3 Ways You Can Help #njpoet

1.) First and foremost, if you enjoy reading my writing and/or following me on social media, and you can afford to do so, please consider making a donation to help us cover our hosting fees and other website expenses. No donation is too small. Every dollar helps. Every dollar is deeply appreciated.

2) Or you could buy some njpoet stuff, become a human billboard for the Internet arts! (Pardon my exclamation point.) In the end, purchasing most of our merchandise amounts to a $2 donation or less, but it is very cool when people email us pics for our Facebook Page.

Erica Manni

3a.) However, if you’re as broke as an adjunct professor, then the best way to help is to browse our 800+ posts and share your favorites on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIN, Tumblr, Digg, and StumbleUpon. Also, if you troll #njpoet on Twitter, retweeting to your hearts content, we really won’t mind.

3b.) And then tell others! Tell your friends, tell your family members, tell your co-workers—but maybe not your corporate bosses—to visit njpoet.com, read a few posts, retweet, like, share, and please do leave a comment. I love comments.

Thank you!

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog posting.

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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

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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!”

Send.

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.”

 

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Exam Room Banter: another Millionaire Doctor story

I usually wake up with stomach pain—a sour churning, a burning in my mouth. I take a pill twice a day for acid reflux. I take another handful of pills for other problems. 

“It’s all anxiety, tension, stress,” several doctors, specialists have said.

Millionaire Doctor agrees. What am I so stressed about, he wonders out loud, rested and tanned after his fourth vacation this year.

And I’ve learned not to get political during my medical examinations. I no longer complain about academic wage theft, economic class war, and the obnoxious fact that I’m being charged money for getting sick.

My examination room banter has made more than a few doctors red in the face with anger over the years.

So, with Millionaire Doctor, I’ve tried to just blame myself, to point out some healthy thing I should be doing, or something unhealthy I should not be doing at all. Tsk. Tsk. Such a bad boy.

“I’ve been eating more sodium than I should be,” I confessed when my blood pressure spiked in 2012—food bank canned vegetables. I ate what food we had, but I left that part out.

“I’ll cut out the canned foods,” I promised the doctor. “Sorry.”

“You need to cut out the stress, too,” he sighed, patting me on the shoulder and walking me back to the reception desk.

“Try taking a nice long vacation,” he suggested, while his office manager swiped my debit card. “I bet two weeks of swimming and napping in the sun would really chill you out.”

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Writing Boundaries

I’ve been doing this for a little over five years now, moving through my corporate-owned, hamster-wheel life, paying close attention, reporting on the street-level reality of the collapsed U.S. economy.

I’ve tried to poetically express the pain the Great Recession caused my friends, my family, and my neighbors. I have failed a lot, but I’ve kept at it, every day—five years of working to understand what’s really happening, to write critically and honestly about what I discover.

And I’ve even made a little money, the ultimate validation in my country, at least enough money to pay the substantial hosting fees to keep this poetic web show going. And it is also a true story that in 2012 the IRS officially started listing my profession as Writer. Source of Taxable Income: Writing. Word. Up.

So, it perplexes me that friends and family members—and friends of family members—still approach me with ridiculous career suggestions, or dead-end cubicle jobs I should “try to get.” And then there’s the creative masterminds who tell me what I should and should not write about, and what form I should or should not write in. We can’t forget them. And then there’s the people who say that they think poetry should always rhyme.

Actually, those people are fucking idiots. Just ignore them.

My deeper point is, what exactly must a writer do to be taken seriously, to be respected as a professional in this broken culture? I mean, writing every day + making money = professional writer. No?

Or do I have to play a writer on a reality TV show to deserve my identity in America?

Maybe it’s because I don’t write books. Some have said that, my former boss at the university said that. Could that be it? Do I have to become the Balzac of Kindle to be taken seriously? Maybe.

Whatever. My real point is this, finally: at the very least, and I’m asking this sincerely—begging, really—could you naysayers please just shut the fuck up and leave me alone already? I’m writing.

Thank you for reading along.

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Another Dead Friend

He used to stand outside his apartment building, looking defeated and smoking cigarettes. Or he’d pace the sidewalk slowly, his eyes locked on the ground, his shoulders slumped. I watched him from my window for a month before I introduced myself, before I discovered he was a physicist stuck in a dysfunctional dissertation process, working landscaping jobs to pay his bills while he jumped through profit-driven academic hoops.

A year later, he landed a professor job, an adjunct position at a local university. And just like me, he was eventually passed up for a promotion to full-time by a less qualified academic with superior ass-kissing skills.

He was angry about that the last time we spoke, seemed even more defeated than usual when he stopped by last week. He invited me to Atlantic City to see a concert, just to get away.

“I’d love to,” I said, “but I’m broke. I have to work.”

He understood, but was clearly disappointed. So he went alone, his girlfriend also had to work, and yesterday afternoon he was found dead in his hotel room.

“I kept calling and calling but he wouldn’t answer,” his girlfriend said, standing on my porch last night. I held the door open, stunned, not sure what to say, just listening.

