Comments by James Reiss

Comment for "Lost Boyfriend (A Postcard from Mexico)"

User image

A Story from Carmen

With a little tweaking, this piece could be rehabbed and aired anew. As that icon of public radio, Jay Allison, attests, it’s “evergreen.” First broadcast a decade ago in a now defunct travel show, it’s as tangy as a freshly shaken Margarita—with its very own delightful “high.” All it needs is to be edited—two references to “Rudy,” which make it a letter, need to be deleted—and repackaged as part of the eight-part series, “Stories from Carmen.”

Allison is nominally the salty producer, but it’s Carmen Delzell throughout who provides the Tequila, so to speak. She’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed gringa who has lived south of the border for lo these many years. In “Lost Boyfriend” she muses about her Mexican flame, Nicolas, who has left her in Saltillo with a broken-down Isuzu. Rather than herself breaking down in tears, she confers with local specialists in witchcraft, who advise her how to find and win back Nicolas.

The power of positive thinking makes for a feisty story, which—wouldn’t you know it?—ends up with a phone call to Carmen from her dearly departed boyfriend. We’re left with Carmen having repaired her Isuzu and possibly having determined to drive to Guanajuato, where he has fled.

We can’t be sure, though. Carmen may care about her boyfriend, but she’s a bit of a feminist, too. The wonder of her “Hasta luego” at the end of this piece is that it’s open-ended, leaving the listener with a smidgen of exhilaration: will she or won’t she return to her boyfriend?

Nicolas may have left town, but Carmen somehow recorded him strumming his guitar before he took a hike. His music plays in the background of her monologue, making it all the more soothing and romantic.

Comment for "Karen's Story" (deleted)

User image

In Pennsylvania, Where These Things Happen (deleted)

As someone who lost a son seventeen hours after being born, I feel plenty of empathy for Karen, whose daughter was determined to be stillborn in the womb two days before Karen gave birth.

Although six months elapsed after the death of Karen’s infant before producer Rob Zawatski recorded her monologue here, she’s still choked up as she speaks into the mic. She may be choked up, she says, sixty years later—as I still feel pain forty years later; one never gets over such losses. Along with her loss, Karen regrets that for a month and a half after her daughter’s death she was constantly surrounded by people concerned that she might do herself harm. She’s bothered that she had no time to grieve in private, something I found therapeutic—as did my wife—after our child passed away.

This is not an easy piece to hear, considering how we all tune into public radio for entertainment and/or information. On the other hand, not enough has been said and heard about this subject. Until we learn to understand the grief of a mother who has lost her child, how can we deal with such issues as marital discord and divorce, both inextricably related to the death of an infant whose birth is awaited with enormous longing and expectation?

Until we hear Karen’s story, how can we fully understand what it means to give birth to an infant who survives and grows into a healthy child?

Comment for "Remember Paper Checks?" (deleted)

User image

Check This Out (deleted)

I missed Kai Ryssdal’s “Marketplace” (on American Public Media), where this piece was aired on December 2, 2010. It’s a lively, informative piece, well worth rescheduling for people like me who missed it the first time around.

For me its biggest eye-opener is the concept of mobile payment systems. Many Americans are aware that paper checks have gone the way of analog TV and Jimmy Stewart in the perennial nostalgia flick, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Perhaps not as big a segment of the public realizes that credit cards may become obsolete because of their commission fees that charge vendors to line the pockets of banks.

Few old timers like me are aware of novel ways of paying online. Sure, I know about electronic bill payment. But I’m in the dark when it comes to the various and sundry ways of using my mobile phone to pay Peter or Paul and keep my credit rating from going bust. Like many of my fellow citizens, I have a cell phone. But I use it more as a two-way radio—a kind of intercom—rather than as a bill payer.

Not that producer Sally Herships has any of her interviewees explain the details of mobile payment systems; that would add at least another three minutes to her drop-in. Still, during this Jimmy Stewart Christmas season of “getting and spending,” to quote Wordsworth, it’s good to learn about MPS—an acronym we Americans may well be using frequently in years to come.

In technologically savvy Asia, MPS is as well known as GPS.

Comment for "Savannah Music Festival LIVE Presents: Schubert's E-Flat Piano Trio"

User image

The Mushroom

In Vienna during the 1820s Franz Peter Schubert’s friends nicknamed him “Schwammerl,” mushroom. He was a squat, bespectacled fellow who managed to survive by sponging from his pals and admirers. Of all great composers he was perhaps the poorest, having earned during his lifetime—I long ago read—the equivalent of maybe fifty dollars (this figure may be revised upward to three or four hundred dollars to reflect 2010). According to legend he was so poor that at one point he used wrapping paper from a butcher shop to compose upon. He was so prolific that, as the story goes, while out walking one day in Vienna, he overheard part of a song played by street musicians and asked his friend whose song that was, only to hear his friend say that in fact he, Schubert, had composed it—along with some six hundred other songs.

To top it off—or bottom things out!—he died at thirty-one, leaving no heirs, possibly gay, with most of his music unpublished.

Today he needs no introduction. Listen to his E-flat Major Piano Trio, D. 929, and experience the Master for yourself. I especially want to recommend this Trio’s andante second movement (some twenty-six minutes into the podcast), which has been used in half-a-dozen movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” None of Schubert’s other masterpieces, including his “Unfinished Symphony” and his “Great C-Major Symphony,” matches this single movement. in terms of sheer poignancy and melodic depth; it’s like Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” on a larger scale. Like me, you may want to say, “Encore, encore!” and replay the second movement time and again.

