Poets


I’m currently the longest serving member of the Kenosha Writer’s Guild, coming up on ten years since I attended the very first meeting, where the Guild was born.

These days, the Guild remains as vibrant and alive as it’s ever been.  Membership has turned over several times, and with the departure of many seemingly indispensable members, there have been lean times where we wondered if we were going belly up. But it seems like each departure has been followed by fresh and talented new faces with energies that have reinvigorated the Guild. It’s all a part of the evolution of what we were to what we are. I am still honored to be a member of the group and take my role as a member of the Guild’s steering committee seriously, as we branch out into new and exciting landscapes.

Over the years, we’ve lost about as many people as we’ve gained.  Some quickly concluded that we weren’t their exact cup of tea and some relocated, to places as far away as the United Kingdom and New York. Others have had career changes.  Some who’ve left have and will return again and sadly, we’ve been around long enough that some won’t, not because they might not want to, but because they can’t.  So it is with every family – eventually, there will be an empty chair at the dinner table.

The second longest serving member is my good friend, the extraordinarily gifted writer and visual artist, Darleen Coleman. Darleen has been a member since the second meeting, or one fewer meetings than I have attended. I make a point to never let her forget that compared to me, she’s just a newbie.

A hobby of Darleen’s is collecting “junk,” or “junking.” Her passion for junk frequently leads her to estate sales.

So it was when she happened to stop by an estate sale a couple of months ago only to discover that the estate was that of Marguerite Mclelland, a member of the guild up until her death in 2015.  Marguerite was born in 1943 in the Alsace Lorraine area on the border of France and Germany.  In other words, she was born at the intersection of the chronological and geographic epicenters of World War two. She never knew her father, who was killed on the eastern front before she was born.

We in the guild didn’t get to know Marguerite until 2013 or 2014, when she joined our little group. We knew her as an utterly charming and good -natured woman who was also a very talented writer of poetry and prose.  She published a book about her childhood memories, “Stories from the War.” It’s a very well written collection of poetry and prose, of which you can hear some KWG members reading from here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgATnG6rbUM&t=2141shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgATnG6rbUM&t=174s

Darleen was quite surprised that the estate she was checking out was none other than Marguerite’s.  Knowing this, and remembering Marguerite’s passion for poetry, she couldn’t resist paying a couple of bucks for the thin paper-backed collection of poems and prose entitled “Ginsberg Speaks.”  Published in 1983, it contains about 35 pages of work by local writers, with its centerpiece being an interview with Allen Ginsberg by the Kenosha writer, Michael Schumacher.  When Darleen got home with the book, she opened it up and was surprised to see, in the table of contents, several poems attributed to another last name she recognized: “Gourdoux.”

I’d forgotten that my oldest brother, Mike, used to dabble in poetry. I’d forgotten about the pamphlet that published his poems. All I know is I didn’t understand very much about poetry at the time. It turns out there were plenty of other things I didn’t understand, either.

Mike was the oldest of four children. I was third, born a little more than six years after Mike. Growing up, he always seemed light years older than me. He also seemed to be, as far back as I can remember, the smartest person I ever knew. My interests closely followed his, and as his broadened, so did mine. First was professional sports, then music, rock and roll, then movies, and then books.

In 1971, a year after graduating high school, and after finishing a couple of semesters at UW-Parkside, he signed up for a three year stint in the Army, coming home in October of 1974. Those years, between 1970 and 1975, when I was between 12 and 17 years old, were the closest we’d ever be. In those years, he openly shared with me all of his knowledge about the aforementioned topics and more, including philosophy, the subject he’d changed his major to. To this day, I owe my love for those things to Mike.

One thing he didn’t share with me that I had no clue of until years later was his considerable expertise in substance abuse. What started out as a mild curiosity in high school,  in the army, in Germany, exploded into a major obsession, and he experimented with just about everything.

Sometime around 76, things changed. Mike was still living at home, and I was growing up.  Mike was having trouble holding on to a job, and he was going to school, pursuing his philosophy degree.  It was around this time that he essentially moved out of our shared room to a room in the basement, where he consumed case after case of Andeker beer.  We grew apart, into our own and separate corridors of loneliness, neither one of us realizing how much we needed each other, how much we could have and should have been helping each other.  Instead, we put miles between us, Mike taking a couple of Kerouac inspired trips to California and me moving to and working in northwestern Wisconsin.

In December of 79, after being laid off from my job at the window factory up north , I returned home, got a job, and signed up for night school, where I met my everything. In 1981, I married her; in 84, I started what would turn out to be a career in I.T.   Between 1985 and 1994 my wife gave birth to our three children.

Mike, meanwhile, continued to struggle. For a brief time he had a job in California digging out swimming pools. He’d return home and spend months at my parents’ property in Northwestern Wisconsin.  In the early eighties, when he wrote the poems Darleen found, he was living a hermit-like existence in a cold and unending winter.  Meanwhile, with a demanding job, a growing family, and some 330 miles between us, I didn’t have much time for Mike, but when we did get together, the spaces between us would fade and vanish and we’d discuss the Packers, Nietzsche, Jack London, and whatever else we felt like tapping into. He was such a great guy. Anyone who spent time with him knew that, and would leave feeling better than before they arrived.

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, Mike was diagnosed with depression. I heard the word but I didn’t appreciate the extent of its meaning. Looking back on it now, I wonder how I couldn’t understand the pain he was living with, and I wonder how alone he must have felt while I went back to my family, my wife and kids.

