Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Sunday, June 18, 2017




 What about writers’ conferences? Are they valuable for people who want to write?
    I felt very privileged to be included in the 69th annual Philadelphia Writers’ 
Conference. My participation included a three day workshop on writing newspaper
columns. Although I also write fiction and history the newspaper column for me
 has always been a staple like devoting time each morning to yoga, meditation 
or writing a journal (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s.)
   Overall, writers’ conferences can be a little daunting. Writers, generally, 
work in private and the process requires a lot of solitude and self discipline. 
The profession is not for those who cannot sit still or hate being alone for very
 long periods of time. You work everyday, you put in your hours and then you 
close up shop and do other things like get on with the “mundane” things of life.
   Of course, if you are a writer or want to be a writer you have to be a reader. 
You have to keep reading. Read. Read. Read. The two things go together like
 grilled cheese and tomato soup.
   All this solitude—alone in your room banging at the computer—takes its toll. 
When you emerge for a breath of fresh air, you feel freed and sometimes a sense 
of exuberance takes over. You relish your first human contact on the street whether
 that contact is a neighbor or friend.  Going to a writers’ conference where you 
suddenly meet scores of other writers, most of whom may also be emerging from
 cocoons of solitude, can be a little daunting. When you write everyday what
 often creeps in is a sense of isolation that can sometimes give you the impression 
that you are the only writer on the planet. I call this the Robinson Crusoe effect,
 and it’s real.

   While the obvious benefits of a writers’ conference (networking, for instance)
 far outweigh the downside, there is a slight downside to it all. From my perspective
 that downside might include a thematic emphasis at many writer’s conferences on
 writing a best seller and getting your memoir or how to do book on The New York
 Times bestseller list. Statically speaking, writing a best seller only happens to a very
 small number of people. While writers’ conferences such as PWC offer amazing
 practical advice and wisdom, they also can tap into the Great Myth that even you 
can write a best seller if you follow certain guidelines, the most important guideline
 being getting a literary agent and then following that agent’s advice to the letter.

    One of the most galvanizing events at PWC was the featured panel of literary 
agents, all of them women and the majority of them in their late twenties.

    The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took
 place earlier in the day. These were 5 minute talk exchanges in which the writer
 was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up
 in advance to have your 5 minutes with this or that agent and then, like speed
 dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent was and you 
started talking. It’s much like a job interview in which you promoted your
 resume—“I am the best candidate,” etc.—and then did your best to convince 
the agent that you had the manuscript of the century.

  While the opportunity of meeting with New York literary agents was a 
great thing, (thank you, PWC) the process struck me as a little depressing, 
much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for
 a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at the 
conference had never published a book so they’re goal was to accomplish
 this at some point.  

   During the Agent Q and A it was never specifically mentioned that writing 
a best seller is really a fluke and the result of chance. Few writers set out to 
write a best seller since there is no way that anyone can gage what the public
 will want or even find desirable at any point in time. The public is a terrifically
 fickle mistress, whimsical, unpredictable and untrustworthy.  Jack Kerouac 
wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say not 
because he wanted to get on a best seller list. Dostoevsky wrote because
 he had a message to impart not because he wanted to be the 19th century 
Russian equivalent to sexy women’s fiction romance writers like Jackie Collins.

  This is not to say that most writers wouldn’t like a best seller but when your 
whole goal as a writer is to write a best seller, something is lost.  The agents 
were asked over and over again: What do you want? How will you pay 
attention to my manuscript? How can I get your attention? I will write
 anything you tell me to write. O powerful goddess!

    As I heard these questions I imagined Tolstoy in the room taking
 notes—“She wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “She doesn’t
 want any mention of the paranormal,” “She wants a commercially viable topic.”
    Put Mark Twain into this room and have him ask: “Ms. Agent, how can
I even be more of a Mark Twain?” Imagine a question by an unpublished 
Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism 
to Catholicism would ever be a best seller?”  (Answer: “Not on my watch, Tom.”)
    At times I felt that some of the writers in the room were willing to bypass 
what they intuitively felt called to write if one of the agents had a better idea, a
more commercially viable idea. 
    At the Q and A somebody asked the agents why there didn’t seem to be
 any male literary agents.  “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it
 was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents
 receive, but is this true? How can these women survive in Manhattan and pay
 rent if agent salaries are so low? Do they have Hedge Fund husbands? And if
men don’t read is it  because the educational culture in this country—the reading
 assignments in middle school and high schools, for instance-—have literally
 stopped assigning books to students that are about men. As a fellow newspaper
 columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle
 school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters. 
There are no male central characters at all.”

