Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Greatest American Novel?

The Greatest American Novel? 

I'm not sure what it is. I've read most of the books that people would put up for that title, and I've read a lot of novels no one would put up for that title. I've been a reader all my life and have read pretty much everything from Henry James' Ambassadors to Ernie Kovacs Zoomar, but I hate making statements about how this is the best record or the best movie or the best waffle iron.

Different people look for different things in a novel, and my greatest is not necessarily your greatest. I think I saw this earlier this week and then invited people to send me their lists. What we saw I think is that although there was some overlap, most people's lists were pretty much shaped to their needs, loves, questions. I know mine was.

But what if I were pressed to list the greatest American novel, told that if I didn't answer immediately I'd have all the books I love taken away from me, the whole personal library amassed over 50 years of reading?

I guess if that happened, I would probably have to say Moby Dick. Or maybe Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, but only chapters 42 and 44. Or maybe John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy, but only the non-narrative chapters. 

Anyway, here's an article about 9 literary critics disagreeing about which is the greatest American novel.  Just click here and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dear Diary

Miguel Vallinas: 

I did my syllabus for next semeter's war stories class, sent out some poems (all about animals to a journal looking for animal/human interface poems) and then worked on translating Henryk Cierniak's wild and surreal poems. I think it's time to watch sesame street and drink some red wine.

PS--here's the link to the animal journal:  Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.  

PPS--here's the cover of Henryk's book:

The book's available at Warsaw Publishing.  Click here

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Day Poem

Thanksgiving Day Poem

My people were all poor people,

the ones who survived to look

in my eyes and touch my fingers

and those who didn’t, dying instead

of fever, hunger, or even a bullet

in the face, dying maybe thinking

of how their deaths were balanced

by my birth or one of the other

stories the poor tell themselves

to give themselves the strength

to crawl out of their own graves.

Not all of them had this strength

but enough did, so that I’m here

and you’re here reading this poem

about them.  What kept them going?

Maybe something in the souls

of people who start with nothing

and end with nothing, and in between

live from one handful of nothing

to the next handful of nothing.

They keep going--through the terror

in the snow and the misery

in the rain--till some guy pierces

their stomachs with a bayonet

or some sickness grips them, and still

they keep going, even when there

aren’t any rungs on the ladder

even when there aren’t any ladders.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Day Kennedy was Shot


What were you doing the day Kennedy was shot?

I was a student in a sophomore high school geometry class.

The teacher read the message about Kennedy being shot and said, "That will teach him to ride in convertibles."
He laughed but no one else did.

Minutes later, school was cancelled.

I took the city bus home, the same way I did all the time.

It was a gray cold Chicago day, and felt more like December than November. There were snow flurries falling. I loved Kennedy and kept thinking they must have the news wrong.

When I finally got home, there was nobody there. My mom and dad were working and wouldn't be home for 3 or 4 hours. My sister was probably with her friends. 

I turned on the tv. Watched the news.

I didn't know what else to do.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tornado Poem

Tornado Country.

We lived in the midwest for a long time, the flat country between the Mississippi and the Ohio River. We lived in Charleston and Normal and Peoria, Illinois, and we lived in Lafayette and West Lafayette, Indiana. We lived through four tornados and I don't know how many more tornado alerts. One time we hadn't finished doing the paper work on the damage one tornado did to our house when a second tornado hit us.

Here's a poem I wrote about a tornado that hit us when we were living in Charleston, Il.

My Daughter is Outside Playing

In the quiet space of the dining room
My wife and I lay out the place settings

The forks beside the Wedgwood plates
The spoons and knives in their places.

A napkin in her hand, she pauses
And tells me again of how her mother

Would starch and iron the squares of cotton
Wash the plates by hand and again by machine.

I smile, nod my head and turn to the window
See the roof next door lift, shingles

Exploding like scattered sparrows, and there
It is—the howl of the locomotive wind

And then a pounding at the glass door
And a screaming that will not stop.

The photo is from the New York Times.

The poem was picked up by New Verse News, a literary journal that focuses on poems about the news. Here's a link to it.  Click here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Old Jokes

I love old jokes. They're the people's true poetry, and remember, the older the joke, the sweeter the whine.  

Here are some of my favorites. 

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Hey, why the long face?"

A man walks into a bar carrying a chunk of asphalt in his hands. He gets the bartender's attention and says, "I'll have a beer and another for the road."

A guy walks into a bar carrying jumper cables. The bartender says, "You can have a drink, buddy, but you better not start anything!"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falling Asleep: A poem


Falling Asleep

the dead 
are breathing 

somewhere else 

you can hear it
in the night
when your body
gathers itself
into sleep
and your breath
becomes all
that’s left
of you


Friday, October 18, 2013

Corpse Poem

I posted the following poem recently in a thread about yoga that I shared on my Facebook page. 

