The award ceremony will be hosted at the Harvard Club here in NYC on 5/31/2017.
“Subway Superman” by E Merwin
Doors part. They enter. Doors close.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” one of them begins.
Sometimes we wearily look up, unzip a purse or pull out a dollar from a wallet. Sometimes not. And as their rendition of Under the Boardwalk passes down the aisle, our mottled attention shifts back to the screen, to a half read page, to an obsessive calculation how to pay the rent with a paycheck that falls shorter every month.
It would seem those bills and coins, whether withheld or dropped into the bag, are the sole nexus between the fading singers and the jaded passengers. But perhaps our connection is more meaningful. Perhaps in considering the smooth and jagged lines of lives that momentarily have intersected on this subway line, we can reclaim something. Something often lost in the conceptual, self-consciousness of contemporary art.
Something perhaps sublime.
Because although these subway singers are dismissed by the short sighted as panhandlers, they are in fact the performance artists of our age when the spectacle has become not a smashed piano in a white gallery, but the singer’s own survival.
At six foot four, impeccably dressed in pressed trousers, wing tips and a Ralph Lauren dress shirt, Glenn is well known on the B-line and the F. In summer the open buttons of his shirt reveal the blue insignia of a Superman. Not Superman, but a Superman. One of a select group of Lifers who impart their learning to younger inmates in Attica in a truly Socratic way of shared reading and discussion. Glenn has in fact served 17 years in prison and counts himself fortunate for having overturned his original life sentence after being railroaded on a murder charge. In part the joyousness of his weekday performances in encountering all these beautiful strangers is that if he had not fought back and won, “y’all would never have met me because I wasn’t ever coming home.”
And he does see us as beautiful.
Just as he sees our flaws. Having studied human nature up close in prison, he has seen the agony and the ugliness, as well as the beauty of generosity between strangers. Lessons learned daily up north—with even the mess hall being a studio for the performance artist to master his style.
In Attica it held 700 men where above their heads sparrows flew and barn owls perched on wooden rafters. Flanking them on either side, 6 officers observed the men below through telescopes, radioing any suspicious movement to the armed guards on the ground. One time peas and carrots gushed from the side of the face of man whose cheek was slit by a passing inmate. Another time a man being kicked and knifed beneath the table prompted the guards to press one of three buttons: yellow, red or green to release the tear gas at various degrees of potency. This day it was red, and men wrapped their shirts around their fists to punch out the glass in the wire meshed panes to suck in air while other men writhed on the floor. While some men passed out, for Glenn it felt like a hand had reached into his chest and pulled out his lungs. When he saw a civilian worker had been locked out of the kitchen, he knew he might be killed, so he wrapped his own shirt around the man’s head and held him close to the ground. That evening hundreds of men stood in the yard covered in the white dust in the freezing cold until they were herded inside to shower before being locked down in their cells.
Glenn was commended for saving the civilian’s life. But this act— just like his clean prison record and work as an artist and counselor—had no impact on the parole board. In the same way that at his trial—his career as a social worker along with his absence of any criminal record and the evidence that he had been attacked by an assailant who had told a mutual friend that night his intention to kill—could not deflect the charge of murder or the life sentence that would take two years in a law library before being overturned unanimously by a panel of five Appellate Judges.
But even then when inmates and officers alike were certain that having served five years for a reduced charge, Glenn would be going home, he would have to remain in prison to serve another dozen years to master the performance art of survival.
Being a powerful man in physicality and will, Glenn did survive with his spirit in tact—a feat for which he credits his imagination—singing to himself and in the choir, writing his memoir and telling himself stories out loud, reading the works of philosophy, history and art first introduced to him by the Supermen.
Until finally by law he had to be released into a city where he no longer knew how to board a train, where no family remained to lend a hand, where no employer allowed him to keep his job no matter how well he performed his role.
No employer except McDonald’s.
And so one night on his way to Chinatown for his evening shift, three men came through his car singing Silent Night. Naturally he joined in with his resonant bass voice and has been performing on the subway ever since.
Whether shooting twos with his partner Charles, or leading a longer line of singers, Glenn is the one dancing down the aisle, twirling a blushing tourist while her partner snaps the image. He’s the one whose good nature spills over until an entire subway car of passengers rise to their feet to give an ovation as Glenn and his fellow performers depart.