“I had to argue with the hotel for an hour to get them to call the police,” his girlfriend continued, red-eyed and sobbing. “Finally they got into the room. They found him laying on the bed, his books were scattered around him, and he was dead. Just dead.”

He was thirty-one years old. No one knows what happened, his girlfriend is emotionally destroyed, and I just don’t know what else to say about this at the moment. Sorry.

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College Used to Be Free in America

The following is an excerpt of a talk by my former professor, H. Bruce Franklin, delivered at the 2000 Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, DC, on the panel, “The Imprisonment of American Culture.” #njpoet

A fierce counteroffensive against the progressive campus movements was launched and coordinated by the White House, now occupied by Richard Nixon. In June Nixon delivered a speech in which he equated “drugs, crime, campus revolts, racial discord, [and] draft resistance,” expressed horror at the “patterns of deception” in American life stemming from contempt for moral, legal, and intellectual standards, and denounced the campus movement as central to this national crisis: “We have long considered our colleges and universities citadels of freedom, where the rule of reason prevails. Now both the process of freedom and the rule of reason are under attack. At the same time, our colleges are under pressure to collapse their educational standards . . . .”4 Vice President Agnew (not yet indicted for his own criminal activities) was even more explicit. In early 1970, Agnew argued that there was too high a percentage of Black students in college and condemned “the violence emanating from Black student militancy.” Declaring that “College, at one time considered a privilege, is considered to be a right today,” he singled out open admissions as one of the main ways “by which unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism.”5 Later that year, Roger Freeman–a key educational adviser to Nixon then working for the reelection of California Governor Ronald Reagan–defined quite precisely the target of the conservative counterattack: “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.”6

The two most menacing institutional sources of the danger described by Freeman were obviously those two great public university systems charging no tuition: the University of California and the City University of New York. Governor Reagan was able to wipe out free tuition at the University of California in 1970, leaving CUNY as the lone threat. The vital task of crippling CUNY was to go on for six more years, outlasting Nixon and falling to his appointed successor, Gerald Ford.7 In 1975, President Ford announced that he would withhold federal aid from New York City, then in a financial crisis, until it eliminated open admissions and free tuition at CUNY. To be financially responsible, Ford declared, New York must no longer be a city that “operates one of the largest universities in the world, free of tuition for any high school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend.”8 Or, as the President’s press secretary explained, New York City had become like “a wayward daughter hooked on heroin”: “you don’t give her $100 a day to support her habit. You make her go cold turkey to break her habit.”9 Finally in 1976, the assault on public education succeeded in terminating the City University’s 129-year policy of not charging tuition, thus wiping out the last U.S. stronghold of free public higher education. The university then fired hundreds of young faculty members hired to implement the open admissions program.10

In the decades since then, with free tuition looking like a relic of some ancient past or a dream of some utopian future, tuition and other charges have kept rising at public colleges and universities across the nation. Combined with reduced budgets for scholarships, these escalating costs have made it ever more difficult for poor and working-class students to obtain higher education, a trend accelerated in the 1990s by open attacks on affirmative action and remedial education.11

Meanwhile, just as the state and federal governments were taking away the funds that could open up the universities, they were beginning to spend far greater sums to build alternative institutions for the poor, with exceptionally easy entrance requirements and lengthy enrollments for people of color. From 1976, the year when free higher education was eradicated, until the end of the century, on average a new prison was constructed in America every week. The prison population went from under 200,000 in 1971 to two million in 2000 as America became the prison capital of the world.

Read the Full Talk

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Eviction Court

By that time, we’d cut out our grocery bill in an attempt to catch up on the rent. Losing my professor job in 2009 hurt us badly. So, I started taking trips to the local charity food back once every two weeks. It wasn’t enough. The eviction notice came in the mail a few months later.

My apartment manager said the owners would definitely negotiate a payment plan, but I had to show up in court. I had to deal with their lawyer—and pay his $300 fee—that was how the owners wanted it.

Court turned out to be the jury assembly room in my county courthouse, and a recorded message from a retired judge who was clearly cast because he spoke English and Spanish, and not because he read from cue cards comfortably on camera.

For the next ten minutes of stammering, our DVD judge explained to the roomful of overstressed people that the court had no authority to compel the property owners to accept our payment plans. The owners could, if they so desired, remove us from our homes in the next seven days—with the assistance of court appointed officers, of course.

The court was basically allowing us to use the room for mediation, for a chance to sit down with the owner’s lawyer and present our payment plan, in the hopes that something could be worked out to keep us all in our homes.

The DVD ended. People began shuffling around, looking for the correct lawyer.

“It’s like the days of Feudalism in the place,” I said to the guy sitting next to me as we both stood up, “the landlords have all the power. This court is nothing but a puppet show.”

And I could tell by his mixed-emotional facial reaction that he only half knew what the hell I was talking about.

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Millionaire Doctor

I’ve been developing this character I call Millionaire Doctor, who sometimes represents my current doctor, but more often is an amalgamation of all the terrible doctors I’ve encountered in the United States.

Like the thirteen urologists who told me the severe pain of prostatitis was all in my head—just my anxiety—for over a year, until I found the fourteenth urologist who had a penchant for the obvious.