David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer perform Schubert’s incomparable Piano Trio with soulful panache.

Comment for "'Til Death: Love, Marriage and Valentine Sweethearts"

User image

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

Rosemary Langford’s whimsical love song about her grandparents’ fifty-year marriage is not only appropriate as a drop-in for fast-approaching Valentine’s Day. It’s an accurate description of the institution of matrimony, which I’ve found as mysterious and unfathomable as Langford has. “Whose idea was it,” she asks midway in her piece, “[that] we should join forces with another person whose job it is (we believe) to provide everything we've ever wanted?. . . Might that be asking a little too much?”

If Adam and Eve were our first married couple, they sure had their problems. Langford’s grandma, perhaps not so differently from Eve, may have been guilty of deception when she contended that her husband tried to kill her—twice!

You’ll get to hear the genesis of these events, along with some music playing softly in the background. In every sense this is a “fully-produced audio essay”: it’s upbeat without being mawkish, its oral delivery is flawless, and its script reflects the considerable smarts of its producer.

Comment for "A Day in the Life of the Zapatistas"

User image

Viva Zapata!

Lately news coverage from Mexico has focused on a new civil war. The conflict waged by drug lords against the Mexican government has overshadowed a long-term struggle between the working and wealthy classes south of our border. Ever since Emiliano Zapata led bloody uprisings in Mexico, the state of Chiapas, hugging the Guatemalan border, has been the epicenter of farmers struggling against oppression by well-heeled landlords, descendants of Spanish conquistadors.

As this piece makes amply clear, an indigenous sort of Marxist revolution continues to smolder in Chiapan villages like Juan Diego. Nearly 17 years ago an armed rebellion led by peasant guerillas forced the federal government to take up its own arms—and eventually step back. Today many children in Chiapas attend Zapatista schools, as opposed to educational institutions sponsored by the “bad guys” in Mexico City. At the moment President Felipe Calderon and the Mexican army have relegated the Zapatistas to the back burner. Embroiled in a full-blown civil war against narco-traffickers, the government is not about to give up when it comes to Chiapan insurgents. Whatever ultimately happens on that front, the Zapatistas have been largely tolerated as angry mosquitoes buzzing remote swamps.

World Vision Report continues to produce stories involving what Paul Tillich used to call matters of ultimate concern. “A Day in the Life of the Zapatistas” will interest everyone, from North American tea partiers to Colbert/Stewart coffee partiers, intent on charting the wobbly relationship of poor people and their distant central government.

Comment for "The Day John Lennon Died (59:00 / 54:00) "

User image

Here's to You, John

Where were you the night John Lennon died? If you’re 40-plus years old, the chances are you remember where you were—just as you might, if you’re 60-plus years old, remember where you were the day President John F. Kennedy died—or, if you’re 15-plus years old, remember where you were the morning the twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked.

It’s hard to believe that December 8th of this year marks the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death near 72nd Street and Central Park West in New York. Three decades have whizzed by like a dream. Yet the events of Lennon’s last night alive are, for me, a nightmare from which I still haven’t quite awoken.

The strength of Paul Ingles’s hour-long piece partly involves his recordings of Lennon’s fans recollecting where they were and what they did when they learned of John’s death. Shock and disbelief were what these fans felt. It’s significant that in his piece Ingles mentions nothing about Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman. For that matter, Ingles only once mentions the name of the venerable Dakota apartment building, where John and Yoko Ono made their home, outside of which Chapman waited with his weapon.

First and foremost this is a tribute to Lennon. Therefore, it doesn’t need to bring in Lennon’s killer or recreate the Gothic weirdness of the Dakota, where the movie “Rosemary’s Baby” had been set in 1968. On the contrary, Ingles livens up “The Day John Lennon Died” with some of Lennon’s terrific—deathless—songs, including “Imagine,” whose title is in the middle of the mosaic of inlaid stones in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields Memorial, not far from the Dakota.

What’s more, Ingles records ample selections from an interview Lennon gave earlier on the day of his death. It’s a strong interview—as wise and funny as the leader of the Beatles was. Thirty years haven’t taken him away from us. It’s possible that 300 years won’t either.

Comment for "Different, Not Disabled: The Perception of My Mind"

User image

A Note on Asperger's Syndrome

This is a groundbreaking piece by an extraordinary young man. Ian Kathan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about his disability. In recent years high-functioning autism — Asperger’s — has been considered a “challenge” needing lots of help from parents, educators, and therapists. Rather than relying on the notion that he deserves special assistance and accommodation, Kathan is annoyed with this attitude of entitlement. He believes that people “on the spectrum” shouldn’t capitalize on their medical condition to make excuses for themselves and their failure. Instead, he believes people with Asperger’s should take advantage of their unique gifts. For Kathan Asperger’s is less a disability than an endowment, a sensibility that is profoundly different with distinct assets to manage.

My grandson David has Asperger’s. For most of his five years his mother — my older daughter — has devoted herself to finding help for him. Going to special doctors, enrolling David in special classes, feeding him fish oil, vitamins, and homeopathic medicines, she has imbibed Dr. Temple Grandin’s gospel that tireless vigilance and assistance are the hallmarks of cure for autism.

Considering this, it’s refreshing to hear Kathan think of Asperger’s as “the mind's tendency to . . . drop into a hyper-focused state. . . . While [Asperger’s is] a distraction, it can also be your drive.” Kathan speaks with his friend, the psychologist Pamela Christy, who agrees with him when he states, “If you give a person too much help, you give them extra exceptions to get by,” a sleazy modus vivendi.

