A few years ago I spotted new Poetry In Motion poems regularly on the different buses I rode. This year I’ve only seen one, and I’m actually surprised—although happy—that the program is still active. I’m just not sure why I haven’t been lucky enough to catch the buses with poems, especially in the month of April, which is National Poetry Month.
Although its website doesn’t explicitly say so I think the Poetry In Motion program started with Joseph Brodsky, who, when he lived in the Soviet Union, was exiled for practicing poetry without a license. When he was appointed Poet Laureate Of The United States one of his goals was to make poetry more publicly visible, and his plans included putting poetry on buses and in subways.
Maybe I should do that too. What are they gonna do, kick me off the bus? Oh, yeah, they just might. I don’t want to end up being exiled and having to hoof it home.
Here’s a poem read by the current Poet Laureate Of The United States, Tracy K. Smith.
A question that I’ve been turning over in my head for as long as I’ve been studying art history and the philosophy of art is, what is art, anyway? The other day I walked into the breakroom where I work and on the table there was a banana with a spoon balanced on it. I figured the spoon was left there by the person who brought the banana and when I talked to her later she said yes, she’d put the spoon there so people would know she wasn’t giving away the banana. Whenever someone has food they want to get rid, usually cookies or a cake, of they leave it on one of the breakroom tables, although for a while I had a coworker who liked to go through the food in the fridge and take bites out of peoples’ lunches, but that’s another story.
Anyway I thought that if I’d taken a picture of the banana and spoon it would be, well, just a picture, just like the millions of odd ones that people take and upload every day, but if I printed it and framed it the picture would then be art and if I put it in a gallery it could be really expensive art. I didn’t take the picture and now, writing about it, I regret that.
There’s an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of twenty-three lost bird posters collected by the artist Rigo 23. I haven’t seen it in person but you can see the works online. Here’s one: I heard about it on an episode of the Bullseye podcast. In the final segment host Jesse Thorn talks about growing up in the area then being forced out by development and rising property prices. The fliers for the lost birds have been preserved but the neighborhood where they were collected is gone. That, and many of the messages, hit me where I live, which is what art should do.
Pollen: While everyone else is complaining about the sudden cold snap you’ll be glad for the relief. For at least a few days you’ll be able to breathe again without being medicated to the gills. Oh, wait, it’s a dogwood winter and those blooms are wide open. Never mind.
Shellfish: Be prepared to explain at least three more times that it also means shrimp and lobster, and that, yes, you do know what you’re missing but you’d rather be breathing. And once again you’ll have to tell someone to knock it off with the escargot. That wasn’t funny the first time.
Pet Dander: Aggressive people will try to take the lead. Step back and let them. What you’ve been dreading will come to pass. Or it won’t. Take a little “me” time this week. An old romantic interest will flare up, or it might just be your sinuses.
Mold: You’re a fun guy, even if you’re a gal. Haven’t heard that one a million times, have you? This week just say no to those mushrooms your friend brought back from a backpacking trip in Northern Europe or you’ll be having an emergency room freakout.
Peanuts: At least you’re not allergic to almonds because those things are everywhere these days. Or cashews because those are delicious. Here, stick your hand in this can of mixed nuts and see if you can pull out some almonds and cashews. Don’t worry, it’s less than fifty percent peanuts so you’ve got a good chance.
Beryllium: Do you know if you’re allergic to beryllium? Better go ahead and cancel that trip to the X-ray tube factory just in case.
Dust Mites: Imagine millions of tiny little bugs with pointy legs and sharp pincers crawling all over your body all night long. As they march along they eat up pieces of your dead skin that flake off and collect in tiny troughs and canyons of your sheets. Anyway, sleep well!
Eggs: All time is relative at the celestial level. The heavenly bodies move in their never-ending dance to the music of the spheres and all are part of an infinitely circling cosmos. Renewal is constant. So, really, when you think about it, a bacon cheeseburger really is the best breakfast. Especially with that hangover.
Milk: Put down the knife, step away from the Camembert, and no one gets hurt.
Sagittarius: The only people not allergic to Sagittarians are other Sagittarians. Avoid hyperactive, optimistic, outdoorsy types, especially if they’re into archery.
Latex: When stressed ask those around you to treat you with kid gloves. When insulted remind them you are rubber, they are glue. Hypoallergenic rubber in your case.