Like the twelve Ophthalmologists who insisted, for eighteen months, that my inability to read was not a problem with my prescription glasses—after all, their machines were perfectly callibrated—it must be a problem with my clinical depression. The thriteenth Opthalmologist discovered that I’d been fitted with a presciription that was about ten times too strong. By then, my left eye had been permanently damaged by the strain. Sorry. It happens.

Or how about the Orthopedic Surgeon who charged me $25,000 for knee surgery after my car accident, and then sabotaged my legal case by taking a vacation—one of the six he takes every year—whenever a court date was scheduled for my trial. Eventually, we had to abandon the case.

“He just doesn’t like to go to court,” one of his doctor friends told me, laughing. “He does that all the time.”

Yet this particular Millionaire Doctor always takes the car accident cases, because big money. And my knee still hurts, you fucking quack.

The American medical field, in my experience, is awash with greed and incompetence. The stories and tweets about Millionaire Doctor are my creative attempts to cope.

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No More Televised News

I quit all televised news, disconnected the cable. Talk radio fell off my radar next.

These days I only read the newspapers, the transcripts of political speeches. I find it’s easier to remain critical in text, easier to spot bias, easier to avoid being manipulated by a gifted orator. Just the words of the page for me, thanks. No performance necessary.

I’ve learned to balance out the capitalist cheerleading of the mainstream media with the historical blind call for a global revolution from some of the alternative media sources.

Speaking of which, unless you’re talking about an inner revolution, a revolution of human consciousness and thought, you can count me out. Malcolm X was on point when he said “revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.”

I have no interest in cheering on or fomenting the collapse of the society my nieces and nephews live in, and I’d like to leave the children with a slightly better world even though I have no child of my own.

I would like to be a member of a generation that does not leave a mess for the generations that follow, and I would especially like to be a member of the generation that finally abolishes war.

How sad it is that I live in culture where these are considered naive things to hope for.

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Afternoons with Cedric Hill

He had more than a few good years with the kidney one of his closest friends gave him, but about two months ago—for whatever reason—Cedric’s body began rejecting the organ. 

He asked me to meet with him in his hospital room to discuss the projects we’ve been collaborating on—a dramatic film, a documentary, and now a TV pilot. Despite what he described as excruciating pain, we discussed social media strategy for two full hours.

Since then, Cedric has been stopping by my apartment now and then, after his dialysis appointment at the hospital just down the road. He is always pushing me to write more, to post more, to publish more, to stop holding myself back.

And now I can’t blame my health problems, my aches and pains and stomachaches manifested by my unreasonably high anxiety. The one time I tried that excuse, Cedric didn’t mince words.

“You know they drain out all my blood every week, right?” he said without blinking, this half-angry smirk on his face. “Do you know how much that shit hurts?”

I responded with silent squirming, so Cedric drove the point home.

“Just shut the fuck up and write.” he said. “I don’t even wanna hear it.”

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Meditation Practice

I’ve never been good at going to Buddhist centers. Being a lapsed Catholic, those places have always felt too much like church for me. 

I’ve also never been much into chanting phrases that mean nothing, or pondering the emptiness of myself and others.

I mostly practice meditation like an old world Japanese farmer, sitting for a short time every day, focusing on the reality of my surroundings instead of the constant meaningless chatter in my brain. Sometimes I just follow my breathing—in an out—sitting or standing.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck on a line—at the post office, at the supermarket, in New Jersey traffic—I focus on the people around me, their posture, their facial expressions, their bits and pieces of conversation about debts, evictions, relationships collapsing. The whispered misery of the United States fills me with compassion, makes me want to embrace everyone in my country with love poetry.

We all suffer in such similar ways. We’re all so interconnected by it. After a couple of decades of really paying attention, human emotional interdependence becomes so obvious.

“We really do need each other,” I say to the people I meet when I venture outside my apartment. And every now and then one of these people, usually at some party, will say that I’m not a real Buddhist. Sometimes they get very angry about it.

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My Second Job Ever

He hired me to be the stock boy for his carpet store in Newark. Every Saturday, he picked me up in his Mercedes and drove me to perform whatever odd jobs needed doing.

Some days, I carried 50lb. boxes of marble tiles, hundreds of them, one by one up three flights of stairs to the third floor storage room. Other days, I cut carpets to size in the dilapidated warehouse across the street.

The boss always paid for my lunch.

On slower afternoons, usually in the summer—the store had no air conditioner—we both sat at a desk outside the store, greeting customers and chatting with the cops, the prostitutes, and the locals who walked by all afternoon.

He taught me a lot about the art of human conversation, and gave me a lot to think and write about, my second boss—a friend of my mother who was really more like an uncle.

After my ten hour shift, he paid me $25 in cash, a near fortune for a fifteen year old boy in the 1980s, and I used a lot of that money to buy alcohol with my girlfriend—both of us deeply troubled children.

Sadly, I lost that second job about two years later. My boss died, massive organ failure brought on by diabetes—if I remember—and the carpet store closed.

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