The poem is called "Corpse Poem" after the yoga corpse pose (shavasana), a pose that often is the last in a series of yoga poses. In this pose you spread your legs and arms, close your eyes, and try to sink into yourself. The corpse pose is half relaxation, half meditation, half transcendence, and half perfect afternoon nap.  It's my favorite pose.

The poem proceeds as a group of six short questions.

But enough talk.  Here's the poem: 

Corpse Poem

How do we listen to death?

We listen to the sound of death
The way we listen to the sound of the sea
To the message the waves pound against the shore
Their soft rush of foam upon the sand

And what do we hear?

We hear the things we forgot to tell the dead
The questions we forgot to ask them
The enigmatic dreams they will never explain
The useless arguments we will neither win nor lose
The mutual misunderstandings 
That will never be clarified
The lies for which we forgot to ask forgiveness
The problems death defers
The unresolved quarrels with the dead

And what can we do in the face of death?

We can leave this house
And keep going 
Never to return

We will not even take 
The things that have meant
The most to us, our books
The plants we have nursed
The children we have raised
Punished and praised
The clothes (the dark 
Blue ties, the tweed jackets
The rakish wool caps)
That make us look 
More the man
More the woman
More the hero
More the young lover
Searching for love

We can leave this house
And keep going
Never to return

And what is death?

It is the hand of God
The meal prepared with love
Flowers from the pierced breast
Of the Blessed Virgin
The shore that smells of widows
Studying the foam

And should we fear death?

No, we shouldn't fear death
We should fear the loud man’s coming

The pain of cancer
That does this or that 
To the body

That pain that is 
Longer than sorrow
Stronger than love

The tumor that grows like
A child who then learns
To hate you

A child who will not take 
The love and joy you give her

What is as difficult as death?





The photo above is from the Yoga Art and Science website.  Click here to go there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Yoga: For 10 years I did yoga every other day, and then 3 years ago when I had my heart attack, I stopped doing it. Because of the open heart surgery, I had muscles misplaced in both my chest and back, and doing yoga was painful. 

Today I started doing yoga again: 15 minutes of very basic moves and breathing. 

There were some things that had become harder to do, anything involving balance and anything involving moving my right arm above my head, but I worked through the first third of my old routine and finished up with my favorite pose--the corpse pose.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Happy Birthday, T. S.

Happy Birthday, T. S. Eliot!

For those who complain about his seriousness, who read "The Waste Land," "Ash Wednesday," or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and complain about the Latin allusions and the references to myths no one remembers, let me tell you Eliot had a sense of humor, and a love for practical jokes and buffoonery.

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem called "the love song of t. s. eliot" based on a real incident in his life.

The Love Song of T. S. Eliot 

His new false teeth made it hard
For him to speak the French
He wanted to whisper to her,
Those lines from Baudelaire,
That always touched him so,
Lines about the light love creates,

So Eliot took the teeth out
And gummed his Baudelaire
Until she begged him to stop,
Her tears rolling through
Her laughter but he wouldn’t.

He just kept spitting out vowels
Vibrating them with his slippery
Red gums and mulish laughter.
The poem originally appeared in Mayday Magazine.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dumb Advice From Great Writers I


William Faulkner wrote some of the greatest novels of the 20th century,Absalom, AbsalomSound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and created a fiction county across more than a dozen novels that is one of the greatest creations by any writer, any country, any language.

 But when it comes to giving advice about writing, he sometimes has me scratching my head and wondering what the heck was he thinking.

A good example is the statement “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

This is one of the most quoted pieces of writing advice.  There's even a movie called "Kill Your Darlings"--though I don't think it has much to do with Faulkner or writing.

 What's he mean?  Kill off your best characters?  The ones you like most?  Or -- as some have suggested -- scratch out the stuff in your book that you like the best?  

And where do you end up if you do that?

Writing something that is full of stuff you don't like?


Friday, September 20, 2013

Ambiguous Friday Poem


Short, Thin Poem

beneath the red wall 

the clay waits 
for sunshine, 
for rain. 

a chair
is no friend
to red.

Photo by Gra┼╝yna Niezgoda, Meksyk, 2000 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

9/11 -- 12 Years Later

One of the things that the past teaches us is that there is really no end to the past.
I saw this in my parents. For them World War II never ended -- even after liberation, even after forty, even after fifty years. The war and the camps my parents suffered in were always there. A snowy day in November would put my mom back in the frozen beet fields that the German guards forced her to work in that first winter in Germany. A TV show as harmless as Hogan's Heroes would leave my father shaking.

