I'm incredibly honored to be part of this great, in-depth feature on the Susquehanna River & Chesapeake Bay - Killing the Chesapeake.
You can hear the following poems read by me at the end of each article:
"Shad Flakes" - Damned if you dredge, damned if you don't
"Cleft Lip" - PA's Polluted Susquehanna River is Poisoning the Bay.
"Upon Hearing that Snakehead Catfish Passed through the Conowingo Dam Fish Ladder" - 3 Iconic Susquehanna Species Struggle to Survive
"Native, Wild, Invasive" - Fishing for Monsters 'Out of the Abyss'
"How to Run the Rapids at Shocks Mill Bridge" - The 444 Club: Boating the entire Susquehanna River propels paddlers into another world
"Dead Water Deities" - This 'dead creek' runs orange with acid mine discharge
Making mix tapes and playlists is a kind of metaphysical act for me. The pressing of the play and record button down at the same time, the click of the reels, the hiss of the tape, the sharing of a link, the finding of the perfect opening and closing songs, the tracking, the cover art, the mystery of just how this music will be received—it creates an ethereal bond between the artist and the listener and the giver and the receiver. A communion. A faith in Side B.
The poet Kim Addonizio invented the sonnenizio when she published "Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton." Take a line from an existing sonnet, use it as the opening line for a new sonnet, repeat one word (in some form) from that first line in all the following lines, and then end with a rhyming couplet. There exists in this creation: something formal, but not too formal, and a dialogue with another work of poetry or a poet.
When Andrew reached out with his songenizio idea, I jumped at the chance to create a playlist for someone I had never met (what better way to introduce yourself?) and to discover new music. I’ve never really enjoyed writing formal poetry. I’m much more of a rambler. My poems take the shape of the rivers I wade, so I was a bit apprehensive about writing in a set form, but I went with it anyway, the excitement of sharing songs just too hard to pass up.
Sharing music has always been a way for me to share stories and experiences. Here, check this Cass McCombs track out, maybe that melody will catch you like it did me as a bat careened across a full moon silhouetting a dying campfire. Maybe you can feel that smoke smoldering in those Steve Gunn guitar licks. Maybe you can smell the honeysuckle along the river lifting that Woods chorus into a holy mantra.
The quarantine, which had just started when Andrew reached out, magnified the power of formal poetry and the experience of sharing music. All of a sudden, I lost almost all human interaction and the energy that I fed off of and my days lost their structure. It was my daily bike ride along the river and listening to Andrew’s playlist that gave me something to hold onto during those early days of the pandemic. It became a way of communicating with someone through song. Each one was a little piece of kindling we handed each other, waiting to see what kind of fire the other would create in their own isolation. A conversation centered on music and poetry. What a beautiful thing. Writing these poems in this form gave me a structure I needed during a time when all the structures I knew were disintegrating. Music and poetry have the power to give us something we never knew we needed.
All proceeds from this chapbook will directly go to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund: sweetrelief.org
* None of the musical artists listed were involved in the production of these poems beyond their words serving as first line and inspiration.
To Purchase this Chapbook :
Digital - Bandcamp
Paper - Amazon
I am not here to lament all that we've supposedly lost due to the digital age. Nah. I love my Apple Music (though I wish streaming paid artists more) - I love how easy it is to FIND new music and to share that music and to listen to that music. I still buy records, occasionally, of my favorite albums. It's good to have a physical copy of something - there is a ritual to putting on a record. Just like there is a ritual to listening to all the Dylan bootlegs I have on cassette. Sure I could easily download them, but it's just not the same - I want that distant feeling like he is actually off on stage and I'm sitting in the grass of a general admissions show. BUT there is one thing I miss. The Hidden Track.
The Hidden Track was like a secret, shared moment you had with the others that found it. Back before we could Tweet out links to our favorite songs or share playlists, the ways to share music were much more direct, connected. You could listen, together, to a song in the car. You could make a mix tape and give it to the person (man do I miss mix tapes). You could go see it live and experience it that way. But for me, as a teenager without a car, the hidden track was a beautiful little gem that you found and held and hoped that others did as well.
