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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Teacher Ken

My dad's surgery was at the VA in Ann Arbor, where I went to school. One morning I walked to my old college to see if any of my old profs were around. Two of the three I particularly wanted to see were in their offices and had a few moments to spare an old drop-out (I finished 10 years later, at a different school).

Ken Mikolowski was my poetry teacher for a few semesters and an informal advisor for a year or so after that. I had surprised him a few years ago by showing up at his reading at Bumbershoot, back in 2000. He remembered me then, which didn't surprise me; he's a great guy.

He told me about his recent reading with Alice Notley from Ted Berrigan's new collection. Alice and Ken are both warm, subtle, nuanced, emotional, witty readers; fans of their poetry don't need to be told that Alice & Ted were married; Ken & Ted were friends -- so it doesn't surprise me that the reading apparently went very well. Ken seemed pleased to have seen Alice, and to have been involved in Ted's poetry, again. Ken and his late wife Ann had published a lot of Ted's poetry.

When I was 19 and 20 and maybe 21 (memory gets fuzzy these 20-plus years later) I wrote poetry like a fiend and absorbed what I could. Ken brought Alice in to teach a week-long workshop in late '82 or early '83. Alice told me that if I ever came to New York that I should look her and Ted up. I went to New York that spring break and did just that; Ted was bedridden, witty and warm and welcoming; he inscribed my copy of "So Going Around Cities," his since-superceded large selected edition, with an off-the-cuff poem encapsulating bits of our conversation; the graciousness and generosity to a teen-age wannabe poet like myself still dazzles my memory; Ted was dying and he and Alice knew it, and a few months later he was dead.

I was into a performance-poetry bag, out of John Giorno and Ginsberg, with Cage's multi-media collages mixed in sometimes. I wrote two or three few-page-long performance poems -- I called them "Rock and Roll Monologues" -- in an oratorical style, with music accompanying, sometimes collaged music. I wrote a 3-voice poem and performed it with my poet-friends Terry Cunningham and Todd Rose (ne Wise); that one had written unison sections and sections for each of us to improvise while the other two of us chanted verbal riffs. I made visual collage poems. A group of friends and I wrote a lengthy political exorcism-in-verse for a public political action; a year or so ago I found that poem and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. And I wrote a lot of regular Frank O'Hara-influenced anecdotal, sometimes slightly surreal, stuff. I got a couple poems published in an obscure Michigan journal I liked; I sent people poems and they printed them -- hey!

And then I stopped. By that time I was writing and acting in plays, and I had lost the thread of poetry; stopped understanding its Whatness, stopped understanding line breaks, stopped understanding how it differed from comedy or philosophy or anecdote. I kept reading and reading and reading it, trying to understand. Occasionally I wrote something, usually for a visual presentation, or an oratorical thing for a performance. The slam movement started a few years after I had quit, but I wasn't interested in joining. Most of my mid and late 20s and early 30s were a soul's wilderness.

In recent years I've come to an understanding of poetry that works for me, but I didn't start writing.

But while I was home at my parents' after my dad's surgery a funny thing happened. I didn't have good internet access, I couldn't listen to my music, I didn't miss blogging, I didn't miss reading blogs, I was away from my son & spouse, and I started writing poems. I've been writing a little bit every night for almost a week now. Don't know whether it's any good. Don't much care. I'm enjoying.

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