Because of his refusal to make excuses for himself and say he has failed because of his disability, Kathan is able to savor his success: “Look at me. I’m on a radio station. Never in all my years have I ever thought that I’d ever be able to do something as big as this.”

Hats off to Kathan and Carmel High School in Indiana for producing a sound-rich, thought-worthy five-plus minutes!

One day I hope my grandson David will be able to join Kathan in saying, “It’s pretty cool to be me.”

Comment for "Postcards from Africa"

User image

An Unkillable Piece

I continually return to Jake Warga’s pieces. For their sheer versatility, human warmth and unpredictability they’re topnotch. They’re also snapshot-vivid; you don’t need to put on your “Avatar” 3D glasses to enjoy the stereoscopic vision of a writer-producer who’s also an accomplished photographer.

Warga’s latest travel piece presents four terrific “postcards” from West Africa. He starts in Allada, Benin by describing a child nursing from his mother, keeping eye contact with Warga the “white man in the room,” while Warga can‘t take his eyes off the boy and ends up making conversation with grownups, lying about having his own twin children Piglet and Roo!

From a kid at his mother’s breast, Warga travels northwest to a young girl, a hooker soliciting him in Ouagadougou, Burkana Faso. Sure, his description of “the choking red dust of a cruel African street” is melodramatic, but he handles the subject of child prostitution in a polygamous society with his usual sagacious subtlety.

His third postcard focuses on a camel ride in Marrakesh, Morocco. Here’s some typical Warga prose: “Riding a camel is kind of like flying. The takeoffs and landings are thrilling, but unless there’s a really good movie on, the flight itself is rather dull.” He ends this passage with a sly allusion to Julius Caesar’s famous Latin sentence about a short war: “I saw, I rode, I want down.”

Like most tourists traveling in countries where they don’t know the language, he feels like a child. On a train speeding somewhere through Morocco late at night he says, “I will become slim from nibbling on the same endless baguette.”

This kind of writing is as good as public radio gets. Three cheers and five stars for Jake Warga!

Comment for "Funny Thing, Being Mugged"

User image

A Funny Thing Happened

I lived in New York City for 30 years and was never mugged. Listening to Jake Warga’s super-vivid account of being viciously attacked by a couple of teenagers more than satisfies my curiosity about the event.

You don’t have to be from a big city to appreciate Warga’s diamond-clear description of assailants in hoodies asking to use his cell phone. Neither do you have to love Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” to appreciate weird echoes of its refrains in Warga’s statements at the scene of the crime as he tries to explain his situation to the police: “I was not mugged in a tree. I was not. I was not mugged on top of a tall building. I was not. I do not like being mugged. I do not.”

Warga’s narrative revels in nearly nineteen minutes of these kinds of offbeat but right-on-target details about getting whacked over the head in Seattle before being relieved of his laptop computer. He’s an awesome photographer—witness the image of “My glasses” one of whose lenses is stained with blood. Here, as always, his script benefits from his clear-eyed, all but digitized details. From “Dragnet” to “NYPD Blue,” if you’re fond of cops-and-robbers stories—and who isn’t?—you’ll enjoy Warga’s brand-new take on being mugged as a “funny thing.”

This “funniness,” a wacky surreality and suspense, comes through in the background with the piece’s sound track featuring Kodo Drumming music and Placebo’s “Where Is My Mind.”

Comment for "Compact Discoveries 175: The Sad Story of Marcel Tyberg"

User image

Encore, Encore!

Classical music nuts like me will applaud when they learn about composer Marcel Tyberg. Fred Flaxman’s 175th “Compact Discovery” was a huge discovery for me. Flaxman’s remarks sketch the sad story of Tyberg’s 50 years on this planet followed by his extermination in Auschwitz.

In describing Tyberg’s symphonic music, Flaxman is accurate in saying that it has “the power of Mahler.” In fact, the excerpt from Tyberg’s Third Symphony, premiered by the Buffalo Philharmonic, has the grandiosity, if not the maddeningly soulful unforgettability, of The Great Gustav. If you didn’t know that Mahler wrote ten symphonies, you might mistake Tyberg’s music for a long-lost eleventh Mahlerian extravaganza. For that matter, Tyberg’s symphonic style brings to mind Bruckner, even a bit of Sibelius.

If this isn’t enough, Flaxman is right on target when he says that excerpts from Tyberg’s Piano Trio in F come close to Brahms and Schumann. Closer, I think, to Schumann than to Brahms, mainly because Tyberg lacked Brahms’s stringent—though lush (and again soulful)—economy.

Not to nitpick too much. If Tyberg ends up sounding, for me, like a minor composer—an epigone echoing the Great Masters—he’s majorly good, even terrific: whistle-worthily melodic, sturm-und-drangishly dramatic. Tyberg is everything you’ll want to hear on an autumnal evening, with Halloween scarifying the air and Flaxman lighting up your mood like a jack-o-lantern.

Comment for "Marking Mexican Independence Day, September 16" (deleted)

User image

Viva Mexico (deleted)

What a wonderful, sleek tribute to the bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence Day, coming this Thursday! I say “gracias” to Deutsche Welle for the brief medley, including a Mexican “grito,” the national piercing “ai yai” that is half a shout, half a laugh.