Here are two of my favorite hidden tracks -
Live - "Horse" from Throwing Copper
My sisters and I shared a cassette tape of this album and whenever we were going someone, we made my parents put this into the tape deck of our Dodge Caravan Minivan. I was lucky and always got the middle bench seat to myself whereas my two older sisters had to share the back. Anyway. Live was a local band - they were from York, we lived in Lancaster just across the river. They were IT. They were OUR band and we knew every single word to that album. But I always loved the last song... which was really two songs. "White, Discussion" is a political song - I knew that then - but never really understood what it was about. I just loved that it was political - it spoke to my burgeoning rebellion (which eventually lead to an obsessive Rage Against the Machine/AIM/Free Leonard Peltier phase) against everything that the little suburban Christian conservative town I lived in represented - and especially the way he just yells and screams "Look where all this talking got us, baby!" over and over and over as it fades to black and the cassette, you can still hear the plastic cogs turning in the player and then "1,2,3,4" and an acoustic guitar and cymbal splash and this beautiful pedal steel guitar and now I'm along the river, sitting on a porch watching mayflies gather for their last hoorah around the one light and "Horses," "Horses" this perfect song, this hidden song, perfect for the cassette tape with that spinning plastic and crinkly tape added an ethereal layer to that song, another long lonesome whine of the pedal steel. And you listen to it hoping that someone else, somewhere also found this beautiful little nugget of music and a hidden track becomes a shared experience.
"Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Zero is Also a Number" - The X-Files Soundtrack
Oh man. Much like "Horses" was perfect for the cassette tape, "Zero is Also a Number" was perfect for the CD. It was MADE for the CD. It could only EXIST because of the CD. I was pretty obsessed with The X-Files as a 13-14 year old. I loved staying up for it every Friday night and the weirdness it projected into the mundane existence of 8th and 9th grade. They eventually released a soundtrack - Songs in the Key of X - an incredible collection of music that had the likes of Sheryl Crow next to Soul Coughing and Burroughs and R.E.M.
But what made this hidden song the, in my opinion, best hidden song ever, is that you needed to have a CD and needed to read the liner notes to catch that little blurb at the top that "Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like you to know that '0' is also a number." Holy shit. HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT! Okay, so let me put the CD in and have it start on track one, then let's hold down the "back" button and HOLY SHIT NOW THE NUMBERS ARE GOING NEGATIVE HOLY SHIT HOW LONG IS THIS??? It went all the way back to like "-10:00" and then you let it ride and you hear what I think is one of the most beautiful, transcendent pieces of music from this group of artists.
You are transported into what feels like an actual X-Files episode - it's dark, it's dreamy, it's creepy, there are people flitting in and out like ghosts. Goddamn. The lyrics are sparse and the interplay between Cave's voice and Warren's violin tells its own story, a story within a story. But the story centers around "being called to the forest" and that image, that call to action, appears quite randomly throughout my days, still. The song seems to find itself as it develops, it's a story being told, that doesn't seem to be written down, but is finding itself as it is played - much like how you have to find the actual song. And that discovery is communal, a shared experience built on faith that others have also put the clues together.
John Prine's passing is devastating on many levels. It's hard to express just how much his music influenced me in a few lines or tweets or Youtube video shares on Facebook. So here are a few vignettes.
First Encounter - Pittsburgh
Back in Freshman year of college, 2001!, I would go to the Carnegie Library and check out Cds (!!) so I could burn them and listen to them on my portable CD Player (!!) as I walked around campus. Pittsburgh was the first big city I ever lived in and that freshman year was tough. That concrete watershed seemed to amplify every sound and every light. I was constantly overwhelmed by all the noise and traffic and people. But I loved it all the same, especially when I put on my headphones and just escaped into an inner world within the city. Headphones and my bike. Those were my escapes. Those were my tools for handling that transition. Back to the library. One day I came across Prine's album Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. I had heard Prine before, even had his self-titled album on record and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, produced by the late, great Howie Epstein (bass player for the Heartbreakers), was just so fucking beautiful. From that orchestral opening of "New Train" to that great slow blues bass line of "I Ain't Hurtin' Nobody" and then the epic, gorgeous "Lake Marie." What a fucking masterpiece. My Freshman year was defined by two albums that I played on repeat as I explored the steep city streets of Pittsburgh - Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Without Prine and Tweedy, I don't think I could have made it.