  If I could do one thing to make PWC better it would be to try and put a halt
 to creeping PC ideology from infecting workshop material.  At one workshop
a woman presenter/ author came down hard on Hemingway, inferring that
 because he was a sexist and a big game hunter he was no longer relevant. 
The not so subliminal suggestion was that Hemingway should be booted 
from the literary canon.” Some people in the workshop agreed—“Yes, he’s
 an awful sexist pig!”—while others insisted that moral judgments like this
 belong in a Left Progressive burn out at UC Berkeley, not at a literary conference.   




My Talk as the Featured Speaker at Walt Whitman's 198th Birthday Party, the Whitman House, Camden

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York and died on March 26, 1892 in the Mickel Street house. Walt called this house a “shack.”

 He went to a
Brooklyn public school but dropped out at age 11, a common thing in those one-room schoolhouse days. He didn’t write very much about his school experiences although he did manage to write a short story "Death in the School Room (A Fact).” The story detailed the frequent use of corporal punishment by teachers in those days. You might say that public school life then was the reverse of what it is today: tyranny by students.

As a young writer, Walt liked to concentrate on themes like cruel or apathetic parents and their depressed, angst-ridden sons. One of the poet’s first jobs was in the printing office of Samuel E. Clements, a Quaker who wore an enormous broad-brimmed loghorn hat in the summer months. According to one of my favorite Whitman biographers, Jerome Loving, young Walt learned how to "parse and spell” at Clements’ composing table, the same way that Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain learned to write.

The first newspapers in
America were simple operations where the reporter was also the printer. That later changed when the printing was done separately.

Young Walt worked for a variety of printers. Later, he became a school teacher but returned to printing when he started his own newspaper, The Long Islander. The best part of having your own newspaper, Walt recalled, was delivering the papers on horseback.  Walt’s earliest published poem was "Our Future Lot,” about the one common denominator that unites humankind: death. Walt also wrote essays about the evils of smoking, flogging, fashion, materialism and the stupidity of quarreling.

Walt was outside political parties and in many ways he was antagonistic towards them. He was also a poor man at least judged by modern standards. He had an immense sympathy for the lives of the poor but he enjoyed the company of the wealthy too. He was no fool. There are both mansions and shacks along the Open Road.   

As a young man he was too much of a poet to be a good newspaper or editorial writer. One has only to read Democratic Vistas (1871) to see how much of a rambling prose writer he could be. 

He opposed capital punishment and for a time was an advocate of the temperance movement, writing a novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. The book was published in 1842 as a small novel and its author listed as Walter Whitman. The story was a sensationalistic screed against the evils of alcohol. Walt later disavowed the temperance movement. In his bohemian years when he lived in Manhattan, he would frequent Pfaff’s cellar restaurant and saloon, a carousing, boisterous ”arty” place that attracted artists of all types. Even then it is said that the poet would sit back and nurse a lager or two for the longest time while his friends drank themselves under the table. After he turned 60, on the advice of his doctor, Walt began to drink native American wines and champagne.

 When he lived on Mickle Street he was plagued by the appearance of an imposter, an artist who dressed as he dressed and who looked very much like him. The artist was the opposite of a teetotaler and could be seen wobbling around town. This wasn’t good for Walt’s reputation.  People talked and gossip filled the Open Road.

Walt was, as his biographers note, a big giver of gifts because to love is to both give and receive.

In 1857, The Brooklyn Daily Times described Walt as "a tall, well-built man [who] wore high boots over his pants, a jacket of heavy dark blue cloth, always left open to show a woolen undershirt, and a red handkerchief tied around his brawny neck.” Once when Walt spoke at an upscale
Center City literary club the organizer, writer Agnes Repplier, feared that his talk would be as roughhewn as his farmer’s clothes but it turned out that he spoke like a prophet and a mystic. Clothes don’t make the man—or the woman—on the Open Road

This Mickle Street house was known as a quiet and grassy place in the 1890s but Walt was not a good housekeeper. Some at that time described the interior of the house as “filled with undesirable confusion.”  Walt liked to scatter his papers on the floor, sometimes mixing them with the wood that he used for his stove. The Open Road was sometimes messy but when friends tried to clean it up, Walt got annoyed. Walt did manage to have fresh flowers on the first floor window sill, however, and of course his canary was not endlessly rocking but endlessly singing.

