Music for a Day of Writing

My birthday was this past week. It was a busy day. October 20 is also the National Day of Writing. It is usually the first day – Teacher Day – of the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. Of course, I find both of these things very fitting celebrations of my birthday.

I have been attending the Dodge Poetry Festivals since 1986. The Festival is considered to be the largest poetry event in North America. For four days, poets both famous and emerging meet with teachers, students, and a public that loves poetry and perhaps writes poetry too.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has designated October 20 as the National Day on Writing™. I worked for NCTE for some years and so I usually was involved in the day on my birthday.

I don’t need a special day to write, but many people do need to be reminded. It is a very unthreatening day of writing for students and the public. Yes, it can be a poem, story, essay, or the start of a novel. It can also be a thoughtful social media post. It is more about writing consciously. People often share ideas and their writing online and use the theme and hashtag #WhyIWrite.

I wrote on the 20th but it was a busy day and this weekend is also busy with another festival, the Montclair Film Festival. I work and volunteer with that organization and so it was just this morning that I had time to write this after doing some meditation while my wife did her yoga, and then consciously sitting down to write some poetry.

One of the “birthday buddies” that share my birthdate and I mentioned in a post a few years ago is the composer Charles Ives. I discovered we shared a birthday when I was 15. That was a difficult year in my life and I went to my town library to see if they had records of his music. I borrowed three records and took them home that summer to listen to hoping to make some cosmic connection with this American modernist composer of experimental music.

It was beyond my ken. I read the liner notes (these were vinyl records with lots of writing on the covers) and was puzzled by polytonality, tone clusters, and quarter tones. It was not the “classical music” I knew via my parents’ records or what teachers played for us in music classes.

Years later in college, I came back to Ives’ music. And this morning, I listened to some of his music while I wrote.

My favorite Ives back then was “Central Park in the Dark.” and “The Unanswered Question.” They are both mostly quiet pieces. I also found them a bit creepy. I thought they might work as soundtracks for a suspense or horror film. My earliest actual times of being in Central park in the dark were kind of creepy, so it fit.

His original title of the Central Park at night composition was “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time'” This was written in 1906. Both of these compositions are tone poems. At 15, the idea of a tone “poem” was appealing. I wrote some quite pretentious poetry based on his Ives’ music.

The more I have read about his music, the deeper I go in understanding it nas also not understanding it. I find that “The Unanswered Question” has a background of slow, quiet strings that he wanted to represent “The Silence of the Druids.” A solo trumpet poses “The Perennial Question of Existence” and a woodwind quartet of “Fighting Answerers” tries to provide an answer. But they can’t and they grow more frustrated and dissonant. Finally, they give up. The question remains unanswered. In live performances, the three groups of instruments perform in independent tempos and are placed separately on the stage. The strings are meant to be offstage.

Though Ives never meant his four “holiday” symphonic poems to be played together, I found a recording that groups them together. As that album’s liner notes says, his piece “The Fourth of July” ” is one of his complex and crazy pieces. “Central Park in the Dark” is also often paired with “The Unanswered Question” as part of “Two Contemplations” and with his “Hallowe’en” and “The Pond” in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” We love to see connections. We want to make connections – with people and things – even if it is across years and miles.


You can find Charles Ives’ recordings on Amazon, or listen on Spotify or Pandora. I’ll embed here two that I have mentioned.

Reading Aloud

Now that I have a grandchild and another one about to arrive, I’m reading aloud to children again. I did it with my own sons but in my 25 years of teaching in K-12 (and even sometimes in my undergraduate and graduate classes) I would often read to my students. My draft title for this piece was “Reading to Children” but I realized that it is really about reading aloud to anyone. Reading to the baby yet unborn and to the senior citizen in the nursing home or a patient in a hospital are all terrific things to do.

I enjoy reading out loud. I enjoyed it when I was a student in my post-kindergarten days when I could read. Not a good thing, but I didn’t have a lot of patience for my classmates who were not good readers. I would get in trouble because I read ahead and then didn’t know where we were in the book. I learned as a teacher that you have to let everyone read – the good, bad, and the average readers.

I was inspired to write today because of an excerpt I found online from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done.

He is writing about reading to the really young ones. as when you say “Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet” and read from a picture book holding it up for all to (sort of) see.

I never had the chance to read to a class of mostly non-readers, but I did get to do that one-on-one and one-on-two with my sons and with my granddaughter. But the advice he gives often applies to reading aloud to any age group. And as a big fan now of audiobooks, the best readers follow most of these suggestions too.

His book probably goes deeper into the research on reading but in brief, we know that “reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.” They also learn what good writing sounds like and that will influence them as writers.

It really helps grow children’s vocabularies. H states that the average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand, so in a typical school year (around 185 days), if you read one book a day to your class, by the end of the school year they will have heard 185,000 words.

Reading aloud well requires “the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician.” We don’t all have those talents, but we can all read with a better expression than some AI device (sorry Siri and Alexa and my GPS).

The best part of reading 1:1 is when the little ones start to ask questions about the story. Those interruptions probably aren’t a good thing in classrooms but when the audience is on your lap, it’s great. It shows they are paying attention and that their imagination is at work. I love hearing my son read to his daughter and ask questions like “Can you find the apple? How many ducks are there in the pond?” I did the same thing when I taught Dickens or Shakespeare just at a higher comprehension level.