Pacific Crest Trail
A few years later I found myself living out of a backpacking doing trail work on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. We'd go into the backcountry for ten days, build trails, then spend four days off traveling to our next site, gorging on burritos and In-N-Out Burger, drinking beer. We were constantly haggard and smelly and it was a wonderful existence - never knowing exactly where you'd be setting up your tent, traversing the California mountains. One morning we woke up on the beach surrounded by gigantic Redwoods, a herd of elk, and seals playing in the water. One morning we woke up to the Santa Anna Winds tearing through our camp, literally ripping our tents. One morning we woke up to a blizzard up in the Siskiyou. One morning we woke up in the middle of the night because the full moon was so bright in the Mojave Desert it was impossible to sleep so we stayed up and watched the silhouettes of Joshua Trees slowly meander across the Desert floor. One morning we woke up in the Emigrant Wilderness to see only the eyes of coyotes circling us in our sleeping bags.
Anyway. We'd have these long drives between work sites (trailheads). California is big. And my tentmate Tom had this Cd-r (!) recording of Prine's 2005 Bonnaroo Concert. We played that show on repeat. It was such an incredible recording. Prine was in prime form, bringing out "Your Flag Decal" out of retirement (Iraq War) and dedicating "Some Humans Ain't Human" to Bush. "All the Best" - it's an emergency song! Good luck! And then ending with "Lake Marie" and "Paradise". That record took us up and down the coast of California. It was a soundtrack to a transformative time of my life.
And that's just a sliver of what Prine has meant to me. There's the concert in Pittsburgh that Steiner and I went to, years after graduating college. We rode through the dark city down to see Prine and then took the long way home along abandoned railroad tracks, finding places along the Allegheny to stop and drink and smoke and watch the slow river burn its way under those bridges.
There are all those countless nights of sitting around a fire in my back yard listening to Prine, helping me center myself in this big old goofy world. There are the countless singalongs to "Lake Marie" and the yelling of SHADOWS! SHADOWS! at random times during the day and immediately breaking out into reckless laughter. God damn. What does blood look like on a black & white TV? SHADOWS!!!
That’s the genius of Prine. Even the sad shit is hilarious. Just like life. Every time I’ve felt like complete shit in this life, I just put on Prine and everything slowly gets put back into place. I go back to when I was working trails in Maine and Dean and I would sing Prine songs while we worked, making the incessant black-fly bites tolerable. Thank you Mr. Prine, for not just making this world tolerable, but for making it beautiful, for being a soundtrack for so much of my life.
I've always loved fishing in the winter. It may be harder to catch anything, but there are far fewer people and with all the undergrowth dormant, you can really see the riverine landscape you're exploring. I started the year with a pretty beautiful brown trout and then began to fall in love with exploring post-industrial watersheds.
I took advantage of the high water we had throughout the spring and fished smaller streams for large brown trout. I also continued exploring streams throughout the Pennsylvania anthracite region that are in acid-mine recovery. Some of these streams have brookies and browns returning and thriving in their orange waters. I also landed what was probably my personal best wild brown trout while casting a black woolly bugger upstream and stripping it down through a riffle into a deep hole under a sycamore tree.
Summer was fun. I started it off up in Potter County for the annual #POCO trip and ended up finding some beautiful brook trout elders in small streams. Then, we took a few days in the Catskills before I ventured up to the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine for a week of fishing. Maine was, as always, beautiful and inspiring. But this time the fishing was tough due to their long, wet spring and the black flies were mind-bogglingly torturous. Finally, I ended the summer with a ten day trip out to Yellowstone and the Bighorns with a good friend I hadn't seen in years. I ended up camping 4 out of the 12 weeks I had off. The only downside to this summer was the lack of good bass fishing on the Susquehanna River. Something is up with that waterway.
After my epic summer of traveling and camping, I slowed down quite a bit in the fall. I went back to work and fell into that routine. I didn't catch a ton of fish, but I did manage to land a few really nice ones. I was really hoping to finally get into some bass on the Susquehanna River, but the river never really seemed to wake up. I did manage to get into two of the most beautiful trout I've ever landed.
A former student surprised me with an incredibly gift of two prints for my poem, "How to Live Away from Home," she made for a final project in one of her college classes. I really love her design and the way she interpreted this piece.
I recently wrote two short essays - one on the inspiration and craft behind my poem, "Deer Mountain," and another recommended the great song "Old Strange" by Steve Gunn.
You can find them here: