Do you ever write fiction?: notes on reading #njpoet

A lot of the people I write about, ex-girlfriends, or random lovers, or former employers are often, are usually fictional mash-ups of several real-life people. Indeed, some situations, even relationships, are also amalgamations—fictional literary representations of several experiences that share a common, unifying theme.

This is how I’ve learned to avoid angry phone calls and emails from old friends, especially ex-girlfriends and random lovers, who insist—usually while screaming—that I delete a story about our shared memories, right now! Or how I’ve learned to avoid being called in for meetings with University Provosts, Deans of Students, or Directors of Writing Departments.

“The students are reading your writing. This is not good.”

“Tell all the truth,” advised Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.” Word.

So, often I write about a character, or as a character, named Sammy—a more compassionate, relaxed, often heart-achingly perplexed version of my real-life self. He is my Buddha-Nature, if you will, adrift in a rising ocean of American Samsara. I make Sammy do what I wish I’d done in the past, what I hope I’ll do in the future.

I also write about, or as a character named Tom, or Tommy. He doesn’t come around often, but he’s still there, channeling the worst of me, amplified and influenced by Vonnegut, Bukowski, and meditations about what my father would do.

Please do remember that this is a literary website, and not a strict diary. My aim as a poet is to polish and present the important themes, the relevant social and political issues that have shaped my past, and therefore my life. And my ultimate goal, following what I learned from Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, is always to produce a narrative that is interesting, easily digested, emotionally memorable, and worthy of sharing with others.

So, as you read, analyze, and obsessively pick through my writing, keep the astute literary analysis of my working-class mother in mind. After she read my poem about her miscarriage, about my childhood memories of the still birth of my first sister, my mom remarked:

“That was beautiful, Charlie, but that’s not exactly how it happened.”


3 Ways You Can Help #njpoet

On the Phone w/ #njpoet

At a lecture, presentation, orientation, whatever, quietly speed tapping notes into a word-processing app on my phone. The speaker, or doctor, or professor mentions a book, an author, a seminal work, that heavily influenced whatever. Google search the title and bookmark for review, just as the powerpoint changes to a quote, some long dead genius gushing over the value of education, or art, or poetry, or whatever—not a bad quote. So, tweet, and back to notes, to the next slide, to bullet-points, but a text interrupts—a Twitter DM:

“Hi! I want to make a donation to your blog. I love it! Is there a donation link you can send me?”

Copy link. Paste. Reply:

 “Thank you so much! And thank you for reading along!”


Bullet-points copied, another book mentioned, another author even more groundbreaking in the study of whatever.

Google search, book found, and, what’s this?—a lecture series given by the author, recorded at Yale, uploaded to YouTube, and bookmarked for after dinner. Word.

Three more slides. One more quote. Not as good. Not worth a tweet.

“And we’re done.” Exhale. “Thank you for coming. Enjoy your lunch. Thank you. Thank  you.”

On the way to the buffet table, a text from gmail—Paypal donation received. Notes synched, bookmarks synched—saved to my computer at home. Thank you, cloud.

And when I finally sit down with my colleagues, ready to relax, ready to eat my complimentary lunch, someone almost always blurts out something like this:

“I know this is none of my business,” they start off so strong, “but I think it was very rude of you to spend that entire presentation playing on your phone.”


Department Store

I could hear them bickering before they turned the corner. She’d dragged him to this department store before he’d finished breakfast, apparently. He was still protesting.

“But I was still hungry,” he said as they walked past me. He was visibly upset.

“I don’t really care,” she snapped back. “I have things to do. I don’t have time to sit around waiting for you to finish eating.”

She looked frazzled, manic, like she hadn’t really slept much. He looked just as tired. She rushed ahead like someone trying to complete a two hour task in just under a therapy hour. He shuffled behind her, dragging his feet and complaining.

“I’m really hungry!” he insisted, then abruptly stopped walking, folded his arms, refused to take another step forward.

She just kept on shopping. And he just stood there, fuming, until she was about to turn another corner. Then he ran after her, frantic. His little toddler legs moving as fast as they could.

“But mommy,” he whined as he stumbled, “I’m hungry!”

He wasn’t much older than my youngest niece—just turned three, or maybe almost four.

“I said I don’t care,” she snapped back, again, as he caught up and they turned the corner together. “You’ll just have to starve until lunch time now. I don’t wanna hear it.”



I told her my depression is finally lifting, and she thought I meant the seasonal blues that hit me every winter, but I meant the depression that started when I was 19 years old. I told her it felt like waking up from a long, dark nightmare—only to find myself being handled like a fragile child.

She didn’t like the sound of that.

“Why would anyone treat you like a fragile child?” she asked, defensive. She’s only known me for seven years.

“Because for a very long time,” I said, sighing and shaking my head, “that was exactly what I needed. But not anymore.”


Creative Clutter

As a break from the doom and gloom of politics and my personal memories, I thought it might be fun to write a list of all the things on my writing desk this morning.

Many claim that clutter is the mark of a creative genius. They say Einstein was a slob. But my Aunt Rosalie used to say a cluttered space made for a cluttered mind, and my Aunt Rosalie remains to most creative person I’ve ever known. So, today I will be organizing my desk.

But first, as promised, here is my complete list of everything I saw piled up within eyeshot as I sat sipping my Cafe Bustelo this morning. Enjoy.

-my writing notebook
-my business journal
-my home finances journal
-a legal pad containing my agenda for the day

-5 Sanford uni-ball pens, black ink
-2 Sanford uni-ball pens, red ink
-2 Sanford uni-ball pens, green ink
-3 Zebra F-301 pens, black ink
-2 Zebra F-401 pens, black ink

-my Kindle Paperwhite

-Kaddish And Other Poems, 1958-1960 by Allen Ginsberg
-The Poem’s Heartbeat by Alfred Corn
-The Book of Pslams, KJV, Dover Thrift Edition
-Poetry and the Public by Joseph Harrington
-The Oxford Shakespeare
-Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
-Ulysses by James Joyce, Unabridged Audiobook on 40 CDs
-January/February edition of The American Poetry Review
-Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field

-1 roll of packing tape
-1 pair of scissors
-2 box cutters
-1 phillips head screwdriver
-1 flathead screwdriver
-pair of players
-1 hammer

-the receipt from this morning’s trip to the market
-the recipe for this evening’s dinner, shrimp with broccoli in garlic sauce

-1 tube of Blistex medicated lip balm
-1 mala

Whew. Ok then. So, if there’s anything else you think I should have at hand while writing, please do leave a comment and let me know. Haha. In the meantime, I’m off to straighten up.

Thank you, so much, for reading along.


Traumatic Stressing, Part 3

for Sarah Kendzior 

Then my mentor summoned me to her office. She said she wanted to discuss my teaching.

I’d been a PhD student at the university for four years at that point, but this was my first semester teaching for them. She hired me, my mentor, when my former university passed me up a third time for a full-time promotion.

“And our decision had very little to do with teaching ability and popularity with the students,” my administrator said when she called on the phone.

I quit that afternoon with a simple email, after six years of teaching. Just like that. Done.

My mentor hired me almost immediately. She said she’d been wanting me to “shake things up” in her writing department for a very long time.

“This is where you belong, anyway,” she said when I called her, upset, asking for a teaching job. “This is your home.”

I was assigned the advanced writing classes—highly intelligent, jaded, almost cocky students. So sure of themselves and their prose writing, and even a few attempts at poems. I needed a way to rattle them, to earn their respect from the start. Fourteen weeks is not a lot of time to work with.

So I told them about my blog.

“I figure if I’m going to ask you to dig deep and write every day, and then allow everyone to read it,” I said as I scrawled my url on the board, “then I owe you the same vulnerability.”

I let them spend the rest of the first class reading my work.

They arrived to the second class with questions about sentence structure, punctuation, and transitions.

“I mean, how do you actually do transitions? I kinda still suck at that.”

They’d never actually known a real writer, they all said, let alone had one for a teacher!