My only problem: where’s the final selection listed in this piece’s liner notes, “Jarabe tapatio”? Everyone from the state of Jalisco—plus every Mexico aficionado like me—mourns the omission of this dance. Either the five-minute format of the piece should be extended 50 seconds to incorporate the “Jarabe,” or it should be deleted from the list of musical works included here.

Comment for "Late Summer Means The Bird Migration Is Near"

User image

Bye Bye Birdies

Here in Cook County—Illinois, not Minnesota, where “Migration Is Near” is based—goldfinches are busy flocking to our yellow-topped bird feeder with their hungry fledglings in tow. A couple of hummingbirds arrive to sip sugar water at a red feeder nearby. We’re aware that in a few weeks these birds, along with pretty much every other avian species, will abandon our backyard in Chicagoland for balmier climes. Maybe we’ve had more of an infestation of insects this summer than Minnesotans, but the past few cool nights have let us sit outside without collecting bites from mosquitoes upon which birds dine alfresco all the time. One reason we won’t be seeing birds in our backyard during the fall is that their blue-plate-special bugs will have died off.

Botanist and plant ecologist Chel Anderson sums up the late-summer situation to a T. She pays special attention to nighthawks that gobble insects with “tremendous acrobatic prowess.” She vividly describes dozens of nighthawks congregating over Lake Superior. If you want to learn about nighthawks—that aren’t really hawks at all—you’ll especially enjoy Anderson’s chat. The only thing I found missing was a broader discussion of other winged creatures, such as goldfinches and hummingbirds, during this bye-bye-birdie season.

Comment for "Bruce McCall: Poking his Paint Brush At Phony Folks"

User image

One Cool Dude

For more than 30 years Bruce McCall has been designing illustrations and covers for The New Yorker magazine. There’s his “First-Ever Guided Tour of The New Yorker,” which gives you McCall’s X-ray vision of a weird Victorian mansion inside of which you can see everything from his fourth-floor “Future Article Selection” Department, with a bunch of crazy “editors” spinning two huge wheels of fortune—to his ground-floor “Filing Department of Unsolicited Manuscripts Division,” with two hulking Neanderthal-types shoveling paper typescripts down a chute into what appears to be a bottomless open-grated hole in the sidewalk.

Or else there’s McCall’s three-part foldout cover, “The Ascent of Man,” for the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, starting with an ape groping up a log, turning into an ancient Egyptian, a medieval plowsman and a bow-tied Edwardian gent rising atop a steam engine—to a twenty-first century man who has reached the top of things, only to slip off a broken escalator, losing his briefcase and plummeting God knows where.

McCall has also enriched us with his satirical sketches in the “Shouts and Murmurs” section of The New Yorker, as well as having written six zany, inimitable books.

As far as I know, Allan Wolper’s piece is the first radio interview of McCall ever. Thanks to Wolper’s street smarts and his camaraderie with McCall, partly because they’re neighbors living in the same building on New York City’s Upper West Side, this piece is priceless. I’d call it the best of Wolper’s nearly two dozen half-hour productions—which is saying a lot, giving the high quality of the series.

Wolper and McCall click. You’ll hear McCall, who flunked out of high school in Toronto, say that the “biggest myth in the world is that college is a good thing”—in this he agrees with his fellow Canadian, the best-selling New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell. You’ll hear McCall say that there’s “more damned squabbling and backbiting and ugly rancor in the talk show people like Glenn Beck. . . a new low in the discourse of the republic." While he denies that he’s a liberal, McCall hasn’t much good to say about Sarah Palin, John Edwards and Tiger Woods; he contends that parents, not teachers, should teach kids NOT to be like these ostensible role models.

Whether you agree that Ralph Nader is a “twerp,” that “Scotland has more intellectuals per capita than any other country in the world,” or that religion is “a waste of time,” you’ll come away from this piece with the kind of respect for McCall that I hold for a man like Mark Twain.

Bruce McCall is one cool dude. Listen up and hear for yourself.

Comment for "The Poet and His Dyslexia"

User image

Meet Philip Schultz

Imagine a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet suffering from dyslexia without knowing it until he was 58 years old, being unable to return phone calls on his answering machine because he couldn’t hear the phone numbers correctly. Imagine this poet as a boy, having big trouble reading, thinking up a character who, unlike himself, could plow through books—as the dyslexic boy somehow taught himself to read by inventing a literate persona, an alter ego who loved books and wanted to be a writer.

Meet Philip Schultz, the founder and director of the nationally renowned New York–based Writers Studio, who teaches classes in poetry and fiction writing rooted in the concept that writers invent personas to look into their hearts and speak for themselves—much as Shakespeare invented Hamlet and Salinger invented Holden Caulfield.

Schultz is finishing up a memoir, “My Dyslexia,” which will recount how he grew up back when the term “dyslexia” had no name; how, because of his poor reading skills, he failed to be promoted for a couple of years in grade school; and how his efforts and enormous gifts as a writer resulted in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize for a poetry book called “Failure.”

Best of all, this hour-long interview features Schultz reading several poems from his brand-new book, “The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems.” If you love poems as I do, you may appreciate an early beaut’, “For My Father,” which begins: “Spring we went into the heat of lilacs / & his black eyes got big as onions & his fat lower lip / hung like a bumper. . . .” Or you may cotton to the opening lines of a major life-affirming portrait of Greenwich Village characters who seem to bounce straight out of a Saul Bellow novel, in Schultz’s “The Adventures of 78 Charles Street”: “For thirty-two years Patricia Parmelee’s yellow light / has burned all night / in her kitchen down the hall in 2E. / Patricia—I love to say her name—Par-me-lee!”

