upon, but I look up to them all. Science is way too important to be left to the scientists. If more writers were explaining climate change and global warming right now, there might be fewer politicians talking nonsense about it.

In 1962, when it was still being said that only a dozen people in the world understood Einstein's theory of relativity, Martin Gardner (1914-2010) brought out a book, Relativity for the Million, that a 10-year-old could read, so I did. My favorite part was about how the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved the existence of the ether wind. 

I also devoured Gardner's books of mathematical games and puzzles, drawn from his Scientific American columns, and The Annotated Alice edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which contains hundreds of what may be the most enjoyable footnotes ever written.*

I've been thinking about other books I read as a child. I had absolute permission from my parents to read any book I found, as if they could have stopped me. I seem to have opened up every book in the house, although if it was boring or too far over my head I would put it back down after a few pages. In adult life since I have often started a book and instantly realized that I'd already read the first couple of pages decades before.**

But here's the thing I really wanted to say. Martin Gardner was one of my favorite writers, and he was quite prolific, with dozens of books to his credit. Why have I read only a few? Why haven't I collected them all?

Some readers and many book collectors just "Gotta catch 'em all." Gardner's list would be both achievable and affordable, especially if I opted for "reading copies" instead of first editions in mint condition. I know of a collector who did that for Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, finding every possible edition and translations in every language from 1776 onward.

But that's not how I read or buy. I find a book I like and read it again and again. I have read the entire oeuvre of very few writers I care about, and only if their corpus is relatively small and important. James Joyce? I've read all five books. JK Rowling? All seven. Isaac Asimov? If anybody in the entire world has read every one of his more than 500 books, I'd like to meet him.*** Or her.**** 

Next time, more about those who, as the cereal boxes used to say, "Collect the whole set!" and what's the difference between fastidious collecting and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


* I have decided that all footnotes ought to be extremely entertaining. Sorry about this one..
** There is some dispute about whether there is any such thing as a photographic memory. I read that somewhere. 
***  If you are that person, I will buy you lunch and hear your explanation for this bizarre act of fandom.
**** You also get lunch, but will have even more to explain.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why I Don't Own an iPad 4, or, Libidinal Confessions of a Late Adopter

A CARBURETOR. Cars don't have
carbs anymore, but  lawnmowers do.
Not until carburetors have become
completely obsolete will I love them.
Whoa! Did seeing "iPad 4" in the title make you leap up and grab the car keys? Simmer down. There is no iPad 4, not yet. And you, Sir or Madam (but most probably Sir because it's a guy thing), are officially an Early Adopter. 

Me, I'm a Late Adopter. You won't find me camped outside the Apple store the night before a release date. On the spectrum between early adopters, who are always the first to snap up new technology, and Luddites who would rather smash it than buy it, I am somewhere in between. You can have tomorrow's technology, I want yesterday's. Or better yet, yesteryear's.

I got my 1945 Leica IIIc camera in 1965, my 1946 Hallicrafters SX-25 shortwave receiver in 1966, and my 1956 Buick Super in 1970. All three were gifts from my father, but I continued in the same vein, with Ann's kind encouragement, culminating with a 1913 Chandler & Price 10 x 15 printing press, acquired in 1984. We also harbor an Ivers & Pond upright piano built in the late 19th century and fully restored for the 21st.*

One reason to be a late adopter is that it's cheaper, anywhere from 25% during the clearance sale down to half price on eBay. Or even better, a prematurely jaded early adopter gives you a superseded model for free because it is so last week and he wouldn't be caught dead.  

True, a few categories of old things become more expensive rather than cheaper with age, and in a future post I will tell all I know about the charms of rare books, the darker side of rare coins, and other variations of tulip bulb madness. But old technology usually holds little allure for collectors. Bulky, heavy, inconvenient objects like printing presses and parlor pianos typically change hands on the basis of "Get this damn thing out of my garage and it's yours."

Another reason to prefer older tech to new is that, at least until recently, older equipment can be repaired. Its parts are discrete and visible. Before the extreme miniaturization into silicon chips of even the most complex gadgets. it was possible to take things apart, discover what had failed, and replace it. Parts may be hard to find, but the satisfaction is great when it works. 

