Tag Archives: Ken Salzmann

Keys to good writing?

After the late, acclaimed poet W.D. Snodgrass read in a literary series I ran in the late-1980s, he and I went out for dinner, and we talked about a lot of things that night.

snodgrassbeardHow many Pulitzer Prize-winning poets does one small swath of rural New York State need (Hayden Carruth lived nearby and the two shopped in the same little stores)?

At what points do the performance of music and the performance of poetry meet? And diverge?

Why weren’t he and his brother on better terms?

How do you cook fish in a microwave?

He also talked about typewriters, or more accurately the unrealized potential of the newish word processors of the day to improve writing. Since word processors made editing/rewriting something like painless—no need to retype a whole page to insert a better word, say—there should be a marked improvement in the clarity and precision of writing. But was there?

He didn’t think so. Neither did he think microwave ovens had done much for cooking. Except for cooking fish, he said.

These days, of course, typewriters are being rediscovered by the hip (probably more for nostalgia’s sake than out of a quest for the perfect word). And I can’t help but remember that conversation with Snodgrass when I happen across an article like this one.


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Once, we had ample time to neglect a garden.

Once, we had ample time to neglect a garden.

As sometimes happens, that line, those syllables, rattled around in my head for years before finding what seems to be a fitting home in a poem. For now, in any case.

Of course, along the way the line has tried to settle into any number of poems I ultimately discarded, unconvinced that they ‘worked’ in one way or another. In the end–if that is what the published version is–the poem grew ever shorter, more compact, and (I can hope) became a fitting vehicle for the insistent line that demanded it be written.

Planting the Hyacinth Bean Vines

Planting the hyacinth bean vines today

in compost it took us all season to make

from the insistent decay of daily lives rich

in unread newspapers, orange rinds,

eggshells, the cores of apples,

compliant twigs, fallen leaves,

one of us might have thought to say:

“Once we had ample time

to neglect a garden.”

When “Planting the Hyacinth Bean Vines” appeared in print in the wonderful journal Memoir (and), the reader who left a flattering comment on the magazine’s web site couldn’t have known how many years it took to pare a reluctant poem down to nine brief lines that just might merit such generous praise.

Here’s that comment: “Perfectly compressed metaphor. I’m filled with admiration.”

What more could I ask for?

“A poem is never finishedonly abandoned.”

–Paul Valery

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Strokes of Genius

Seven or eight years ago, I received a letter from a longtime friend, a remarkable woman who first came into my life more than four decades ago as my 12th grade English teacher. The letter told a story, one that speaks volumes about the power of art to touch us deeply, unexpectedly, even inexplicably.

The setting is the highly regarded Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phyllis Levitt, the retired teacher whose story it is, went on what she assumed would be a pleasant but routine cultural outing.

That’s pretty much what it was, she wrote afterwards. Until she turned a corner and one painting stopped her in her tracks.

She wrote that an unexpected wave of emotion immediately overcame her. She found herself bursting into tears, even before she was near enough to see the roughly 28×36-inch oil painting clearly.

She couldn’t say why she reacted that way, or where that extreme emotion came from. She was reluctant to embrace the easy, mystical explanations that might have come to mind when she moved closer to the painting and realized what she was seeing:

“Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” was painted in July 1890, making it one of the last works created by Vincent Van Gogh. He committed suicide that same month.

Of course, one way to understand all this is that Phyllis had somehow tuned in directly to Van Gogh’s emotional state when he painted the picture. But there’s another way of thinking about it.

The popular image of Van Gogh is that he was a “mad genius,” and that both his life and his art were consumed by his madness. The reality is he was a disciplined artist with a mastery of color, composition and paint.

Looked at the second way, the emotional intensity of his work was anything but a byproduct of a troubled mind. It was the intended impact of a skilled artist whose vision was matched in every regard by his command of his craft.

In its own way, I think, that explanation of the power of the painting is every bit as “magical” as the first. What do you think? When was the last time you saw or heard a work of creative genius not with your eyes or ears, but in your marrow?

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.’”

–Vincent van Gogh


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First Words

CHILD OF MY CHILD was born in April, 2009, along with its flesh and blood twin, Josephine, 7 pounds, 6 ounces upon arrival.

In truth, we didn’t quite know at the time that a book had been born.

All of our attention was focused instead on one small child who had just reshaped our lives and changed our identities in ways we are still discovering. But it was inevitable that, sooner or later, we would look for a literary response to Josie’s life-changing presence, given our own backgrounds and sensibilities.

For me, Josie’s birth brought the seemingly straightforward passage into grandparenthood. That joy, however, was necessarily tempered by the awareness that her Grandmother Diana, my wife of nearly thirty years, did not live to see our only child become a father. For Sandi, who is now my wife, Josie brought joy as well, along with a flood of questions about the place she would have in Josie’s life as a step-grandmother.

We realized then that being a grandparent in the 21st century brings both timeless joys and sometimes harrowing challenges. Families fracture and recombine, often muddying traditional roles. For some, becoming a grandparent also means becoming a caretaker again.