From then on, the classes taught themselves. Students arrived early, eager to discuss their latest drafts. Those who were free afterwards stayed late to talk about what books they should be reading, or what books I should be reading, or how I could tweak one of my blog posts to make it so much more poetic. And there was a lot more talk about how to do transitions, of course.

It was around that time that a group of deans, grabbing some lunch in the student cafeteria, overheard my students raving to friends about my course, and about my blog. And I’m not sure how much time those stuffed shirts spent reading my work, but when they finished, they called my mentor and ordered her to put a stop to me.

So I arrived to what I thought would be a friendly lunch discussion with my friend and mentor about what I’d accomplished in just a few months, only to a find a stern-faced academic administrator who was in no mood for a discussion. I was to shut up and be lectured. And I was to remove my blog from the Internet or be immediately fired.

She said that since I’d been writing about my father’s war trauma, my child abuse survival, and my subsequent struggles with mental illness, there was a general agreement among the administration that I was presenting myself as a fraudulent mental health professional.

It was an accusation so silly that, given the stress of the moment, I lost my composure and started to laugh and shake my head. Then she added something, before I could respond, that instantly changed my mood about the university I’d been attending.

“And don’t give me anything about freedom of speech,” said this tenured director of a college writing program. “I’m from England. I still don’t get that stuff.”


With Love From Boston

A regular reader from Osaka, Japan, requested a third installment of my Traumatic Stressing series, and I promised to write one today, but my mood is too good for delving into painful memories today.

So, I decided to pen that tomorrow. I took an early trip to the market for everything I’ll need to cook a nice lemon garlic chicken this afternoon. Until then, I’ve been phone counseling a friend from Boston through her ongoing snow delirium.

“Jersey! What’s going on?” That’s her nickname for me, Jersey. And I usually just call her Boston.

“Why won’t it stop snowing here?” she continued, and then playfully whined in a little girl voice: “No more winter. Boo, winter. Meeehh!”

She’s been semi-trapped in her house for a few weeks now, snow and slush and ice keep piling up while everyone around her grows edgier and crankier with each falling snowflake.

“The local channels are interviewing counselors who specialize in cabin fever and road rage,” she exclamied when she called last night. And she has officially watched every movie she’s ever wanted to see in her life, I learned two night ago.

“No. More. Movies.” She replied in a trance-like voice when I suggested a documentary I’d just seen. “please, no.”

And then this morning she asked me to tell her an interesting story, something to keep her from completely cracking up. My stories have been a cornerstone of our ten years of talking.

“Once upon a time there was a woman named Boston,” I said, with a smile in my voice, “who really should have moved to New York City years ago.”

Her response to that: “Meh, fuck you, Jersey! Go, Red Sox! Hahaha!”


No Ordinary Winter

I find it particularly irritating when people compare the unusually severe winter in New Jersey this year to the severe cold that’s quite ordinary in other parts of the United States. To be clear, I never relocated to Michigan because of the winters. I never imagined the Michigan winters would move here.

But that’s only part of what this erratic new Gulf Stream has done for the U.S. east coast. For not only has the Michigan winter moved eastward, but the arctic air from the North Pole has dipped far south into the United States. Boston is getting slammed with a Canadian winter—several yards of snow, and piling—while the NJ/NYC area has been slammed with a dangerous, instant-frostbite cold. Scary stuff.

Still, everywhere I go there are Yahoos slinging snide comments about this just being winter, it’s supposed to be cold, toughen up, blah, blah. While others repeat hackneyed phrases like, so much for global warming, huh? They all act like they’re the first one to utter such brilliance, too. Extremely annoying.

And so, as the air keeps getting colder and drier than a Northeastern physiology can handle, everyone is get weirdly, chronically sick. In the meantime, an army of fools go on bashing climate studies in the name of a god, delivering their screeds by way of the Internet, social media, and top-of-the-line laptop computers with 4G and wireless wifi connections. Word. Fuck science. I hear ya.


Traumatic Stressing, Part 2

Then came planes crashing into buildings that were never supposed to crumble. And when they did crumble, the collapse sent nauseating black smoke drifting out to the ocean for weeks. New nightmares. New tension. And the planes always seem to be flying too low now.