The repairability of old machines, however, is not guaranteed, and there can be a great deal of self-delusion about it, verging on compulsive hoarding disorder, which has recently become the subject of not one but two popular and horrifying reality shows.  Ham radio hobbyists notoriously keep "junk boxes" because you never know when some tube or capacitor might be just what you need to fix something else. But junk boxes all too easily can became junk basements, junk garages and junk barns, and well, a junked-up life.

Why do we do it? "It is the libidinization of stuff," Cambridge psychologist Lucia Stone told me, adding that it is far more common in men, and she ought to have known. Her husband, Fred Stone, was a magnificent acquisitor of nearly everything, including wood and lead printing type, vintage glass bottles, old buttons, and World War II airplane parts. Fred was the kind of guy who gave materialism a good name. The type that overflowed the basement was stored in a makeshift shed Fred lovingly built in his backyard from military surplus magnesium aircraft frames. 

I wish I had been there, standing slightly upwind from the plume of fragrant and poisonous fumes, the day that shed caught on fire.

But I digress, yes I do, digression upon digression, and I intend to continue. Stay tuned.

*The piano was restored by Emily and Ed Hilbert of New Haven, Vermont. We schlepped it to California, where a piano tuner tried to buy it from us, and then hauled it back to Middlebury where it may be viewed by appointment.

**Fred Stone's collection of 19th and early 20th century wood type ("Take it all! Just take it!") went from his basement in Cambridge to mine in Somerville, then to our next basement in Waterville, Maine, and finally to the Art Department at Smith College, where we hope to visit it someday soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


My friend Charlie, a martyr but no saint, collected relics, principally by stealing them. To his credit, he always chose objects far too small to be missed.  Once, in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, pre-renovation, he reached up and pinched off a tiny scrappet of rubber gasketing from the fuselage of the Hiroshima bomber Enola Gay. 

Another time, he found a little deposit of paper bits in Emily Dickinson's writing desk at Harvard's Houghton Library. They were broken-off corners and edges of her writing paper, maybe her poems. It was sacred confetti. Charlie swept it into a plastic bag and kept it for years.

Soon after I married Ann, Charlie presented her with an orange smidge of broken brick, the size and color of an unripe cranberry. He told us it came from the rubble of Cambridge's ancient jail, where Ann's ancestor, the witch Martha Carrier, was held before her execution by hanging in 1692.

Charlie had so little and wanted so much that I naturally wished to contribute to his collection of micro-relics. One day, on a walk, I picked him up a pair of sea pebbles from one of his holy places, Nauset Beach, by Marconi Station in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Charlie was from Cape Cod. He was estranged from his family, and wasn't keen on human beings generally. But he honored this particular place for being uninhabited, bleak, and windy. He would have lived there if he could, tenting in the lee of a dune, free at last from the tyranny of landlord and roommate.

Marconi chose Nauset for his radio experiments for similar reasons. It was barren table land overlooking the sea, with an unobstructed path to England, and it was vast. 

Marconi's signals, his radio waves, were big and floppy. By wingspan, if you think of today's compact little frequencies as sandpipers, Marconi's emissions were wandering albatrosses. Coming in for a landing, Marconi's trans-Atlantic flocks of di-di-dit could not be expected to perch comfortably on much less than a quarter mile length of aerial wire. His frequencies were so low, in fact, and their wavelengths so long, that for decades afterward, any useful frequency shorter than a football field would be known as "short-wave."

In Charlie's pantheon of higher beings, Marconi was in fact what Charlie himself wished to be, a truly important self-educated tinkerer. No higher calling could exist, unless it were friend or parent. Charlie would rather have invented a new ice-ax than find a cure for cancer, or war, especially not war, which intrigued him as the human activity calling tinkerers to their most heroic feats of ingenuity.