Glenn is the performance artist whose path has intersected with our own for us to realize the beauty of the configuration of our lives on this earth, at this moment in this subway car.
And isn’t that sublime?
PICCOLO: AN INTERN’S TALE
If you enjoy the works of Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you will enjoy Piccolo: An Intern’s Tale, which is the first book of a series written by E. Merwin. It is the first person account of an Italian greyhound with an artistic flair for sculpture, using the artisan’s tools of torch and steel to create unique works of art. His talent was molded by his artist father who also works in steel.
This story of a dog wielding torch and steel will at first stretch your mind and belief system. As the story unfolds, you are swept into a world where such things are accepted as normal. The narrative intertwines humans and dogs in a believable way and carries you from sleepy Venice to New York City’s exciting art world.
The character of Piccolo Fortunato makes this book believable. One sees through the eyes of Piccolo, and if you listen carefully, you can even hear his Italian accent and feel the coolness of his thoughts as he faces every challenge. He is both a philosopher and an artist.
Piccolo Fortunato sets out to find his father who left the family behind to find fame and fortune in America. Piccolo crosses the sea on an ocean liner where he meets the notorious Guy Gizard, an American artist of international fame, who offers him an internship. With high hopes, Piccolo signs a contract that unknowingly gives all of his creations to Gizard who then imprisons him in the basement of his workshop. Piccolo is faced with an uncertain future when he suddenly finds his father who has also fallen for Gizard’s trickery. The two must find a way to escape and return to Venice. Will they make it?
Merwin is also the author of Northman’s Daughter, a book recreating medieval Ireland. Her stories have appeared in the children magazines Cricket and Highlights; she has won The Vermont Playwright’s Award and an honorarium through TADA youth theater in Manhattan. Her former husband was a sculptor who created public artworks around NYC. Their son Ted followed in his father’s artistic footsteps and learned at an early age to create freestanding, steel sculpture.
An Intern’s Tale evolved from bedtime stories and the real life experiences of the New York art world. The illustrator forAn Intern’s Tale is the author’s daughter. Throughout the book, she uses urban iconic images resembling woodcuts, which adds an old world charm to the story.
MY IMPROBABLE MISCHIEF
My Improbable Mischief by E. Merwin and Cynthia Stuart, PhD is a collaboration and an improbable tale about wayward New York rats, no not sewer rats, but the cute fuzzy kind. It all begins with a rescue of a mother rat from a snake tank who gives birth to two boys named Archer and Fletch. They are adopted by Skyler, a highly intelligent girl, who teaches the boys about Shakespeare. The three communicate in a most unusual way, which would make most animal lovers envious.
The villain of the story is Mrs. Skinner, president of the condo board, who seems more than eager to evict Skyler for any infraction of condo rules, such as having rats as pets. In the process of hiding Archer and Fletch from Mrs. Skinner — and evading the pest control company — Archer and Fletch escape out of a window into the busy and dangerous New York City streets.
Unaccustomed to anything but a quiet well-appointed condo, they must fend for themselves and search for Skyler, or rather be found by Skyler. Along the way, they fall in with a motley crew of sewer rats and find shelter among them. They make friends with Rat and Lil’ Doe who live in the cold damp shadows of the underground world of the city. In an improbable turn of events, they are reunited with Skyler, but how that happens is part of the fun of reading this book.
There are several different stories going on within this book. It is not just a simple rat escape and recapture tale. The deeper themes of the story deal with loyalty, chivalry, friendship and love. The story is loosely based on real events such as the rescue of a momma rat from being eaten as snake food. (Archer and Fletch were two of 11 baby rats that the author adopted when momma rat gave birth after the snake incident.) There is also a frivolous encounter with a Broadway diva rat who is loosely based on a real diva rat named Toby the White Rat who has a part in the Broadway playThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. As any rat companion will tell you, once you hold a furry rat in your hands, the bond between human and rat is the same as that of human and dog or cat.
Lucinda Rexford Rideout is a graduate of James Madison University with a degree in Library Science and currently resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is President of Saint Nicholas Mouse Rescue and volunteers at the Virginia Beach Animal Care and Adoption Center. Her main focus is on the awareness of rodent care issues. Memberships include: East Coast Mouse Association, Friends of Virginia Beach Animal Care & Adoption Center, and Small Angels Rescue. Contact Information: 407 Lake Havasu Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 23454
Breaking Down on Broome Street, Glenn Cox
Mar 20, 2016
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Walk through Hoboken on a weekend night and feel its pulse on Washington Street, where restaurants and sports bars are teeming with patrons. If you’re a book lover, you can make your way toward Fifth Street to Symposia Community Bookstore, which for some literary types is the heart of this small city.