Bee Stings: Just think of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings, while you’re waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
IF YOUR BIRTHDAY IS TODAY: You’re too young to read this, but don’t worry. There’s an allergy out there for everyone.
The clock radio in our bedroom wakes up my wife and I. It’s set to NPR and for years most weekday mornings we’d be stirred out of sleep by the gentle baritone of Carl Kasell reading the morning headlines. There was something comforting about his voice, even when it was bad news, and he was as much a part of my morning routine as taking a shower, brewing coffee, taking the dogs out, and flossing my toes. Then he went away and while his successors were fine it was never quite the same. Then an odd little comedy news quiz called Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! started up, hosted by the guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Peter Sagal. Every fool has to have his straight man and it was Carl Kasell who stepped in. He was as somber and professional as the show’s scorekeeper as he was when reading the headlines, although every once in a while it I’d hear a strange, low rumbling. It took a while before I could get used to the sound of Kasell laughing. Now he didn’t wake us up in the mornings but he accompanied us on errands around town and on road trips, for an hour, anyway, or until we drove out of broadcasting range.
Kasell was always honest that in its early days Wait! Wait! just wasn’t that good but, to their credit, the powers that be at NPR allowed some tweaks to the show, including the addition of a live audience, that made it great. They recognized that it had potential, or maybe they just liked the prize: lucky listeners would get Carl Kasell to record the outgoing message on their home answering machine.
Several years ago when Wait! Wait! came to Nashville and was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center my wife surprised me with tickets and we got to go. It was fun seeing the panel banter back and forth with Peter and talk to the “Not My Job” guest Vince Gill, but what made it really special was that, off to one side of the stage at his own podium, was Carl Kasell. No offense to his successor who does a fine job, but I was so glad to finally get a good look at the man who joined us in our car and came into our bedroom every morning for so many years.
Hail and farewell Carl Kasell.
In one episode of the TV show Night Court Judge Harry Stone meets a younger version of himself: a kid in a three-piece suit and a fedora who does magic tricks. Faced with this window into his past the judge moans, “Oh God, I was a geek!” And I said, what? No! Judge Harry Stone is cool!
For some of us who grew up with Night Court’s original run from early 1984 to May of 1993—because it was strategically placed right after Cheers I watched it from the very beginning—the show is part of, and even represents, a cultural change that happened during that time. The 1970’s preached non-conformity but it was really the ‘80’s that embraced it. Night Court started off more or less grounded in reality but its throwaway lines and then whole plots became increasingly surreal. Night Court made it hip to be square, or polygonal, and at its heart its stabilizing influence was the barely stable Judge Harry Stone, prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan, played by the prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan Harry Anderson.
While his Judge Stone character was squeaky clean it tickled me when Anderson showed up occasionally on Cheers as the grifter Harry The Hat, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live and stuffed a guinea pig in his mouth and shot magician Doug Henning in the back. I liked it that he had a dark side, and that it was just as weird as his light side.
I know he did more TV after Night Court finished, but it wasn’t until I heard about his untimely passing that I thought about how much Night Court and Harry Anderson warped my adolescent mind. In 2006 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I have cousins there who take pride in that city being known for its weirdness and openness and being labelled a “cesspool of sin”. It seems fitting that Harry Anderson, who helped some of us embrace our own weirdness, would live in a place that embraced it right back.
Hail and farewell Harry Anderson.
Most of the time on school field trips we’d ride on the yellow school buses, but once, on a long trip to Washington, D.C., we were carried around part of the way on a regular city bus complete with the side door and no emergency exit in the back and much bigger windows and the pull cords. I thought the cords would just ring a bell to signal the driver but the driver told us never to pull them because, he said, they were connected to the brakes and would stop the bus. At the time I thought, well that’s weird. What kind of bonehead thought that would be a good idea? I’d actually never ridden on a city bus before and it surprised me to think that passengers could literally be backseat drivers, that they’d have that much control over the bus. Now that I’m an adult with lots of experience riding buses and pulling the signal cords I realize, of course, that the driver only said that to prevent a bunch of rowdy kids dinging the bell every ten seconds and he succeeded.
Okay, I did at one point reach up to pull the cord just to see what would happen but Mr. Peters, the social studies teacher, grabbed my arm and said, “DON’T!” He was already keeping an eye on me because I’d wandered away from the group when we stopped at Monticello and then he watched me even harder for the rest of the trip, but that’s another story.