For some, becoming a grandparent is an insistent call to look themselves or their own children in the face and take account. For others, not being a grandparent is a kind of loss. For many, that grandchild arrives bundled in equal parts hope and fear, because the baby’s parents may have struggled with substance abuse, financial or legal problems, or other demons. Sometimes, people become grandparents, but only learn that fact years later, as one poem here explores.

And, perhaps for all, the arrival of a new generation brings undeniable evidence of aging and mortality. That may be a particularly tough pill to swallow for the millions of Baby Boomers who have aged into this new role (and sometimes bristle at taking on traditional grandparent names).

When we decided to create this anthology and began soliciting contributions, Sandi and I suspected that some of these issues and concerns would be reflected and examined in the work we would receive. The mountain of submissions we received, however, brought many unexpected stories, too—along with much more excellent material than we possibly could use in a single volume. In assembling the collection, we have been blessed to have the always wise, sometimes surprising, sometimes challenging, prose and poetry of more than five dozen highly accomplished writers as our building material.

We are grateful to each of them and proud to include their work in CHILD OF MY CHILD.

That title, by the way, is borrowed from a wonderfully resonant image offered up, in slightly different forms, by two contributors to this volume: Barbara Evers and Karen Neuberg. It is both a powerful image in its own right and a fitting umbrella for the wide range of experience and emotion contained in this book.


Kenneth Salzmann

Take this quilt and let it blanket you,

in comfort and in loss.

It was stitched just for you

six generations ago.

Ever since, these colorful threads

have run through the lives

of daughters, then mothers,

then grandmothers, then daughters.

Take this quilt and one day

spread it over your own children

and over their children,

in comfort and in loss.

Everything is changing, and will.

But these ancient threads are holding fast.

child cover (award)0001

Child of My Child: Poems and Stories for Grandparents

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The Reuben Rose Poetry Contest and Voices Israel

The Reuben Rose Poetry Contest and Voices Israel

This article from the Jerusalem Post provides background on Voices Israel and Reuben Rose, whose name is honored in the annual poetry contest I was privileged to judge this year.

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December 5, 2012 · 9:11 am

My appearance on “Today’s Authors”

Here’s an excerpt from one of two 30-minute interviews conducted by writer/poet/broadcaster Gary McLouth. . . .

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December 1, 2012 · 1:15 pm

This weekend, my late wife, Diana, would have turned 60.

The persistence of ashes

In fact, it is the roses that remain.

They enter the house all summer long,

and longer. I place them on the mantle beside the urn

where they will expend their pinks and reds petitioning

what gods they know for the persistence of your ashes.

And they will weep petals across the hearth.

At times, I catch myself believing in the immutability

of ashes, as if we are of this place or any other. As if

the generations that go on spreading like ash will turn

one day to the fixed notion of a place that is home.

The roses were planted fifty years ago or more, a neighbor said,

by a woman who went about, as people do, growing flowers

and growing old, until there was nothing left but roses to testify

that she had ever been. And we set out to make a home amid the thorns

and petals of her life. We nested in the oak-lined rooms that remembered

all her moods and all her movements, but only briefly. And you

took it upon yourself to took it upon yourself to cleanse and nourish

those roses, perhaps in hopes of sanctifying a transitory life

followed seamlessly by ash and bone.

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December 1, 2012 · 12:50 pm

Judgment calls

First, take 521 poems.

Then, presume—because it’s the job you’ve signed on for— to set aside 518 of them, in effect deeming them in some way less deserving of recognition and a cash prize than the remaining three.

Welcome to the world of the literary contest judge, replete with all the satisfactions and frustrations that go hand in hand with any impossible task.

The organizers of the 23rd Annual Reuben Rose Poetry Competition have just announced the winning entries (see below) for 2012, selected by me and two fellow judges through a painstaking scoring process that ensures that each entry receives a full measure of serious attention, at the same time it examines each anonymous entry through different lenses, different personalities, aesthetics, and—well—biases, I suppose I have to say.

When a poem shines all the way through such a rigorous process, you can be sure it’s deserving of the award it’s been granted.

And, for this judge at least, that’s where a large part of the satisfaction rests. When the winners’ names are revealed, you can be sure each of them will be a poet of merit and distinction. You can also be sure that I will be searching for more of their works, having had a taste of what they have to offer to readers.

But the satisfaction also goes well beyond discovering—and toasting–three poets whose work I’ve just learned I admire. It extends, too, to the 99.5 percent, or so, of entries that didn’t receive one of the top prizes in the end (although, a number of citations are being awarded as well). Dozens, if not hundreds, of those entries, too, might merit another prize on another day. Overwhelmingly, the entries were crafted and insightful, and sometimes startling in the way a good poem can be.

It’s frustrating, then, that I couldn’t nudge each of them along to an award.

But it’s satisfying to know that each of them has had close and appreciative readings from at least an audience of three judges. Given the commercial reach of most poetry, that’s a pretty good prize as well.

. . . You can see the winning entries here.