For locals who love to buy used books or donate them to the non-profit, Symposia is no secret. Certainly not to the toddler bunch whose strollers are double parked outside on weekday mornings while they are entertained by Puppetonia, a troupe of actors and educators who, along with their cloth and big-eyed colleagues, teach and entertain the adoring crowd.
But you know that. You live in Hoboken. It’s those of us who on a Sunday evening are boarding the PATH train at various stops in Manhattan, some of us for the first time, who are enthralled with the discovery. Carmen Rusu, cofounder of Puppetonia and Symposia Community Bookshop, has reached out beyond the river to invite writers from the New School to host their own events.
Dubbed Poets’ Night Out, a recent evening included readings by Mark Benjamin, Daniell Jones, and other members of the MFA program, ranging from reflections on loss, language, angst and art. The last mirthful poem of the night by Parrish Turner sent us off with an account of getting home from a raucous party somewhere in the wild outback of Alabama.
With their charismatic host Louis Augustine Herrera, the New School writers will return on Sunday, April 3, from 6 to 8 p.m., inviting the audience to share their own creative work or that of a favorite author on the theme: love and other strangers.
Among the returning readers will be poet Mel Glenn – award winning author of YA fiction and poetry including Best Books for Young Adults (ALA), New York Times contributor, and most recently a collection of love poems to diners. He also seems on that blustery mid-December night to have fallen for Symposia, an encounter he describes in typically poetic terms. “Outside, Washington Street was full of hipsters intent on their hipster-type revelries, hop-scotching from one bar to another,” he says. “Inside more gentle souls recreated a gentler milieu, a place where poets and literati could gather and listen to the spoken word. Symposia is a haven, a delight to the ear and the mind.”
Love at first sight
Ditto Dr. Cynthia Stuart, for whom her first visit to Symposia was indeed love at first sight. Cofounder of Book Bogglers, a Jersey-based collective of writers, editors, and illustrators, she recently coauthored her first work of fiction, “My Improbable Mischief,” recounting the adventures of Archer and Fletch, two rat heroes based on her own beloved pets. Coming via the Long Island Rail Road and PATH to Hoboken to launch the book, she arrived early to set up and take a look around.
“Even at a distance, as I approached and saw the outdoor display of books on shelves and tables in front of the store, I knew I had discovered a personal spiritual retreat,” she said. “Unlike megastores such as Barnes and Noble, Symposia is manageable and warm, with comfy seating for book lovers to evaluate purchases and chat with fellow patrons…Such an intimate experience with the written word is practically unheard of anymore.”
In an era when even the mega-bookstores have capitulated to mega-online bookstores, forcing independent bookseller to become a quaint memory, Carmen Rusu has defied the odds, keeping Symposia’s doors open and shelves packed. In her usual self-effacing manner, Carmen gives credit to everyone else: the shop’s cofounder her husband Corneliu Rusu, to its Board of Directors, and all the contributing instructors and volunteers who keep the storefront warm with their camaraderie and enthusiasm.
But Carmen also credits an angel. Angels don’t often come in the form of landlords, but in a day and age when escalating rents have driven small shops out of business, former Hoboken Mayor David Roberts, who owns the building, has proven to be an ally, helping Symposia remain a vibrant community center.
And so perhaps the theme of the upcoming Poets’ Night Out – love and other strangers – is an apt choice for Symposia Community Book Shop, which seems to thrive on bringing both together.
Read more: Hudson Reporter – Ode to a book store Symposia love and strangers
Born in Brooklyn, E. Merwin teaches English to international students and writes fiction. Her third published book is Piccolo, a story about an Italian greyhound who is a sculptor, as well as about the growing dependence in the art world on art interns and how these unpaid workers can be mistreated. Ms. Merwin and I have corresponded occasionally and I’m pleased to present my interview with her.
ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?