Anyway the other day I was the only person on the bus but as my stop was coming up I pulled the signal cord anyway because, well, I’m kind of a stickler for protocol and I didn’t want to bug the driver by going up and talking to her.
She slowed down and shouted, “Was that your stop I just passed?”
I walked up to the front and said, “No, it’s the next one coming up.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was afraid I missed your stop.”
We didn’t have much time but we chatted a little bit about how some people pull the signal cord too soon and earlier in the day a guy had yelled at her because he pulled it too late after she’d already passed his stop.
“If I pull the cord too late that’s my fault,” I told her.
“I appreciate you,” she said as she slowed the bus to a stop. Then she opened the doors and said, “You have a good day now.”
“I hope yours keeps getting better,” I said and stepped off.
A little over three years ago I took a picture of this graffiti because it made me laugh:
It made me laugh because I had this idea of the artist being really inspired and fired up and then sort of trailing off. And every artist has been there. I know sometimes I feel this sudden surge of energy and start a story and then realize I’m repeating myself and end up sort of trailing off, but that’s another story.
Whenever I think of inspiration I think of this painting of Voltaire.
It fascinated Kafka who knew a thing or two about inspiration. In a diary entry on February 19, 1911, he wrote,
The special nature of my inspiration in which I, the most fortunate and unfortunate of men, now go to sleep (perhaps, if I can only bear the thought of it, it will remain, for it is loftier than all before), is such that I can do everything, and not only what is directed to a definite piece of work. When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, “He looked out of the window,” it already has perfection.
from The Basic Kafka
Anyway I feel kind of guilty for laughing because, as I said, we’ve all been there. And here’s the same building now:
Someone was inspired to scribble an aqua-colored tag on the door but mostly, since the earlier tag was painted over, the whole building’s been a blank canvas. Inspiration is a fickle thing and sometimes making a work of art is more work than art, which is why invention is Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple, as Willy Wonka so wisely said, although sometimes you have to up the percentage of butterscotch for a reason I had in my head a minute ago but now it’s gone and I’m just sort of trailing off.
April is the cruelest month, and also National Poetry Month, or maybe it’s the cruelest month because it’s National Poetry Month. I started using poetry in high school. It started light: Poe, a little Shelley here and there, some Dickinson, but it wasn’t long before I was on to the hard stuff: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Coleridge. I had a teacher who made us read The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams in class and then she spent the next fifty-nine minutes before the bell haranguing us about how this poem was full of deep, mystical symbolism and that we were all too young and uneducated to understand it. and this convinced a lot of my classmates to just say no to poetry, but not me. I was hooked and even became an English major in college and learned that what The Red Wheelbarrow is really about is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens.
Here are some poems I wrote in that previous life.
“There’s a war going on in our cities…and the rats are winning.”
-from a commercial for a National Geographic special
Rats are winning the war for the city,
Displacing us as they come from below.
While our tactics are softened with pity
Rats are winning the war for the city.
Gassing a poisons aren’t pretty,
But all is fair in this war if we know
Rats are winning the war for the city,
Displacing us as they come from below.
Displacing us as they come from below
The rats teach us something we never knew
By steady process, since our brains are slow.
Displacing us as they come from below
The rats whisper to us we are rats too.
Knowing too much disrupts our status quo.
Displacing us as they come from below
The rats teach us something we never knew.
Headed toward home I wonder who monitors all the monitors
That glow in the houses on either side. And where
Are they? In the savannahs and remote jungles,
Where the only electricity comes from seasonal storms
Seen in photographs from a distance, monitors
Are lizards that slink around rocks and over
Trees after small mammals and other easy meals.
They range in size from smaller than your hand
To monsters with five-fingered feet
With claws that could slice off your leg,
And they’ve held dominion over their territory
From time before the first simians scraped sparks
Out of stones. A trespassing baron sat down to rest
Among them. All his minions found was his indigestible glasses
And shoes. Some of these big lizards, although common
Names are hard to pin down, are called basilisks.
In legend basilisks had the power to turn their prey,
Or anyone who caught their eye, no matter how
Casually, into stone. It’s just a legend. Some
Legends are encrusted or crystallized facts,
But not this one. This legend’s safely
In its cage around the next corner licking its lips.
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