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The bears were a bonus

The bears were a bonus.

The extraordinary radio show — broadcast live on WIOX and streamed in real time on the Internet — was the main attraction that night, or so we thought. It was, at any rate, our reason for driving deep into the Catskills for a chance to read on the air from CHILD OF MY CHILD, our then-new book on the eve of its official publication date.

And, in every regard, the show lived up to our expectations and then some. Dubbed “Cabaradio” and billed, accurately if also tongue-in-cheek, as “Garrison Keillor meets David Letterman meets Hee Haw,” it was the season’s installment of what has been a quarterly, two-hour variety program performed before a live audience and built of musical performances, comedy bits, poetry, storytelling, and other literary pursuits, and casual but insightful interviews with some of the key players in the economic or cultural life of a fascinating and varied region.

It was fast-paced, far-reaching, and –best of all — professionally executed without ever veering into the realm of modern-media-slick. It was real. It was impressive. And it was a blast.

The performers had something to do with that. But not everything.

The bill that night included a couple of skilled storytellers schooled in regional traditions, a two-person team of impresarios/recording producers tapping into and showcasing the area’s rich folk music traditions, a talented house band, a seasoned acoustic bluesman, a tween-age rock band, and a conversation with a regional planner (it’s an area, after all with incredible resources and incredible challenges), for starters.

Add to that a spirited, tongue-in-cheek audience Q&A segment called “Your Mother Should Know” featuring a quick-thinking, silver-haired ‘advisor’ who never strayed far from a killer punch line, and, of course, the poetry segment that had brought me into the mix, and it could only be a full and fun evening of entertainment.

As enjoyable as the on-stage pageant proved to be, however, what I most remember one year later is the energy, interest, and easy camaraderie of the highly-diverse audience. And that, it turns out, was the real point of the show.

“Cabaradio” is just one offering on the eclectic menu of programs and services offered by the Pine Hill Community Center, a remarkable little organization situated in a tiny hamlet (population 308, or so) and serving  a region of mostly tiny hamlets and towns. But that radio program (which is preceded, appropriately, by a popular pot luck dinner) makes for a compelling picture of the Pine Hill Community Center overall. The experience made it very clear that “Community” is not just a part of the feisty organization’s name, but the core value that enables it to hit the high notes that many larger and wealthier organizations only aspire to.

Which is just to say that the show was great, but in the final analysis it was the audience that truly told the story.

Oh, and about those bears– New York State wildlife experts say there are perhaps 1,500 black bears living in the Catskills these days, a growing population that has residents learning anew how to live alongside the beautiful but dangerous and sometimes-bold animals making a comeback in the region.

On the night of the “Cabaradio” program, several of us who were slated to perform found ourselves in the makeshift green room before the show, while a mother bear and her two cubs made a playground of a hillside, not much more than a first down from the window we watched from.

After the show, I bought a T-shirt featuring the “Cabaradio” logo–a black bear wearing headphones.


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I have a theory, or at least a hunch.

take fiveI have a theory, or at least a hunch.

I don’t think I’m the only photographer who is haunted by the one that got away, the fleeting, searing image that came into my field of view when no camera was at hand. I suspect it’s a universal experience for shooters.

For me, it came about 40 years ago when I had the opportunity to photograph the Dave Brubeck Quartet during a couple of stops on what was their 25th reunion tour, and the last tour for the great saxophonist Paul Desmond. What was left unsaid at the time was that Desmond, whose “Take Five” was a signature song for the quartet and remains an enduring jazz classic, already was battling the cancer that killed him the following year.

That’s not something I knew, however, when I pulled up to Boston Symphony Hall to catch Brubeck in rehearsal, several hours before the concert they would play that night. What I did know was that the man leaving the building through the stage door and walking slowly along the length of the drab, almost industrial looking wall that backs up the splendor the audience sees was weary, older perhaps than his chronological age of not much more than 50, and — slumping a bit and entirely alone on the street with just his horn case for company–one of the leading jazz musicians of his era.

And I knew that my cameras were still stashed in the trunk of my ’74 Subaru.

In my mind anyway, it was an image as evocative as an Alfred Stieglitz view of the Flatiron Building, with the industrial dwarfing the human.

That’s not to say any photo I might have taken might have gone mano a mano with Stieglitz’s famed photo. But the image did, and does, endure  in my mind.

That, I suppose, is why it finally emerged as a poem, written decades later (and anthologized in a wonderful collection of poems about the dual subjects of nature and music called Reeds and Rushes, edited by Kathleen Burgess and published by Pudding House).

Here’s what I saw that afternoon, and still see:

Paul Desmond’s Last Date

at Symphony Hall, Boston


So many have walked this wall

in just this way that their footfalls, too,

are beaten in sambas and rondos

into the hidden tempo of the street;

yours come down at stage door

in five-four paces,

encircling ghostly wisps of breath,

gathering again in a new confusion

of entrances and exits reedy melodies

drawn from a muscle memory of riffs

that how often have skitted

through those horns

in cool approximations of redemption.



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