I've seen this in other survivors and veterans, and I'm sure you have too.

What the war taught them was that war has no beginning and no end.

It's the same for a lot of us with 9/11. We want it to have an end. We want what people call closure. We want to get beyond what happened.

We've been fighting the War on Terrorism for 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Islamic world is changing rapidly where ever we look, and we've killed Osama bin Laden. So why does 9/11 still feel like it happened yesterday? Why does a film clip of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers stop us? Why does a voice recording of a stewardess on that plane talking to ground control about not being able to open the door to the cockpit bring us to tears?

We want an end, and we've wanted it for ten years, and it hasn't happened, and it never will. That's one of the things that 9/11 has taught us.

I've written a number of poems about 9/11 over the years. The first one was written a couple days of 9/11. That poem talked about how I wanted an end to 9/11. It didn't happen then, and it hasn't happened since.

Here it is:

Sept 13, 2001

I want to come home
and turn on the evening news
and not see bin Laden,
his terrible lightning
piercing the sky
and showering clouds
of metal down on the streets

I want to say to my wife,
Linda, do you think
it will rain tomorrow?
If it doesn’t, maybe we can
plant those mums in the garden
to replace the verbena
that have been struggling
all summer with the heat,
the sun drying them
to brown slivers, nothing
red or green about them

And I want her to say,
if it rains let’s go to the bookstore
and have a cup of Starbucks
and read some travel books
and talk about where we’ll go
when Lillian comes home
during Christmas break

She’ll need something
to take her mind off
her first year of law school 


I've posted four other times about 9/11.

The first post was a letter I wrote shortly after 9/11. It's called "The Short View and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks."  It deals mostly with how my wife's New York relatives, including Uncle Buddy, experienced 9/11.  
The second was an update to that post -- talking about what 9/11 looked like in 2007.

The next was about an anthology of poems on how we look at God since 9/11.
The 2012 post was about Joe Calendrillo, Uncle Buddy's son, telling about his experiences on 9/11.   If you were moved by the "Short View" post, read this post.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Thoughts on the War in Syria

I'm tired of war.

I was born in a refugee camp just after World War II, and I've lived through the Korean War, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the War on Terror and the Afghan War.

This list doesn't include all the little bitty wars I've lived through, like Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, and all those other little bitty wars I've forgotten about and that only the dead remember.

Having said that, I'm ready to back the US going into another war that will cost lives, money, effort, and will, and that will possible change very little, if anything.

I can't stand the thought of innocent people being killed by a guy who thinks he's a force of nature, a holy tsunami.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Irish Poet Seamus Heaney Dies


Heaney died at 74.  He was a great and natural poet, just the kind of poet you want to read, a man of wisdom and beautiful words.

Here's one of my favorite poems by him.  It's called "Digging." 

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney, "Digging" from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. 
To read more of his poems, just click here: Poems

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Old Poems

I've been going through all those old poems of mine trying to patch together a new book of old poems. The poems go back 20-30 years and some are okay and some are so dreadful that no muse can fix them, and I wonder what I'm going to do with these. I know what will happen to the good ones. I'll put them in the book.

But the bad ones? 

What do you do with embarrassing poems? 

It reminds me of a poem I wrote a while ago. 

It was about Whitman's final Death Bed Edition of Leaves of Grass and how some critics think he put too many of the bad poems into it.

Anyway, here's the poem.

It's called "Please Talk About Me When I'm Gone."  -- I'm not sure I'll include it in the book. 

Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone

Really, I think we can't think about good
and bad poems when we think about
our life's work. You look at Whitman’s Death-
bed Edition of Leaves of Grass--98% garbage—
Weeds of Grass--but nonetheless it's all fine.

Likewise, William Carlos Williams.
Did we really need so much of Patterson?
Or how about Ginsberg? Please, no more “Howls”!
Who would say such a thing? We all agree--
There it all is, and there it all should be.
Let’s not quibble. Let's just include it all.

I have poems in my unpublished collection,
"Idiot's Guide to John Guzlowski,"
that--in all modesty--are abominations.
If Moses had read them, he would’ve written
a commandment against them, maybe even two.

Really. So let's not think about being too critical.
Let's let future generations of literary critics
and readers, if there are any, sort all that out.
I mean, there must have been some real reason
Williams asked forgiveness for writing about
the icebox and eating those delicious plums.
How sweet and cold could they have been?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Welcome to Reality

(photo from the blog--world of fallen angels)

Friday, August 02, 2013

Friday Poem: Our Daughter is Outside Playing

Friday Poem: Here's a poem I wrote one spring long ago when we were living in Charleston, Il, and the weather was really bad. 