I love this interview, so I’ll say the name of its interviewee again: Philip Schultz.

Comment for "The other side of the bed"

User image

She Thrives on Ps and Qs

As I listened to the dulcet tones of Muriel Murch talking about her knee surgery, I looked down at my shoeless right foot on the floor. Its second toe, next to the big one, has become increasingly painful for the past few days. I’ve suspected gout.

Be that as it may, Murch’s characteristically vivid, detailed description of what happened to her strained left knee, which all but incapacitated her, will restore any listener’s faith in our labyrinthine medical system. The fact that Murch was once a nurse adds credibility to her account. Murch is certainly no Polyanna, but nowhere—not in any of her radio pieces—will you find her beweeping her outcast state, or, to crib further from Shakespeare, looking upon herself and cursing her fate.

Instead, she keeps her eyes and ears wide open for gritty particulars in her essays. In “The Other Side of the Bed” the result is a terse portrait of herself as “an ‘old’ nurse, longtime wife and mother of four.” Or she gives us her thumbnail sketch of people who work in a doctor's office: “The two receptionists behind the glass counter were unflappable, rolling back and forth on their chairs as they moved us through their system.” Or else, inside what could be a nightmarish operating room, she comes up with a human being: “An OR scrub nurse hung out on the railing of my gurney. She brought calm, comfort and connection. We shared the same birthday making us both feisty.”

For my British Pounds Sterling, Murch’s prose is top-drawer. I’m interested in whatever she reports on, precisely because she makes me interested in the offbeat Ps and Qs of her experience.

After listening to this piece, I may well make an appointment to see my doctor about my toe tomorrow.

Comment for "Powered By Laughter"

User image

Ho Ho Ho Without a Bottle of Rum

Smile and the world smiles with you. Laugh and hear the world LOL!

This is the most life-affirming piece you may hear all day. Alongside gloomy reports from Afghanistan to Wall Street, Katie West’s tee-hee’s and hardy-har’s provide more than a little bit of fresh air. In fact, laughter is a kind of deep breathing, infusing your red blood corpuscles with exhilarating oxygen.

It’s weird to hear New York’s Grand Central Station erupt into a laughter party hosted by West, the founder of the Levity Institute. Even if the chortling of dozens of partiers sounds eerie—almost like the cry of hyenas—lightheartedness transforms a gloomy train station into a sunlit Serengeti.

Try it for yourself. Slowly count to ten. When you reach eight or nine, relax into a smile and make yourself laugh: ha ha. You’ll find, if you “let go, let God,” as my mother used to say, your forced chuckle will turn into full-throated, genuine risibility. Like West’s mother, mine suffered from depression. But like West, my mother believed in her own brand of laughter yoga. She yukked it up as much as she could and sometimes reminded me of the sound track of laughter playing outside of a Coney Island fun house.

You don’t have to be from the merry state of Maine, like West, to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and laugh.

This piece is devoted to destroying the doldrums.

Comment for "Flarf in Minnesota (tee hee)"

User image

Flarf 101

Nearly ten years ago a few good people who were irritated at the hyper-seriousness and exclusivity of the American Poetry Scene began writing a kind of anti-poetry that came to be called Flarf. As University of Minnesota English professor Maria Damon has said, “If laugh were an F word, it would be Flarf, because it sounds like laugh, larf, fluffy, kind of overly cutesy weird, nonsense baby talk.” Wouldn’t you know it, Flarf tends to look to the Internet, rather than to Nature or “the real world,” as its Muse.

With roots in the Twin Cities, which spawned public radio’s version of a Flarfee, Garrison Keillor, the movement picked up speed in the aught decade. It surfaced nationally last year when “Poetry” magazine devoted a segment of its July issue to Flarf. According to the narrator of “Flarf in Minnesota (tee hee),” “there are only about 30 Flarfees in the country.” I doubt this. I’d estimate that in July 2010 there are between 300 and 3000 Flarfees surfing Google for inspiration.

I very much like KFAI reporter Diane Richard’s piece about Flarf. It’s an ear opener, a laff-in that stretches beyond humor. I wish there were more examples of Flarf poems—perhaps another PRX piece could be devoted to a selection of verse, drawn possibly from four Flarfees reading at the Walker Gallery a couple of years ago. Anyway, the better of the two examples in this piece is a fairly serious thingamajig written by Elizabeth Workman: “Visualize a forest, coppery violet, pulsating. Inside the forest is a looking egg. Peering into a little porthole at the end of the egg is a zealot. Inside the zealot is an antichrist. Inside the antichrist, poetry.”

Comment for "StoryCorps: Billy Collins"

User image

Charming Billy Collins

What a splendid little piece! I’ve always figured ex–U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins developed his great sense of humor by himself. I recall one occasion swigging Tullamore Dew alone with Collins until we were both so schwacked that he began to speak in an Irish accent—and, naturally, I followed suit.

Turns out Collins inherited his flair for comedy from his dad. In this “StoryCorps” sketch he describes a practical joke his father played on one of the old man’s office co-workers. I won’t spoil the joke by summarizing it, except to say that, in its use of fedora hats, it resembles a time-honored vaudeville routine used on the stage. By the way, Samuel Beckett also used it in a somewhat different form in “Waiting for Godot.”

