Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Criminals and poets
I was surprised – and a little alarmed – when Gerald So asked me to contribute to Issue Three of his poetry anthology THE LINEUP last year. I hadn’t written any poems since college, and hadn’t much felt the urge to in the intervening years. But poet and musician Jim Carroll, whom I’d admired greatly, had recently died at age 60, and I’d been thinking a lot about his work. Gerald’s invitation seemed to come at the right time, even if it was out of the blue. The result was “Independence Day, 1976,” my first published poem in 25 years.
To say it sprang out of nowhere wouldn’t be accurate though. A few years back, I’d played with the idea of a novel set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the mid-’70s, when the punk scene was emerging just as New York’s crime rate was soaring. I’d been listening to Television’s 1977 album MARQUEE MOON a lot, and was intrigued by the idea of those two environments – a burgeoning artistic scene and an increasingly drug-addled criminal world – intersecting at a particular place and time. I was also recalling Carroll’s THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, a harrowing memoir about his days as a teenage heroin addict in late-’60s Manhattan.
That novel never got written – I had a setting and a few characters, but not much else. However, the idea stayed with me. Years later, when Gerald requested a poem for THE LINEUP, I knew immediately what it would be. Turning some of those abandoned concepts into a poem allowed me to convey a mood outside the strict confines of narrative. It let me be evocative rather than descriptive, ambiguous rather than specific, the total antithesis of my novels. Being in the anthology also put me in the company of writers whom I considered to be real poets – James Sallis, Reed Farrel Coleman, James W. Hall and David Hernandez among them.
I was reminded of all this while reading Issue Four of THE LINEUP, just released to coincide with National Poetry Month. Mary Christine Delea’s “Leaving Long Island” also evokes the mid-’70s, when New Yorkers lived in fear of an unknown killer who preyed upon young women in parked cars, a stranger who stepped from the shadows to open fire on them with a .44 revolver, for no reason other than that they were pretty and had long brown hair. Conjuring up the brutality of another era, Coleman’s “Slider, Part 7” is a chilling glimpse of mass murder in World War II Europe.
At the other end of the spectrum, David Corbett’s lyrical “Bargain” is a moving ballad of love, loss and hope. Jeanne Dickey’s “An Elegy for Susan Atkins” is told from the point of view of a Manson family member who died in prison in 2009. H. Palmer Hall’s “Suburban Blues” and Charles Harper Webb’s “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72” both give voice to the victims of crime, the latter with a white-hot anger at its arrogance and destructive nature.
The other poems in this collection hit equally hard. They come at their subject matters from a variety of angles, but the best of them are as evocative, as complex and as emotionally challenging as any prose. These poems use words precisely and effectively – like a weapon.