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