On the road

The soundtrack wasn’t the late-night bop sounds of Symphony Sid and I wasn’t driving with one hand while my other hand typed my spontaneous beatific scroll. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album on my stereo and I had one hand on the wheel and my Mapquest directions in the other — but I was indeed on the road, first stop Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac and my destination for a meeting with the folks who have organized that town’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was held last October for the very first time and is already an impressive event.

Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac
Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac

I arrived early, and so had a chance to explore downtown Lowell, which reminded me very much of my own old home town of Yonkers, N.Y., where even now I can walk around those familiar streets and conjure up visions of the city’s once-bustling business district in the old carpet mill buildings and the old sugar refinery and even the old Herald Statesman newspaper office now converted into a library branch because the newspaper was homogenized and sanitized and standardized and blended until it disappeared. Lowell  felt like that, right down to the impressive old Lowell Sun newspaper office, with its big rooftop signs — two of them — spelling out the name of the paper, S-U-N.

Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building
Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building

I then met with the poetry festival organizers, with whom I’d been put in touch by Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate who teaches in the graduate program at Boston University and was the featured poet at the inaugural festival held last October in Lowell.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky

(Pinsky was the featured poet at the first annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in 1998 — which I founded and still run in conjunction with River Union Stage of Frenchtown, N.J. — and was good enough to come back to read again in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of our readings in New Jersey, which have also featured such literary lights as Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner and another former U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon; National Book Award winner Gerald Stern; and other great poets includling Thomas Lux, Diane Wakoski, Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Joe Weil, BJ Ward, Charles H. Johnson, Stephen Dobyns and many others. The 2009 Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, scheduled for October, will feature yet another great poet — Rita Dove.)

So I met with the Lowell event’s organizers: Michael Ansara, who arranged the lunch, joined by LZ Dunn, who works for the city of Lowell as well as its cultural agency, and Paul Marion of UMass/Lowell.  We had a great exchange of ideas and thoughts on ways the Lowell event might be turned into an even greater event than it already is, including the idea of finding ways to connection with the thriving poetry scene in another old industrial city with deep literary roots — Paterson, N.J., associated with a couple of pretty good poets named William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

I also had a fascinating but all-too-brief talk with Paul Marion, who it turns out has been the mover and shaker behind many of the efforts to properly honor Kerouac in his home town — and was involved in the cataloguing of Kerouac’s correspondence — including letters Kerouac exchanged with the late, great poet Robert Lax, who was my friend and mentor. I knew about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac, who was fascinated by his Zen/Christian minimalist approach to life and art; in fact, I know that Lax was reading some of Kerouac’s novels in the months just before he died; but I was startled to learn during the conversation that Marion was familiar with Robert Lax and was excited to meet someone — me — who had known Lax.

Here’s a photo taken of Lax by Paul Spaeth, curator of the Thomas Merton/Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University, when Lax visited the school in 1990 during a brief sojourn back to the U.S. from his home on the island of Patmos, Greece:

Robert Lax
Robert Lax

The one downside to the meeting in Lowell: Turns out the 2009 event in Lowell will be held on the same weekend as Rita Dove’s scheduled appearance Oct. 17 at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in New Jersey, so I won’t be able to make it back up to Lowell for this year’s event — here’s hoping I can make it in 2010.

And, because even Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll manuscript had a begininng and had to finally end, so too this post must end. What better way than with a sampling from Jack Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. He listed thirty “essentials.” Here are my favorites:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
20. Believe in the holy contour of life


Do good things come to those who wait?

To get an answer to that question, I guess readers of these essays will have to wait and see.  Come to think of it, so will I.

November was frantic and December was chaotic and January so far has been…What’s a good word?….Ominous? Apocalyptic? Nostradamussy? Did I just invent a new word? The economy collapsing all around us…layoffs and a just-announced one-week furlough without pay at my own job…probably a big friggin’ meteor heading toward us from behind the blinding sun…wars and rumors of war…icebergs melting…Old Faithful no longer so faithful…publishing world still hasn’t recognized its obligation to publish “Half  Moon” and “Gloryville” and “The Dogs of Arroyo” by Nicholas DiGiovanni… it’s like Dylan sang back in the 1990s because he knew this was all gonna come down like a hard rain a-faillin’…ain’t no use jivin’…ain’t no use jokin’…everything is broken.

So that may explain why, much to my surprise and chagrin, I’ve paid only about a half-dozen visits to my very own World of Wonders in the last two months. But now that’s going to change.