 So many visitors came and went. The Mickle Street house became a place of pilgrimage.

  A Japanese journalist, once visited him in the garden where we are gathered here today. They talked and feasted on canned lobster and California wine. Walt talked about the American West and especially of Denver, the queen of Western cities.

His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was very controversial during his lifetime, in some cases ending friendships and even getting him fired from his job in
Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critics either loved or hated his work. His book was banned in Boston but his champions included many literary greats like Oscar Wilde, George Elliot and (to some degree), the cantankerous Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Walt had his literary biases. He had a distaste for so called gloomy writers like Edgar Allan Poe.

It should be noted that when Walt moved into the Mickle Street house he became a home owner for the first time in his life at age 65.

Walt gave a number of
Lincoln lectures in Philadelphia and Boston after the president’s assassination. During the Civil War he worked for a number of years as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War hospitals of Washington DC where he looked after dying and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. Walt favored the Union but he would not take sides when it came to his hospital work. His most intimate friend, Peter Doyle, for instance, was an ex-Confederate soldier who was present in Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was assassinated.

Walt always believed that the nation’s capital would be moved from
Washington to one of the cities of the west. "Why be content to have the Government lop-sided over on the Atlantic, far, far from itself—the trunk [west], the genuine America?” he wrote.

Before moving to Mickle Street, the poet stayed with friends at 1929 North Twenty-Second Street where in the summer he would sit with his host family on the stoop or doorstep.

Whitman’s voice, according to one friend, was "full-toned, rather high [and] baritone.” This same friend said that when Whitman read books "he would tear it to pieces—literally shed it leaves…”

One of the poet’s favorite pastimes was "keeping track of his fame in the press.”

Walt was obsessed with personal cleanliness but wherever he lived he created immense disorder with papers stacked on the floor and the curtains of his room twisted in the style of ropes to let in more sunlight.

Walt also spent a lot of time in
Germantown and on the banks of the Wissahickon. He would ride the ferries on the Delaware in all kinds of weather, leaning over the boat like an old ship captain. He claimed that he once hobbled halfway across the frozen Delaware but then turned back when he sensed that the ice was getting thin. He observed, and commented on, the view of Philadelphia City Hall during its construction. He liked to hang out at the base of Market Street where he would converse with workers, roughnecks and tramps, but when evening came he would head to the opera. Before his death on March 26, 1892, he was able to purchase a wheelchair on credit from Wanamaker’s Department store.

And who knew that Bram Stoker used Walt as his character study for Dracula?

Walt grew cranky in his old age but since he had a lot of aches and pains, he can be excused for his bad moods. The Open Road is not a bed of roses. It comes with thorns, closed gas stations and occasional road blocks. Bad weather is to be expected. The thing is to keep moving and wait for the sunshine despite the road’s many irritations. Walt’s temper could be a terrible thing, but as fast as it went up, it went down. And he was always ready to forgive people. Good lesson for all Open Road travelers, I’d say.

If age 40 is the new 20, and age 60 is the new 40, then age 70 must be the new 45 or 50. But Walt at 70 was really an old man --- people did not age well in the 1890s. Walt was often sleepless and suffering…from 1888 to 1889 he was totally house bound, trapped in his Mickle Street shack, anchored to the big chair in the front room. Many critics surmise that he survived on his Open Road memories. Thinking back and remembering again.   

At the time of Walt’s death in his bed on
Mickle Street (an autopsy was preformed on the first floor of the house where there was also a viewing), he was the most famous poet in America.

The Open Road appeared to be over but in reality it was just beginning. Our Open Road graybeard is more alive today than ever.  