That followed by a car crash in my late 30s. Some kid ran a stop sign—17 years old, new driver—and casually drove in front of my car. We collided at the exact moment I slammed on my brake.

Then there was knee surgery, a painful limp, permanent neck and back aches, an eruption of nervous ticks, and a new terror of driving that bordered on agoraphobia.

So, no more solitary car rides to Boston. No more road trips to California, just terror and cold sweats and heart palpitations at the thought of a drive to the grocery store up the road.

His insurance company determined, however, that this new fear of driving was the result of old abuse my father doled out when I was a child, and not the recent car crash their client caused. And then my new lawyer said their attorneys intended to use excerpts from my blog to prove that bullshit theory in court.


Traumatic Stressing, Part 1

What happened, I think, was that my father took a swing at me one too many times, and I never quite fully stopped flinching. So, tension has been eroding my health since I was twelve.  In my short life, I’ve suffered from severe stomachaches and a free floating nausea. When I was a teenager, I used to dry heave, or vomit a little stomach acid in the shower every morning for relief.

That was before acid reflux erupted in my early twenties, followed by an array of upper respiratory, gastronintestinal, and urinary tract infections—immune system weakened—all of which ultimately settled into a severe prostatitis.

Mostly because I’m “so high strung,” the Urologist said.

Which I much preferred to the depths of depression that came next, and the pills. Dark days, except for one extremely wise counselor who assured me, every week for seven years, that all I’ve ever really been afraid of is myself, my own anger. That, and she encouraged me to write about my childhood, and to publish, publish, publish—which I eventually did.

She died of lung cancer right after the collapse of my first marriage, a relationship I almost never write about. I wonder if my ex-wife appreciates that.


How To Be a Successful Writer

I love reading the latest articles about the things a writer must master to be successful in 20—.

A whole swath of these pieces tell me, for example, that I need to study the business of publishing, that I should really know as much about publishing as any literary agent or professional publisher does. I could surely pursue a focused online MBA, or a Certificate Program in Publishing, and that would be great! Though I should still seek to work with a literary agent and a professional publisher, eventually, the authors warn. Just because.

Other articles say I should study business law closely, learn to review contracts and familiarize myself with slander, liable, and intellectual property laws. Some study of Accounting wouldn’t hurt, either, they often say.

But however well-versed I may become in these areas, the articles strongly advise that I still seek to hire a lawyer and an accountant, people who handle these matters professionally, someday.

Still other articles say I need to make myself more photogenic, shave the beard, show my face more.

And I should really appear on video much more often. The social media gurus all say that. One article even suggested acting lessons, maybe some improv classes, or even a little voice coaching!

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Let me see if I get this straight, people. To be successful as a writer in this collapsing culture, I need to become an amateur lawyer and accountant, a master of the publishing business, and a television personality?

And I must do all this so I can hopefully earn enough money to eventually hire professionals to do most of these things for me? That’s an interesting plan.

And when do I write?


My Facebook, My Classroom

In the absence of a university classroom, I found that I naturally began using Facebook to share the controversial essays, articles, and political opinions I used to throw at my intellectually complacent college students. And since I wisely ignored the administrative dinosaurs who ordered me, back in 2007, not to connect with my more advanced students on social media, many of these former students are still connected with me as professional adults. They often dive in with passionate opinions, well-thought-out comments that add something of their life experience and expertise to the ongoing discussions.

Former professors, academic colleagues, and independent scholars I’ve connected with over the years serve as a virtual guest faculty, often debating an issue for weeks on one of my many comment streams. Together we’ve hashed through just about every social issue since Occupy Wall Street, and I don’t see any signs of this emerging academy slowing down any time soon.

That being said, I would very much like to expand our attendance a bit. So, if you’d like to join the discussion, throw your expertise into the conversation, or just sit back and watch a bunch of smart folks argue about shit that really matters, please do send me a Facebook friend request, or simply follow my public posts if you don’t want to get that personal. Just click here, but please do bring your thickest skin. Things get a little heated sometimes.