Not to get too serious about a subversively, sadistically funny Father’s Day story. Collins is probably America’s most popular living poet. One obvious reason for this is his wonderful wit. In poems as sturdy as shamrocks again and again he appears to have kissed the Blarney Stone—and attracted legions of readers.

Comment for "Around Tomales Bay"

User image

A Car Trip Up the Coast

Muriel Murch’s travel pieces have taken me to a sanitorium in Buenos Aires, the hustings of her native England and, now, to her longtime adopted home north of the Bay Area. In part because of her British accent and cozy style of reading aloud, her pieces sound idyllic. They are worth listening to not only because they evoke distinct locales precisely like all good travel writing but also because they radiate a homey serenity I associate with an “inner Bolinas.”

“Around Tomales Bay” isn’t earthshaking. Murch describes Memorial Day two weeks ago when she drove up the coast with her husband. Along the way she observes, “The stakes of the oyster beds lie half exposed along the shoreline. The fishing boats and yachts anchored in the Marshall harbor bob gently at their moorings, taking the day off from their duties of working draft horse or joy ride seaside donkey.”

Forget the oily waters that have recently killed oysters and wrecked the shoreline after BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Murch’s countryside is unspoiled, and her plans to purchase some Free Range Muscovy ducks on a four-hundred-acre organic farm in Bodega are unshaken by California earthquake tremors. Neither is her odyssey to Sonoma County aglow with the yuppie aura that has settled over towns north of Santa Rosa like a wine hangover.

Segments for Murch’s weekly radio show, “Letter from A. Broad,” are loaded with local color, pitched to an audience renowned for its Marin County chic. “Around Tomales Bay” is savvy and “green”—but it’s also good enough as writing to satisfy a demanding national audience of public radio listeners.

Comment for "Bonifant Books"

User image

Where Have All the Bookstores Gone?

Andrew Hiller’s nostalgia for a venerable used bookstore that has closed is something public radio listeners will care about. People who tune in to “Prairie Home Companion” may own Kindles. The chances are, however, that they’re more likely than commercial radio listeners to turn the pages of real books, including Garrison Keillor’s books, than to scroll through an electronic text.

Hiller’s recent homage to the American copper centavo, our penny, resembles his elegy for Bonifant Books, the neighborhood indie store vividly described here. Like so many brick-and-mortar stores, Bonifant Books has bitten the dust. Much has been said about change, generally considered to be a good thing. Hiller is certainly no reactionary when it comes to progress. But he’s aware how, as well as Barnes & Noble and Borders with WI-FI and comfy chairs, have replaced indie bookstores whose “rich pulpy smell” suggests “the kind of place where, if you dig for a while, you can find some really cool treasures.”

Such riches include a favorite old sandwich shop—or shoppe—that is not closed but simply “gone.” Hiller makes no mention of a McDonald’s or a KFC that may have replaced the shoppe. The point is, as Robert Lowell wrote about change in Boston 50 years ago, “a savage servility / slides by on grease.”

Direct from the DC area in the Old Line State (Maryland), Hiller has an abiding affection for the old line, what historians might one day call the dyed-in-the-wool culture of these here United States.

Go Andrew Hiller!

Comment for "Staff Sergeant Treen"

User image

Jake Warga's War, Part Two

Globe-hopping Seattle photojournalist Jake Warga has produced a first-rate series of short pieces. After megatons have been said about Iraq, Warga “tells it like it is,” but in such fresh, appealing ways that you’ll want to pore over his series like a June wedding gift.

Now that Afghanistan is our major killing field, Iraq has been pacified to the extent that Warga’s portraits of GIs are free to deploy covert activities all their—and Warga’s—own. His secret is the way he focuses on enlisted men and one enlisted woman’s favorite music. From the gospel hymns Staff Sergeant Ike Richardson belts out; to the dulcet harmonies of singer Blake Shelton, which Sergeant Crystal Halbert favors; to Pittsburgh native Sergeant Adam Treen’s preference for Barbra Streisand’s “Send in the Clowns,” Warga’s pieces are well worth hearing, with great music to back up their unscripted monologues spoken by soldiers on active duty.

That Sergeant Treen chooses “Send in the Clowns” is ironic, considering that the U.S. armed forces may be seen as “clowns” who’ve been brought in to resolve Iraq’s far-from-funny challenges. Still, Streisand’s song is more than sardonic; it’s poignant in context, not least because of its haunting melodies and Streisand’s stellar performance.

At under forty years of age, Jake Warga is one of the most promising, accomplished young producers on the public radio scene. If you don’t believe me, listen up—and, if possible, license—his latest series of forget-me-nots.

Comment for "Americans Hate Money- The Penny"

User image

A Pretty Penny

Within the next few years the Treasury Department will do away with pennies, which currently cost more to make than they’re worth. One day soon the price of an item will be either $3.95 or $4.00, but it will no longer be $3.99. Our smallest coin will be a nickel. Despite piggy banks, by 2050 we may have gotten rid of coins altogether, except for diehard collectors to trade.

Given the bleak future of our copper centavo, Andrew Hiller’s elegy for the penny is worth a dime of your time. For one, Hiller fits half a dozen clever sayings about pennies into his drop-in, such as “pennies from Heaven,” “a penny saved is a penny earned” and “a penny for your thoughts.” If the one-cent piece is on the way out, can penny-candy sayings be far behind? Pop culture in these here United States will suffer disproportionately when the penny goes the way of the stagecoach and the Model T Ford.