Gypsy. Often cited as the greatest American musical, this rollicking bio epic is loosely based on the life of famous striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s at the Arden stage (till June 18) with all of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics intact, including classics “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”  Five-time Barrymore Award winner Mary Martello plays Gypsy’s mother, the tyrannical Mama Rose, who will stop at nothing to ensure that her kids succeed in show business. The great American poet Hart Crane (The Bridge) was Lee’s New York City neighbor for a while and, inspired by Lee, wrote the following lines about his favorite burlesque house: Outspoken buttocks in pink beads/Invite the necessary cloudy clinch/Of Bandy eyes. The Arden should resurrect other forgotten but equally famous musicals like Richard Rodgers’ famous 1943 Broadway hit, Oklahoma!   


 Uncle Vanya. When it comes to Russian plays, Philadelphia’s usual answer is: Chekhov! Hedgerow Theater did Uncle Vanya in February 2107, and the Lantern Theater did its own version of The Seagull in 2010. Chekov’s Seagull came up again in EgoPo Classic Theater’s amazing February production. As a short story writer, Chekhov rarely disappoints (Chekhovian wisdom: “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry”), but city theaters would do well to look into other Russian playwrights like Pushkin, Gogol and Solzhenitsm. Uncle Vanya is the story of a celebrated professor and his complicated family. Quintessence Theater Group (215-987-4450). Till June 18.  

BalletX.   Three innovative works opened BalletX’s Spring Series 2017. In Schachmatt (Cayetano Soto, choreographer) a delightful but all too short French themed, J’attendrai by Rina Ketty set the stage for a dynamite dance Peter Gunn Theme by Jack Constanzo. The less than enthralling Cuban Mambo by Perez Prado (we wanted more French numbers) was enhanced by dancers like Megan Dickinson and Gary W. Jeter II who kept all eyes glue to the stage. Often when dancers express elemental states of joy, suffering and desire there’s not much of a need for an accompanying narrative but sometimes only words can bring the abstract into focus. This was evident in segment two, the world premier of In Between the Passing (Tommie-Waheed Evans) which played into a raw, athletic sensibility while exploring expressions of time and mortality. Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 by Henryk Gorecki had this writer making up his own internal narrative to go with the dancers’ footprints. The last segment, The Last Glass (Matthew Neenan) was a slightly more complicated piece reminiscent of the drama and cacophony of Philadelphia’s streets. Throughout this BalletX opener, I kept hoping for costume changes—bicycle pants, yellow flowered vests with poka dot ties or even a procession of umbrellas and red balloons to break the monotony of the sackcloth-like dancer’s tunic.   

The White Devil.  When John Webster’s play premiered on a dreary, cold winter night in London in 1612 there was no standing ovation. The London audience was less than thrilled and Webster’s work, including The Duchess of Malfi, faded into obscurity until the 1920s. The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective production at the Broad Street Ministry was a genuine theatrical implosion.  Webster is Shakespeare unhinged. Murder, betrayal, more murder, random stabbings, a fencing match and poisoned helmets, not to mention a penitent home for whores and a liturgical fashion show (a la Fellini’s Roma) showcased the corruption and savagery of the male dominated English Court. Act I was a tangled mass of confusion as the play’s 101 plots and subplots slowly came into focus but Act II was as invigorating as the classic B film, Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill!”  Charlotte Northeast (Vittoria/Conjuror) is a natural in any Elizabethan setting; Dan Hodge (Flamineo) might as well be called a one man SNL; David Pica (Lodovico/Marcello) was almost too comfortable with the diabolical while the forceful J.J. Van Name (Cornelia) dominated the stage with her classic  authoritativeness.  Damon Bonetti’s direction showed artistic verve although if I had one wish it would be that the trend of women (Lexie Braverman as Giovanni) playing the part of boys would come to an end.  

 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.  Pelkey, a 14 year old flamboyant gay teen is the victim of a hate crime. He wore rainbow sneakers, was a makeup artist and advised women four times his age how to dress. Written and preformed by James Lecesne and directed by Tony Speciale, at times the script has a contrived “activist” feel as if co-produced by the Human Rights Campaign. There are also moments when it veers off course as if a dramaturge advised Lecesne to “stop talking about the boy so much.” Lecesne’s immense talent makes this theatre experience worthwhile. He’s mesmerizing to watch and the 70 minutes goes fast. (Philadelphia Theatre Company until June 4)