Our Daughter Lillian is Outside Playing

In the quiet space of the dining room
My wife and I lay out the place settings

The forks beside the Wedgwood plates,
The spoons and knives in their places.

A napkin in her hand, she pauses
And tells me again how her mother

Would starch and iron the squares of cotton
Wash the plates by hand and again by machine.

I smile, nod my head and turn to the window
See the roof next door lift, shingles

Exploding like scattered sparrows, and there
It is—the howl of the locomotive wind

And then a pounding at the glass door
And a screaming that will not stop.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What is Heaven? What is Hell?


Here's a link to an article about Hemingway's dreams of hell and heaven.  It's based on a letter he wrote to Fitzgerald when he was 26.  

In that letter Hemingway said, “To me a heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town.”

I thought this description of heaven interesting.  It seemed to be a young man's dream.

A young man's dreams of heaven are  not an old man's dreams of heaven.  

For an old man heaven isn't sports or houses, it's the people he's loved and the people who have loved him.   

Hell is a world without them.

To read about Hemingway's letter, just click here: Hemingway on Heaven and Hell. 

 I almost forgot.  Here's an online anthology I put together of 37 recent poets writing about Heaven and Hell.  Just click here:  Scream online.

And to top it all off an old blog about my daughter Lillian's thoughts about Heaven when she was a child: Lillian's Heaven

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Poem: No Sweet Land

Friday Poem: This poem is one I wrote long ago, maybe in the 1980s, during a really dry summer in central Illinois. People used to joke that the dust clouds blowing overhead were the fields of Kansas and Missouri, turned to dust by the everlasting sun that summer. The poem was originally called No Sweet Land and later I had it published as Drought. 

No Sweet Land

Sarah says

see my little girl
she can read a book

make change for a twenty
tell you what star is what

she doesn't need
school love dolls

she knows winter is hard
beds are soft

grow on vines

she knows
what's useless

the soft spade
the easy turn

maybe in Mississippi

the soil is sweet
ready for asparagus

or juicy fruit
but not here

here the ground is clay
more clay than dirt

here, you see a dog
you know he's leaving


The photograph is by the great Dorothea Lange.  You can read about it at the Library of Congress site devoted to photos of the Great Depression.  Just click here: Migrant Mother.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New Poems, Old Poems Published

I've been getting some poems and short fiction pieces published recently online, and I thought that I should probably post links here.  Just to keep track of things.  Some of the work is new and some of the work is old.  The old pieces are a part of a larger project I'm working on.  I want to put together a book of the poems I've written over the last 30 or so year that aren't about my parents and their experiences in the war.

So here are the links.  Just click on the titles of the works, and you should go right to them.  Let me know what you think.

Here are a couple new poems -- "Eye Contact with the Dead" and "The World After the Fall"-- that were published by 2River.   The poems are accompanied by a voice recording of me reading the poems.  Pretty neat.

My prose poem "The Last Day of Life on Earth" appeared in the Atticus Review earlier this year.

The poems "River City Blues" and "Trees in Late February (Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, Georgia)" were published in Prime Number 37.  Following the poems there's a little Q & A about what I think about the blues.  Don't forget to read that.

"At 40 His Wife Begins to Write Poems" appeared in The Original Van Gogh's Ear Anthology.  Despite the pronoun in the title, the poem is about Linda and these weird dreams she used to have that inspired her to write some really good poems.

"My Mother's Optimism," a poem about my mom and her two cancers, was reprinted in the journal R.K.V.R.Y.  Accompanying it is an interview I did with the poet Anne Colwell.  Following the interview there are links to some other poems I've had published online in the last couple of years.

I had two prose poems in Postcard Shorts, an online journal devoted to prose poems that can fit onto the back of a postcard.  (Isn't that a neat idea!)  The poems are "My Mother's Funeral Service" and "Sometimes," a piece about a Christmas Eve in World War I.

Three older poems -- "My Mother Was 19," "Temptation in the Desert," and "Sometimes I Wish I Had a Theory of Poetry" -- were reprinted in Redux: A Literary Journal.

I was also interviewed recently by Rattle, a really fine journal.  I talk about how I started writing and the style I use in the poems and talking to my mother about my poems.

I've also got some poems coming out that I'll tell you about later.  One that I'm really excited about is called "6 Short Poems about the Monk Ikkyu" that will be in Buddhist Poetry Review.

And I almost forgot, Snake Nation Review just published my short story "Dinner in Wartime."  It's not available online but you can buy a copy at the Snake Nation site.  Just click here to go there.