One notable quirk about these coins that bear Abe Lincoln’s profile on the front and, in honor of Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, the Union Shield on the back: nowhere is the word “penny” visible, though “God” and “Liberty” are stamped in metal. Another quirk is the one Hiller stresses: Americans hate pennies. We say, “Keep the change” to salespeople; we leave pennies on the sidewalk where somebody dropped them; we toss them into fountains and wells, wishing for—what? Millions of pennies transformed into paper currency!

Hiller waxes philosophical when he pays attention to the lowly penny as a symbol: “We need to find a way to value the penny again, to value each insubstantial moment because when looking back it is often the littlest things that we miss most. Life is not usually about the big deal but that crucial moment. . . .That’s my two cents anyway.”

Comment for "Vitamin D: All the Rage - Will it Really Improve Your Health?"

User image

Are You Deficient in D?

Two minutes are barely enough to explain what has recently appeared to be a medical panacea. Last year my physician all but compelled me to take 1000 milligrams of Vitamin D every day. According to my doctor, anyone who lives north of Atlanta, Georgia isn’t getting enough D from sunlight. Apparently, tens of millions of people are Vitamin-D-deficient and don’t know it. To listen to my primary care provider, D strengthens bones, wards off certain types of cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Who could ask for anything more? Well, not so long ago the medical establishment was warning the public about the dangers of D. To take more than 2000 milligrams of the vitamin per diem would result in the body’s being unable to expel what was considered a toxic substance.

Sadly, back in the 1980s I learned about a vitamin salesman, an Ohioan, who overdosed on his products and died. That was enough to make me completely swear off multivitamins—until last year when, as I said, my sawbones convinced me that a pill of D a day would keep the mortician away.

Co-producer Janice Horowitz does a feisty job of summing up the pros and cons of the vitamin debate, as she does with other segments in her “Dueling Docs” series. The thing is, of course, she breezes through issues as quick as a two-minute trip to the drugstore.

Nevertheless, for leisure-deficient public radio listeners, hers might be just the pill to pop.

Comment for "Hilda Raz"

User image

All Odd and Splendid

For decades Hilda Raz has been Editor-in-Chief of what is perhaps the most venerable literary quarterly in the Midwest, “Prairie Schooner.” More than 40 years ago when Raz’s predecessor, Bernice Slote, first accepted one of my poems for “Prairie Schooner,” I treated myself to a schooner of beer. I won’t mention how I uproariously celebrated my second acceptance from Slote.

Raz joins the ranks of topnotch writers interviewed in “New Letters on the Air.” It’s good to hear her cheery voice chirp about a somber subject, her daughter Sarah’s becoming a transsexual, changing her name to Aaron and becoming a scientist, not a poet like Raz. It’s also bracing to hear Raz speak about her son John’s heart condition, a hole in his heart, in the same spot as Raz’s breast cancer.

The sangfroid of a woman who has survived what could be catastrophes—and, in D.H. Lawrence’s words, has “come through”—emerges here. Raz has continued to be drawn as a writer to poetry. In some of the simplest, most effective words I’ve heard she expresses her passion for poems: “I love the line break. I love the push of an extended syntax from one long sentence through several, many many lines to see how long I can sustain it. I love the kind of toolkit that poets have to. . .shape their thoughts.”

Best of all, she reads a few of her own poems. My favorite, “Dishes,” describes an episode when she was pregnant. After a dinner of fresh lobster salad, she and a woman friend do the dishes, then go skinny-dipping, “Calling across a widening surface of silver water, calling and whispering and calling, ‘Sister, sister.’”

Comment for "A Patchwork Election"

User image

Election Day Across the Pond

For Americans accustomed to superficial reports covering British politics Muriel Murch’s personal essay about last Thursday’s elections is wonderfully offbeat and richly detailed. As a Brit, she obviously feels back home in the U.K. after her travels. Her monologue expresses affection for dear old Albion at the same time as her powers of observation point out its quirks.

Take her very first sentence, with its gentle ironies, its spoof of horseracing: “This spring may be lost as the May sunshine recoils to March storms but change is in the air as the British politicians gallop through the muddy turf of their constituencies to the finish line.” The candidates speaking in televised debates might just as well be jockeys muddling—or muddying—through the course.

Or else check out Murch’s description of the incumbent: “Gordon Brown is a lion weary with the battle. He looks heavy and sluggish. His face and voice are baleful. The sins of his predecessor, Tony Blair, have fallen on his shoulders.”

Murch finds a bit to admire about the Conservative candidate who won the most votes last week, David Cameron, but, alas, “he has a soft lisping voice that however hard he tries has not the battle fire of Gordon Brown’s Scottish highland roar.”

Here’s what Murch says about the Liberal Democrat who, as of today, will be working to form a new government with Brown: “Nick Clegg skipped across [the] stage, not quite like a court jester but certainly adding an annoying distraction with his good looks. He carried an air of reason, as he asked, like an ardent suitor, so firmly and sweetly, for your vote if not your maiden-head.”

Somewhere between “The Talk of the Town” squibs at “The New Yorker” and the fabled, now defunct magazine, “Punch, “ Murch’s essay stakes out its claim as humorous satire. We Yanks need to learn more about the Monty-Pythonesque nature of politics in what was once our mother country.

To an extent listening to Murch is as edifying—and it’s certainly cheaper—than flying across The Pond.

Comment for "Keep it Local"

User image

Locavores, Unite!

Locavores, unite! You have nothing to lose but your supermarket shopping carts, your produce trucked in from California, your beef fattened in feedlots, slaughtered, trucked and stuffed into Cryovac bags!