In his mind if not in fact, Charlie could field-strip and reassemble a Panzer tank. If you left him alone in your basement, he would find a tool you had thought was lost, and take it apart for cleaning and polishing. He would never tell you he was about to do this, or that he had done it, but he did usually attach a note. Years later I am still finding posthumous notes from Charlie, tied with sturdy tent-repair thread to the handle of a wire stripper, or tucked inside the leather case of a voltmeter.

One day, exploring the Houghton Library treasure
room, he found a pair of dueling pistols that had belonged to George Washington. They were not, in his opinion, being properly cared for. He did not steal them--they did not fit his collecting strategy. 

But he did immediately appoint himself as their rightful curator and conservationist. (This would have shocked the trusting library director who had hired him as a part-time security guard and issued him the key.) Charlie unpacked the pistols, cleaned them as thoroughly as if he were seconding a duel at daybreak, and left them shimmering with preserving oil.

Back from the Cape, I ran into Charlie on the street, and pulled the two stones out of my backpack. They were flat, round, surf-polished cookies of dove-gray basalt. He took one in each hand, and squeezed them for a long time, with his eyes closed. 

"Uploading," he said. "Uploading."


In memory of Charles A. Reynolds, 1945-1997

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My first and last language

One April, for National Poetry Month, I invited a respected poet to visit my poetry workshop as a guest speaker. She is a distinguished teacher/scholar and and no shrinking violet, but she suddenly expressed a lack of confidence in her public speaking skills. "David," she explained, "English is my fifth language!" 

She did eventually accept, and on the day of her talk she held forth in flawless though Chinese-accented English for an hour.  At one point she actually used the word "instantiation," which I had to look up, and English is my first language. Unfortunately, I fear, it will also be my last.

That's not for lack of trying. I have formally studied four languages, Hebrew, German, Spanish and Russian, and cannot speak any of them. I am tongue-tied in four tongues all at once, if you can picture that.

Hebrew school, of course, was never actually intended to make me chatter like an Israeli. The aim instead was teaching me to pray in a language God could understand. After four years, six hours a week, I know dozens of blessings and prayers and psalms and songs, although not necessarily what they mean or how they mean it. Some of what I memorized, I discovered much later, wasn't Hebrew at all but Aramaic, which come to think of it is another language God understands, see Matthew 27:46. Shows how little Hebrew I grasped, if I couldn't detect when we switched into Aramaic.

Three years of high school Spanish really ought to have given me some ability to converse, with all those dialogs and drills and language labs. But although I could play back a dialog--"Where is the library?"-- I couldn't carry on an actual conversation. It only took five minutes in Barcelona to make it clear that I was a natural-born monoglot. I could barely order almuerzo.*

Next I took a reading course in German because I wanted to understand Rilke, and that worked out as well as you'd expect--who understands Rilke? I absolutely love German but definitely can't speak it. When occasionally I attempt a word of German out loud to a native speaker, I get only verst√§ndnislose Blicke.**

Mind you, my disability in Spanish and German is about speaking; in both languages I can usefully read ordinary text, if not mystical poetry. But Russian was different. After two semesters plus a summer at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and Leningrad. I couldn't really read or talk. I understood barely half of what was said to me, and the Russians caught even less of what I said, which invariably caused them to switch to English, which is what they had wanted to do in the first place. Everyone in the Soviet Union was mad for English and Western culture and  consumer goods. "Peenk Floyd?" they would ask, fishing for forbidden music, and "Troozya?" 

Troozya? Troozya, I eventually deduced,  meant trousers, which at that delicate moment in US-Soviet relations meant that they would pay many rubles for my blue jeans.  Would I sell them my blue jeans? "Da!"***

It doesn't add up. In English, I am handy with words and have lived by my pen. I possess a good ear, an easy style, and a vocabulary twice as large as anyone needs, even to play Scrabble. I can give a speech to a large audience without looking at my notes. Why can't I talk foreign? 

I blame a lifelong aversion to going through that painful but necessary phase of language learning when one makes mistakes and more mistakes, commits howlers in public, and gets frustrated and flustered and laughed at for sounding like an idiot. Even as a toddler, I'm told, I hated to babble. "You never talked baby talk," says my mother, a longtime elementary school teacher. "You weren't going to talk until you were good and ready. Then one day, full sentences!"