I’m not self-centered enough to think that I caused Mike’s death. There are multiple specifics that I know directly contributed.  But while I may not have caused his suicide in 2010, I did nothing to prevent it, either.

Now, my kids are grown and have left home. I have nothing but time, time to remember, and time to forget. There is so much I could learn if Mike were still alive.

In recent months, thanks to the encouragement of several members of the guild, I’ve become interested in reading and especially writing poetry. When Darleen gave me the book she bought at Marguerite’s estate sale, I realized that Mike and I once again shared a common interest, and that, as usual, he’d developed a deeper understanding of the form than I probably ever will.

It’s so easy for me to see now in his poems what I couldn’t see the first time I read them, back in the mid- eighties. Now when I read them, with the added weight of regret and time, they reverberate with despair and anguish and beauty that is overwhelming in its sadness:

               My night bird is an owl

                and flies with the borealis and the stars

                to look down upon them

                from the static of their antennae skies.

                It sits in dark lamp-lit rooms

                with books on shelves

                and remembers a shadowy figure

                standing by a river in the woods.

 

Back when I was a teenager, I remember Mike telling me that one of his favorite bands was Ten Years After, and one of his favorite albums was their masterpiece, “A Space in Time.” While the album includes a lot of great deep tracks, the best remains the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World.”

Now, in 2019, approaching ten years after Mike’s death, I’d love to change the world and go back to a space in time where Mike still lives.

 

A Bun Named Amy


Last night, the writing group I belong to, the Kenosha Writer’s Guild, had one of its regularly scheduled extended critique meetings.  I submitted an excerpt from the novel I’ve been working on.  In the excerpt, there’s an early morning scene in a hospital where the main character encounters a new, minor character that I introduce with the following sentence:

At that point, one of the nurses, a thirtyish woman with thick glasses and black hair all tied up in a bun named Amy, walked past in the hallway.

Forget for a moment that the sentence’s first clause, “At that point,” adds nothing and serves no purpose.  The main problem with the sentence is that I named the bun, and not the woman.

This was pointed out to me by one of my fellow writer’s group members at last night’s meeting. We had a good laugh at my expense, and although I was slightly embarrassed, I wasn’t surprised.

I’d read through the piece many times before the meeting, and made a lot of corrections.  But for some reason, glaring as it might be, I never saw the bun named Amy.  This is consistent with my experience, that no matter how diligent I might think I am in self-editing, I always miss things.  This hasn’t been true for only my creative writing, it was also true when years ago, in a previous life as a computer programmer, I’d always miss bugs in the code I was writing or testing.  There is a natural inclination in both forms of writing to glance over what you aren’t worried about, those little pieces of housework that are simple and unambiguous, and focus on the more complex content, the parts where you put in more work.

For what it’s worth, given that it’s coming from the author of a bun named Amy, my advice to other amateur writers out there is to join a writing group as soon as possible. Not only does a writing group provide you with a mechanism to have your work reviewed by fresh eyes, more importantly, it gets you away from your desk and out with people who share your passion, who understand what it is to be driven to tell stories.

A couple of years ago, I was at a big weekend writers’ conference in a hotel in downtown Madison.  One night, I was in the hotel bar, where I met a couple of other writers.  One was a quiet young guy in jeans and a black t-shirt, in about his mid-twenties, who’d written a sci-fi/fantasy novel.  The other guy was a sharply dressed lawyer by day who’d self-published three crime novels by night.  The lawyer asked us what we thought about writing groups.   The young guy responded that he had no opinion, that he’d never belonged to one.  I started to explain that I found mine to be extremely valuable, when he interrupted me.

“I think they’re a complete waste of time,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked, as if I had any reason to believe he wouldn’t tell me if I didn’t.

“Because all they do,” he said, “is tell you how great you are. I need more than that.”  He then proceeded to spend the next two hours telling me how great he is, pontificating on everything writerly, from rules about dialogue to why the big time agencies and publishing houses were too screwed up to recognize his greatness.  At some point, the younger guy somehow escaped, as I looked up from my beer to his empty chair, while lawyer-writer guy droned on and on and on.

Finally, the guy shut his mouth long enough to take a sip from his goblet of wine, and I was able to excuse myself and go back to my room. The guy was a pompous ass and a fatuous bore, but a part of me understood what he said about writing groups.  They can be too nice. They can be too busy being supportive when what you might need is some harsh and blunt criticism.

But then I thought about it, and I realized how wrong the douchebag was.  The thing with writing groups, at least my writing group, is that you get different levels of writers writing in wide and diverse genres and styles, not to mention skill levels. You get so many different perspectives.  The only common denominator is a love of and shared passion for writing.  It’s people who have full lives with work and family, but are still driven by the need to express themselves, to put something down.

Critiques tend to be respectful because most of the members respect one another, and respect the investment of time and emotion that goes into creation of each piece. It’s the creation of art at its most basic and pure level:  nobody is getting paid for their work, and each member is driven to write what they write by something that’s moved them. They may be inspired by a specific artist or genre, or by events in their lives, or any number of things. The point is, nobody forced them to write what they choose to write, or to even write in the first place.  The quality of their output is secondary – that they’ve been moved to put something down is worthy of admiration and respect.

Learning to understand this is the main reason to join a writing group.  Once understood, you realize that you are not alone, that maybe this strange thing you have inside isn’t as unusual as you thought it was.  Once you learn to respect these things in others, you start to respect it in yourself. This is after all why we write – to better understand not only the world around us, but to better understand ourselves, who we are.  This not only helps us make sense of the world, it makes us better – better readers, better writers, better people.