For quite awhile one of the smartest Coloradans I know, my wife, has longed to raise chickens in our backyard. Wouldn’t you know it, this lively drop-in about local food is produced by Julia King from Denver. I’m pretty sure that local ordinances in my Illinois suburban “village” forbid private chicken coops, but Denver doesn’t. The mile-high city in the Rocky Mountain State apparently has enough fresh air and deep abiding care for fresh eggs and poultry to give the green light to backyard Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. No matter the hens’ puck-puck-pucks, not to mention their mess, Denverites are “flocking”—a pun used in King’s piece—to count their chickens before their eggs.

Seriously, the Great Recession has done wonders to shoppers no longer willing to pay top dollar for chickens raised on distant factory farms where they don’t see the light of day and are fattened so drastically they can barely stand on the three talons of their feet. King’s interviewees don’t talk about these things. Instead, they laud the simpler life of our forebears, farmers who cared about free-range fowl the way they cared about canning and baking and cooking meals from scratch.

Lately there’s been a lot of palaver about backyard chicken coops. King’s sound-rich piece is a significant addition to the lore about locavores that has finally hatched in America.

Comment for "Finding a home in language"

User image


I’m in a quandary about this impressive production. On one hand, it describes a young Somali woman now living in Minneapolis, striving to make her way in America. After hearing about boatloads—literally—of Indian-Ocean pirates from that hellhole in the horn of Africa, Somalia, we need to hear the voice of Minnesota Public Radio News’s Youth Radio Series Sadiya Mohamed reciting the verses of Stephen Dunn and Theodore Roethke to qualify for prizes for her English language skills. So much depends upon Sadiya’s ability to pronounce a line of poetry, such as “I learn by going where I have to go.”

What gets me here is Sadiya’s earnestness, her wish to distinguish herself in our nation of innumerable gifts, the United States—versus her difficulties with American English. At times she slips and slides pronouncing our notorious tongue twister of a language. We take English for granted. Compared to Spanish or Russian, in which pronunciation is far more standardized, however, English is a humdinger to speak, especially as a second language.

As a result, Sadiya doesn’t win a poetry-read-aloud contest—despite her English teacher’s loving words of encouragement. Worse, portions of Sadiya’s monologue aren’t as Linda-Wertheimer pristine as we’ve come to expect when we tune into public radio for our daily dose of Truth.

Comment for "Diagnosing Literature"

User image

Does Hamlet Have PTSD?

Not so long ago or far away, in one of my college seminars a student—let’s call him Mike—once declared in class that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When I asked him what he meant, Mike replied that Prince Hamlet, like a typical OCD or post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) victim, couldn’t control his fixation with finding and destroying his father’s murderer. As a result, Hamlet was responsible for the death of more than a few characters. If he’d had access to something like Prozac, a lot of collateral damage might have been avoided. Mike opined that “Hamlet” had a reputation as a great play, but as far as he was concerned it was a depressing work. Why bother reading it?

With the savvy sureness of Freud, Jung or Adler, Eric Molinsky’s cutaway offers a diagnosis of college students like Mike. The big problem boils down to what NYU Prof. Elayne Tobin calls “The Oprah Effect,” that is, “the opening of dialogue in America [and in college classrooms] about personal issues with a psychological. . .and a self-healing bent.” Along with cultural studies and its concepts of race, gender and class, today’s students have accepted the notion that misery is bad, that problems should be resolved and that literature should portray optimistic, uplifting images of happy people. Forget what novelist Michael Cunningham refers to in Molinsky’s piece as “a certain sorrow as part of the richness of human life.” Forget the notion Molinsky brings up here that “the job of art is not to correct humanity but to show us humanity in all of its extremes.”

Despite my highfalutin tone, this piece is never ponderous. It will make you and public radio listeners ponder why we read authors like Shakespeare and Melville. Plus, its musical accompaniment, especially the minimalist motifs of Phillip Glass, are pure pleasure.

Comment for "Dinner Parties Help Fund Arts Projects"

User image

Dinners for Donors

Last year the Illinois State Arts Council canceled its individual artists’ grants. This year the situation in Springfield looks bleak for painters, writers and other artists in the Land of Lincoln, where I live.

David Weinberg’s drop-in was aired April 19th on American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” with Kai Ryssdal’s spiffy introduction. The piece deserves to be broadcast widely.

Do we need to be reminded that public funding for the arts is drying up all over the country? Federal support from the National Endowment for the Arts still exists, with its budget a minuscule portion of Washington’s total spending. Last week, however, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to do away with its state arts council. Elsewhere, states strapped for funds have given a thumbs-down to artists.

The good news in Weinberg’s piece is that ordinary people interested in the arts have been getting together in small droves. In Boston, Portland and St. Louis arts backers have been paying a measly ten bucks for a simple monthly dinner, a Sloup—which rhymes with “soup.” As a variation of a soup kitchen, Sloup contributes ten bucks from each of its maybe two dozen donors/diners to local artists who have submitted proposals to be voted upon by the donors/diners. The event resembles a dinner party, a friendly community event, rather than a committee meeting to judge artists’ projects. What’s more, the whole process of awarding a grant takes a month, perhaps a twelfth the time it takes with a grants agency.

For centuries private patrons supported artists. Weinberg sees in Sloup a return to this great tradition, which bolstered such artists as Botticelli and Beethoven.

Thumbs up for Weinberg!