Spring training’s right around the corner, maybe the meteor will miss us, Obama’s about to become president, and Dylan’s still touring, and things just have to get better, right? So here’s some of what I’m going to write about and I hope you’ll want to read about in coming days:

Poets Joe Weil,  Maria Gillan and Rita Dove. Dylan expert Michael Gray. My latest quests for arts-colony invitations and arts-foundation money (and why is it that I just now realized the similarity between “arts colony” and “ant colony).  Ray Bradbury. Niagara Falls. The future of newspapers. Puerto Rico. Louise Gluck and her recent great poem in the New Yorker. Extremely cold weather. New Year’s Eve in Vermont and a January 1st visit to the Weston Priory. A commentary on Thomas Merton’s relationship with his lady friend. More about my much-missed friend Robert Lax. More reasons why I want someone to offer me a job in Vermont. An account of a dinner conversation in which I explained to my wife why I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton. Musings (I’m being inspired by the Muse) on the nature and meaning of true friendship. A long overdue report on a bunch of fine writers I got to meet at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival this past October. Some (I hope) catholic commentary about the Catholic Worker movement. Some talk about books I’ve read recently. Some thoughts on recent and upcoming books by writer pals Steven Hart. Christian Bauman and Bathsheba Monk. Further explanation of why I’d like to live forever, even if that meant outliving all of my friends and family. Thoughts on whether I really do remember being in my mother’s womb. Thoughts on whether my late father and other dead people I once loved really do speak to me in my dreams. And, most important, of all,  my thoughts on the Yankees’ acquisition of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

And much, much more! So stay tuned!

It’s unbelievable…

Sometimes there’s more bad news than good news. Sometimes there’s more good news than bad news. Sometimes it’s pretty much a 50-50 balance and then it’s a question of whether you see the glass as half and empty or or half full. 

Today’s good news is that Obama’s still apparently got a comfortable lead over McPalin, according to the polls, and that the Anchorage Daily News has endorsed the Democratic candidate for president. That’s right, Anchorage, as in Alaska, as in the state where Sarah Palin will hopefully returned in less than two weeks.

The bad news, on the other hand, is really bad, and it’s that the glass has overflowed and this great land is awash with yahoos, lunatics, bigots, dolts, crazies and Fox News “reporters,” and my fellow Americans at the fringe group calling itself usawakeup.org is posting dangerous and scary crap like this on its Web site:


Scary stuff. So let’s watch and listen to Bob Dylan’s video for a song from his album “Under the Red Sky:”


It’s unbelievable.


Stopping the presses

In a way, I really don’t care.

I worked at the weekly Delaware Valley News in Frenchtown, N.J. for more than 20 years, helped turn it into a really outstanding community newspaper, one of the best around, and really defended it and protected it and respected its history — founded in 1879, originally called The Frenchtown Star — and tradition. Then I watched short-sighted ownership and anonymous corporate money counters suck the life out of that newspaper — cutting, cutting, cutting until they finally cut too much and finally, inspired by the ghost of Johnny Paycheck, I told them to take their job and….and went to work fulltime as a news editor at the daily Home News Tribune/Courier News/mycentraljersey.com.

But in another way, I really care.

I’m saddened by the news I received yesterday, that the Delaware Valley News has been shut down by the corporate media conglomerate that bought it a few years back — the same corporate media empire that owns the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., the New Yorker magazine, a few dozen other newspapers, and Conde Nast magazines including Vogue and GQ.

The demise of the Delaware Valley News was something I tried to fight for quite a while and expected to happen sooner than it actually did. It bothers me no end to think that some pointy headed little accountant with his or her pointy little red pencil could just cross out a line item that represented a 129-year chronicle of the life — the births and deaths, the joys and sorrows, the good and bad, the tragic and gladsome — of a community.

And I’m also angered. I still know people who work for the Delaware Valley News and its sister publication, the Hunterdon County Democrat (which is still there but took a major personnel hit itself). When my wife heard about the demise of the Delaware Valley News, she commented that one of the DVN reporters who is being transfered to the larger paper is ‘lucky to still have a job.’ What she meant was that he’s ‘lucky’ in the sense that so many people in this greed-driven economic tailspin are just flat-out losing everything — their homes, their retirement, their medical insurance, their jobs. So Annie’s right in that regard.

But my response was that ‘lucky’ should not be part of the discussion. Someone’s ‘lucky’ because they worked hard and did a good job and some corporate deity smiled down upon them and decided to let them keep their job? The real response , the real question, should be how it is that the elite, the people who don’t have a thing to really worry about financially — Will they have to sell their Manhattan penthouse? Will their investments drop in value from, say, $800 million to $600 million?  Will they have to let go of some of the help? Will they have to sell the villa in the south of France? — are able to screw around so cavalierly with the lives of ordinary people.