There should be reactions from your audience – just like at any performance. Laughs, giggles, maybe a gasp, or an “oooh” when the llama finds its mama. No tears in the early years, but I saw those in my classroom sometimes. (I always read Johnny’s letter to Pony in The Outsiders aloud to get that emotional reaction.)

I used to have my “sophisticated” middle school students bring in a children’s book they loved as a kid that they thought had a “message” for grownups too. They had to read it aloud to the class – dramatically – and discuss the “theme” with their classmates. It was a good and not too threatening front-of-the-class experience. I was pleased that a number of students would connect their children’s books with something we had read in class. “I think that The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss) is a lot like what happens in Romeo and Juliet with the two families.”

I remember a girl who brought in another Dr, Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! She said, “My mom got this for me at the end of fifth grade when I graduated elementary school, but I think it applies to middle school or high school too.” Yes, yes, and for college grads, and people changing jobs, and someone starting retirement. No matter where you are in your life, there is still much to see and do. The possibilities are still pretty endless.

Now, get your mat from your cubby, and let’s all take a little nap and dream about all those things.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.


The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

Music Is History

After I watched the documentary Summer of Soul that was put together by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I discovered a book he wrote called Music Is History. Both set me thinking about how music figures into our collective history but also how it chronicles our personal history.

You might know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots which is the house band for The Tonight Show with Ju=imy Fallon. He is also a passionate collector of records and an encyclopedia of music.

I saw Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) at home (it is currently streaming on Hulu and Disney+) but it would have been even better on a big screen with an audience.

It is definitely a music film, but it is also a historical record about an event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. It was 1969 and another music festival north of Harlem called Woodstock overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival.

The footage was forgotten and when Questlove found it he realized that it was more than just a good concert film (though it is that) but a document about that important year in cultural history.  It is hard to imagine why the footage didn’t emerge earlier because it has performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and other major artists.


Watching the documentary got me digging and I found Questlove’s book Music Is History.  He covers 1971 (the year he was born; the year I started college) to the present. This is his personal history of 50 years of music and cultural history.

His musical choices are understandably around Black identity and we don’t overlap much in our musical histories. But that’s fine because pivotal songs are pivotal even if you didn’t buy the album or turn it up on your stereo or cr radion when it was played. I knew about a lot of this music from the more obscure Sun Ra (though not his opus “Nuclear War”) to the more familiar Police and Tears for Fears tracks.

All of us should be able to write a kind of personal music history that probably also tells some larger history. My own from around that early time would include things like my memories of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (who I knew from their earlier bands – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies) and hearing their quickly produced and released “Ohio.”  That song came out of a day in 1970 when Neil Young was inspired by the horror of the Kent State shootings.

OhioTin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio…
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

As a kid entering his senior year in high school and being in the draft that might send him and his friends to Vietnam, the song was a lot more than a good song. I immediately bought the 45 rpm single (it wasn’t on an album for quite a while) The B side was “Find the Cost of Freedom” whose lyrics were also something that were on the minds of myself and my classmates and some of our parents that year.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground,
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.

On the good times’ side of the record, I strongly remember driving to the Jersey Shore with my girlfriend, who would be my wife in two years, to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It seemed that everyone owned that album and it was all over the radio. The songs “Go Your Own Way”, “Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, and “You Make Loving Fun” were all top 10 singles.

Podcasting

podcast mic
I read that there are currently over two million podcasts and over 48 million podcast episodes out in the world. Those numbers are incredible on their own, but when you realize that just 4 years ago, there were “only” a little more than half a million podcasts, the growth is astonishing. Those numbers might make you think that the podcast market is saturated, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I started doing a podcast last year and added another little fish to that big podcast pond. It is a podcast of some of the small poems I post on another site, Writing the Day. I thought there might be some interest by those readers to hear me read the poems and talk sometimes about what inspired them.

Not only are the poems small, but so are the podcasts. Some are under a minute. A few are a few minutes in length when there is some explanation I want to include. You might think that short episodes would have some appeal in these busy time but I don’t think so. I would think the same about short stories, but novels (end especially long ones) are definitely more popular. All those multi-hour true crime podcasts seem to be at the top of lists.

I fell behind on the podcasting. I started with the newest poems but I plan this year to go back and record some of the older ones that continue to get readers. There are about 800 poems there so I’ve got more than enough content. If only I had more than enough time.

Currently, they are available on Spotify (which has been the most popular option), but you can also find them on Google PodcastsPocket Casts, and RadioPublic.

You can find the poems and the story of how that project got started at WRITING THE DAY. It would be great if you stopped by and read a few poems and really great if you went to one of those podcast places and gave a listen.

Caffeine and Consciousness

coffee tea

Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.

Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan.  Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?

Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.

I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.

I have read a half dozen books by Pollan and written about him before. He is a good, serious and interesting writer. Pollan wrote Caffeine: How coffee and tea created the modern world as an audiobook. It’s not that the Enlightenment occurred because of coffee but “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan… and Voltaire apparently had 72 cups a day,” writes Pollan.

Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.

Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.

Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.

Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.

We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.

It probably seems odd to you to group caffeine in with opium and mescaline. It seemed odd to me considering those first London coffee houses were almost the opposite of the pubs and opium smokers. And those philosophers like Kant, Voltaire and Kierkegaard weren’t just having a cup with breakfast. They were mainlining their caffeine and it seemed to work.

I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.

Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.