At age two, I could have it both ways: dignified and fluent. Ever since, apparently not. But I keep thinking how interesting it would be to learn Arabic. Inshallah!****

** Uncomprehending stares
*** Yes.
****God willing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

They are your houses

All week long I've been getting into arguments with friends and strangers about the Occupy Wall Street protests. I'm not sure why I'm so bothered about it but I can't seem to shut up. 
Partly it is the incessant whining about "media blackouts" that seemed not to notice the literally thousands of news stories about the events. 
Partly it is the group's evident lack of ideological or programmatic focus. Not that they're not trying. Even as the protests were in full swing, the Coup Media website was polling supporters (and anyone else who happened onto the site) to find out what their demands should be. 
The list of candidate positions weirdly includes  not only perfectly understandable wishes like free college education for all and nationalized health care but also the repeal of the 16th Amendment (which allowed the federal income tax) and re-opening the investigation of the 9/11 attacks. (Here is the full list: )
But mostly I suppose I'm comparing Occupy Wall Street to another ongoing protest, the one against the Tar Sands Pipeline. I love their well-rehearsed discipline, their laser focus on a specific issue, and their orderly and methodical way of getting themselves arrested, one after another, by the hundreds, outside the White House. It made me proud of leaders like Bill McKibben and Chris Shaw for knowing what they are talking about and getting the world to listen.

And finally, I am remembering a poem by Richard Wilbur, who would later be my teacher, written in spring of 1970 for the Wesleyan Strike News. There's a sentence I can't forget, as I think of the houses bought with the mortgages that spawned the current Wall Street crisis. "They are your houses."

Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you
and whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.

It is not time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound of our streets be the patient sound
Of our discourse. 

Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here and there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.

They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them then and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman's son.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The poet as content provider

Poetry and the Web go together remarkably well. It's a good fit, for several reasons. The average length of a modern American poem is just about one screenload of text.  Then, there's the money. A Hollywood producer who sinks $100 million into a film can't afford to give it away on the Web. But since it costs next to nothing to write a poem, publishing it to be viewed for free on the Web is not such a big change from previous methods of disseminating poems. Poets have pretty much always given it away.

But the thing that impresses me most, and this is going to sound perverse, is the relative permanence of Web publishing over print publishing. How can I say that, when everyone else is bemoaning the evanescent nature of pixels compared to good old corporeal paper and ink? 

I've published some poems in printed "little" magazines, all of them now out of print. Occasionally a copy will turn up in the catalog of a rare book dealer. But so few copies of literary journals are printed to begin with,  and so few kept, that you might as well seal a poem into a bottle and cast it into the ocean.

On the other hand, nearly every poem I have ever published on the Web is still instantly available, anywhere in the world. The very first was in an early ezine called Blue Moon Review, and here it still is  

A large group of poems came out in 1997 in Riding the Meridian, from web publishing pioneer Jennifer Ley. And it's all still there to be read, and has been read far more times than it ever could have been if immured in the pages of low-circulation little mags. 

The real reason poetry and the Web are a perfect marriage--there aren't many people who care about it, and before the Web it was labor-intensive for them to find each other. In this they resemble enthusiasts of nearly every other small-niche interest. What the Web has done is create truly vibrant and growing communities of people who share the same rare allergies, collecting hobbies, obsessions, and kinks.

I don't think poetry is just a kink. It's a mother art, a wellspring of all of our literature, lively arts and culture. But now, with the Web, poetry never had it so good.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Army Termite Midget Dream

Halfway through my 10th year, for the first time ever, I noticed myself. All at once, I knew that I was me, a person, different from and separate from all the other people. Just as quickly, I knew that I had to grab this sudden feeling and secure it so it could not get away, and to do that I had to put it into words. Fiercely, I said to myself, "I am me and I know I am me. I must remember this moment."

Not long after that, I had a dream, a regular sort of night dream, with jump-cuts and shape-shifting and all the nonsensical stuff that happens in dreams. What made this dream different was that I gave it a title, and started trying to sell it on the playground. "I'm selling dreams," I said. "I just had The Army Termite Midget Dream and I'll sell it to you for a dime."

My friends, my two best school friends, made it clear that this was silly and not the least bit entertaining and that nobody was going to pay me to tell them my dreams. Even when I revealed tantalizing details of the dream, like our classmate Bonnie Peterson wearing a suit of armor, nobody was buying it.

What the hell was I doing? I've never understood that incident or known what to call it, until now. Four inches up the screen from where I am typing this sentence, on Blogger's dashboard, is a clickable tab that says MONETIZE. I haven't clicked it yet, but someday, someday  I will. And then I'm finally going to sell somebody that dream.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poem: The Names We Took

Slow Turtle, Sitting Bull, I envy you no more.
These are the names that we took:
Garden of Trees, Almond Leaf, Shooting Star,
Grapeleaf, Grapevine, Grapeblossom,
He-Who-Prunes-Vines and He-Who-Sells Wine,
a River of Wine, Wine Glass, Goblet, White Cloth,
Grain-Grinder, Bread, the Guest-to-Whom-Wine-Is-Served,
Gift of Wine, A Field of Corn, Shining Corn,
White Bread, Son of the Earth, Petals of Stone,
Little Flower, Big Mountain, Silver Nail,
Silver Ingot, and Gold, Always Gold,
A Flood of Gold, A Brook of Gold,
He-Who-Fishes-for-Gold, A Grove of Gold,
A Roomful of it, its Shine, its Joy, its Clang,
its Grumble.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hoozajew? How I defeated an online Nazi

Today is Google’s birthday. With as much as I use Google and how totally the search engine and all of its subsidiaries have changed my life, today ought to be my birthday too. And why shouldn’t it? This is America. You can have any birthday you want. That’s what my grandfather, Leon Weinstock, believed when he immigrated. He didn’t change his name, but he wanted an all-American birthday, and chose, what else? The Fourth of July.

My name is Weinstock. Let me spell that for you, I say. Spelling out my surname, which I must do constantly, is a minor annoyance. People named, e.g., Ann Jones, have no idea what we go through, unless they impulsively commit hyphenation somewhere along the way.

We are foreigners on this earth, no matter where we go, no matter how long we stay. Forget for an instant and your name will remind you. Once, when my father bought a lake house in South Jersey, a neighbor remarked that his name might be too long to fit on the mailbox. Nine letters? Give me a break. He would never have said that to a nine-letter WASP, not even to a ten-letter one. The implication was clear: we simply didn’t belong.

My interest in Jewish names quickly brought me into contact with a brilliant anti-Semite. It started when we traveled to New York for a bar mitzvah. In our hotel room I picked up the Manhattan phone book and started to browse. Immediately what caught my eye was the astonishing variety of Jewish names. There were all the usual ones, Gold this and Silver that, Wein this and Rose that, but also others, unfamiliar but in the same onomastic vein, full of references to shiny metal and jewels, pretty flowers, delicious food and drink. I wrote down all my favorites. After the trip I pulled down my German dictionary, looked up the names, translated them into English, and wrote my poem “The Names We Took.”

The subject intrigued me, so with Google as my tireless research assistant, I swarmed the net to learn just how we got such names. To make a long story short, we took them, en masse, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at the behest of European civil authorities who were finding it damned inconvenient to keep track of (and tax and draft and control) people who had no surnames at all, instead using patronymics of the “David Ben Schmuel” variety – “David son of Samuel.”

But as my search expanded, I also found a website called On the site was offered, free for downloading, a piece of software called “Hoozajew 2.0” whose stated purpose was “counting Jews.” Just feed in a list of names and back comes the list with all the Jewish names flagged. The site owner had already performed this data analysis on dozens of lists, and had discovered, with alarm, that Jews were taking over the government, the law, the banks, the media, the arts and sciences, and more.

From my research, I knew that the anonymous site owner probably had not developed the software, but had adopted a program devised for a much different and more benign purpose than uncovering the workings of the worldwide conspiracy. No, it was developed by Jews for fundraising purposes, a quick and efficient way to sort a prospect mailing list for Jewish charities who wanted to target the tribe with appeal letters, rather than wasting postage and printing on unconnected strangers.

The site, perhaps a dozen pages in all, was very matter-of-fact, quite understated as anti-Semitic ranting goes, but still hateful enough for me to want to know exactly who was sponsoring it. I searched for days, checking domain name registries and every search engine I knew about, looking for clues.

Lucky for me, the Hoozajew founder had other hobbies than Jew-bashing. He carelessly included a traceable email address on the hate site. The address included the name “dimona.” Dimona is the location of Israel’s secret nuclear facility, the place they developed and build their still-unacknowledged atomic bombs.

But the Dimona address also appeared on a site about the physics of the trebuchet, a medieval war engine, a sort of catapult popular among technically minded Ren Faire geeks. On the trebuchet site, he freely gave out his real name and location. He was a scientist, living in central New Jersey. I found his address, his phone number, the names of his wife and children and brother. I found out that he had once run for the Senate as a Libertarian candidate, and that he occasionally posted consumer book reviews on Amazon. In other words, he wasn’t a solitary kook; he was a man with a job and some standing in his community, and who would have strong reasons to keep his hatred hidden.

So now I knew, but what was I going to do about it? I didn’t really object to his having his site. I didn’t write to his domain host and demand that the site be taken down. What bothered me most was his anonymity. I wanted to expose him, or something.

At that point, my quest slowed down. I just didn’t know what to do next. I dithered. I called New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League; they listened but offered no action. I called a newspaper in the man’s town, but they did not seem interested in the story either.

Eventually, I realized that I would have to do something myself. I began to email the man, as if I were a sympathizer who wanted to chat, using an email address that did not give away my own identity. We exchanged several rounds of email over a few days; he was cautious, but once he was convinced that I was on his side, his comments grew more virulent.

And then I overplayed my hand. I told him I knew exactly who he was, using his name and everything else I had found, and challenging him to come out in the open. At that point, he panicked. He did not write back, but immediately, within a few hours that same day, scrubbed both his sites of any identifying information, and soon after anonymized his domain registration. continued for a few months after that, and then eventually disappeared.

Did my emails force him to skedaddle and contribute to shutting down the site? I hope so, and I’m glad I did what I did. I do notice, though, that the site name is in use again, this time as a sort of links page on the topic of free speech.

The poem "The Names We Took" can be read in my Sept. 28 post.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sliver Time

You say you have no time to practice your art, and I bubble over with advice. I say “Choose a different form, one that is better suited to the precious slivers of time you still have. Write haiku or flash fiction. Paint watercolors. Compose etudes instead of symphonies, snapshots instead of studio shots. Make raku pots. If you can’t roast, stir-fry. Maybe art can’t be central, but it can be interstitial.” That’s the kind of thing I say.

I am sorry for all that advice, you may ignore it. Actually, you already ignore it. But worse than that, I ignore it. In all these years, I have never been able to settle on an artistic endeavor for myself that fit permanently and productively into my life.  And yet, when asked who I really really am, I say “poet.” I say “writer.” I say “artist.”

And then there is this blog, which I announced four years ago, and about which I blithely used the word “diary.” If this were actually a diary, there would have been nearly 1500 posts by now instead of 40. It hasn’t been daily, it hasn’t even been monthly.  My track record on that kind of dailiness, on any kind of dailiness, is poor. I never do the same thing two days in a row, never have done.

Still I suspect that it is now time to make art every day, because all I have is every day. So here’s a new idea. I will write here every day, and there will be only one excuse for not blogging, and that will be writing poetry. If I’m here, I hope I will bring you entertaining prose. If I’m missing, there will be a poem in the works. Feel free to ask for the poem, and if I don’t have it, give me a hard time about it.

Last week I started asking friends, colleagues and students to give me poetry assignments, and I’ve already received dozens. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Gotta go work. I'll see you tomorrow. Or better yet, I won't.