And I’m not just talking about the people who bought and who are now closing the Delaware Valley News. I’m talking about all of the rich folks who were supposed to be taking their tax cuts and investing that money in their businesses, thus creating new jobs, thus growing the American economy for the benefit of us all. What a load of horse shit that turned out to be — as if we didn’t expect it. And you know what all of those people are doing now? They’re getting what they can get while there’s still something to get. It’s like the line from the recent Dylan song, ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ in which he sings:

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down 
 Anyway….Here’s the news article that ran today in one of the papers I work for now, the Courier-News: 
HUNTERDON COUNTY —The Frenchtown-based Delaware Valley Newswill print its final edition this week after serving 10 New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns along the banks of the Delaware River for nearly 130 years. The weekly newspaper’s four staffers were notified of the shutdown on Monday, Sept. 22, as they continued to produce the paper’s last issue, which is scheduled to hit newsstands Thursday, Sept. 25.

Joe Gioioso, publisher and president of NJN Publishing, said company officials decided it was time to fully pitch the weekly Hunterdon County Democrat, a sister publication based in Raritan Township, to readers of the Delaware Valley News in an effort to eliminate duplication of coverage and to offer stories from the entire county. ‘We’ll still be covering those towns that we were covering in the DVN, so that’s not going to change,’ Gioioso said.

Delaware Valley News Editor Deb Dawson said in a brief telephone interview that she lost her job yesterday after spending nine years with the company, most of them as a reporter for the Democrat. ‘They decided to close it,’ Dawson said of the paper she’s led for the past year. ‘That’s about all I know.’

Jay Langley, executive editor of the Hunterdon County Democrat, declined to comment on the closure, as well as whether the shutdown was accompanied by staff reductions at his publication. ‘Anything I know will appear in Thursday’s paper,’ Langley said, adding that subscribers of the Delaware Valley News are being notified through letters of the newspaper’s final days.

The Delaware Valley News, established in 1879 and called the Frenchtown Star until it was sold to the Democrat in 1932, has a paid circulation of about 3,000, according to the New Jersey Press Association’s citation of 2006 figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Of the paper’s four staff members, Dawson and office manager Betty Crouse were laid off yesterday. Staff writer John Monteith will be retained at the Democrat while staff writer Kevin J. Guhl will leave the company after six years for a communications job.

‘Themood here today, as someone else said, it feels like someone died,’ said Guhl, 30. ‘It’s unique to have a newspaper that has been here 130 years that really maintained that small-town quality that I don’t think you see in a lot of corporate papers these days.’

Guhl said the paper’s Harrison Street headquarters, with its large storefront window, acted as an open invitation for locals to drop in and provide tips or to chat about the news of the day. Dogs and their owners were routinely greeted with treats.

Crouse said she started with the company almost 20 years ago when her sister-in-law coaxed her into helping produce the Democrat one night when ‘the college kids didn’t show up’ for work.

Crouse, 64, said she worked that night from the ‘ends of my hair to my toenails.’ After that, Crouse played various parts at the company — telemarketing, data entry, typing up copy for the sports department during a snowstorm — until landing the role as office manager at the Delaware Valley News nearly 12 years ago.

Working at a small operation, Crouse said she accepts advertisements and legal notices, calms down angry customers and even takes the long way to workto make personal deliveries when ‘little old ladies’ don’t get their paper.

‘This morning it was like shocking,’ Crouse said. ‘There were tears. ‘

Frenchtown Mayor Ron Sworen, also a Hunterdon County freeholder, said he received word of the closure yesterday through the letter to subscribers. Sworen, a subscriber of both the Delaware Valley News and the Democrat, said he understands the continuing decline of the newspaper industry, which has been beset in recent years by dwindling circulation numbers and advertising revenue. Still, he said, ‘there’s really something to be said about a hometown newspaper.’ ‘I understand the issues, but it’s still sad,’ he said. ‘It was our local hometown newspaper. Now that’s gone.’

And here’s an article posted today by my friend and former colleague Rachael Brickman on the Hunterdon County Democrat/Delaware Valley News Web site, nj.com:

After 76 years covering west Hunterdon County and parts of Pennsylvania, the Delaware Valley News newspaper will end its run.

A child of the Great Depression, the paper had absorbed other local papers including the Frenchtown Star and the Milford Leader. The DVN‘s office in Frenchtown will close and some of its editorial staff will move to the Hunterdon County Democrat‘s offices just outside Flemington. The Democrat will cover the DVN‘s circulation area of Milford, Frenchtown and the townships of Alexandria, Holland and Kingwood, but Pennsylvania coverage will be reduced.

Subscribers to the DVN will receive the Democrat for the duration of their DVN subscriptions. Subscribers to both papers will have their Democrat subscriptions extended by the length of their remaining DVN subscriptions. People with subscription questions should call the circulation department at 782-4747 ext. 249 or (800) 300-9321.

The last issue of the small weekly newspaper will be sent to homes this week. For more on the history of the newspaper, pick up the final issue or a copy of this week’s Democrat on Thursday, Sept. 25.