EILEEN: By today’s standards four kids would be large, but back in the 50’s that was pretty standard. Our first pet was Irish Eddy, who only repeated the words my mother sang out repeatedly throughout the day: “Where’s Patrick?” (Patrick was the brother who was usually in trouble.) My lifelong dream of having a dog came true when I was about ten and my father was hospitalized. Probably unfair of me at that time to ask to take in the last pup of a litter from across the street, but my parents relented and Casey McGee became my first canine companion. In terms of pedigree, his mother was royalty, Princess, and his father, Choo Choo was the neighborhood rogue who had fathered many litters in those backyards of Brooklyn. When I went off to college, as in most families, my parents took on his care, and I know that in his final years living in the Pennsylvania, Casey became my dad’s best friend.
ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?
EILEEN: Thoughtful. I always loved to lay back on the cellar door, or sit on a hillside in the park, or take long walks along the Verrazano Narrows to the bridge and think. Like most childhoods, my mind was baffled by the adult conflicts around me—their bouts with alcohol, illness and each other. But that was only one current of the stream. There were so many delights: rolling down the hill behind my Uncles’ house in Pennsylvania, paddling around in a backyard pool, sitting on a park bench feeding the squirrels and philosophizing with my father. And the holidays, and the birthdays and the amazing meals my mom cooked up each night—back in the day when someone could afford to be home and actually caring for a family of six. Yes, those days come back to me often— and always a pleasure to recall.
ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?
EILEEN: Lonely, but isn’t that the writer’s lot? The beauty of feeling so removed from others was that I found companionship in literature. I remember one Saturday in the local library discovering a poet that I thought was unknown (Ezra Pound!); reading Pablo Neruda aloud for the pleasure of the music of the words in Spanish; preferring the world of Dylan Thomas and his tales of growing up in Swansea Wales to the streets of Brooklyn. And novels, I loved to get lost in them.
ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?
EILEEN: Probably the years of raising my own children in Vermont. I became a better person, putting them ahead of myself—loving them so deeply and being loved so deeply in return.
I also turned my attention from writing poetry, which seemed to deflect my attention from them, and started writing children’s lit. The first story that I wrote one Hanukah for them “Yitzy and the Miracle”, along with several other stories and poems were published in Cricket and Spider magazines. And then, as they grew older, I collaborated with them on several books which were initially published by an independent publisher in England and which I recently revised and published through the Book Bogglers Collective.
So by raising my kids and writing for and with them, I finally became an author.
ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?
EILEEN: My dad—also a deep thinker.
ALLISON: You’re from New York, live in New Jersey, but your novels were published by a British press. How does that work?
EILEEN: Trevor Lockwood is an independent publisher in Felistowe England. My first novel, Daughter Dedannan, was under consideration by Harper Collins— but when I got finally got the thanks, but no thanks letter, I queried independent publishers and found Trevor and Braiswick. For over a decade he had been a loyal literary ally. When last April he told me he was retiring, and would no longer be publishing my work, I decided to revise and republish which is how the works have found new life through Book Bogglers.
ALLISON: You’ve taught English to international students. What was your most challenging moment?
EILEEN: Hmm, quite frankly it’s all been a pleasure. I am amazed by their courage coming to a strange city and taking on life in a second language—and really honored to teach (and learn from) them.
ALLISON: Piccolo is your third book. How have your grown as a writer since your first publication?
EILEEN: Recently I opened a trunk with my first writings from MFA program over 30 years ago and was amazed how the themes still run through my work, but how in terms of craft all my writing has improved. But as I always tell my students, the quality of the writing is in the re-VISION.
ALLISON: How did you come up with idea of Piccolo? What experiences in your own life helped in the writing of Piccolo?
EILEEN: Ah, Piccolo.
As I mentioned, I started out telling and writing stories for my kids. Then they started telling me stories in return. My son Ted at the time was a very serious young sculptor, who mostly lived and worked with his dad a sculptor, Robert Ressler, and by nine was carving and welding and creating very original work. He also as a child was obsessed with Italian greyhounds, so I recall sitting around the table and coming up with the tale together.
When over a decade later, Ted asked me, whatever happened to Piccolo? I took out the original short work and expanded it—with much editorial and creative advice from Ted—to become Piccolo: an Intern’s Tale.
ALLISON: What’s next?
EILEEN: Tiepolo’s Greyhound recounts Piccolo’s adventures upon returning to Venice. I am currently working with artist MOR (my daughter) on the cut-outs to complete that tale to be published this summer by Book Bogglers.
Last year I collaborated with author, rat fancier Cynthia Stuart, to create My Improbable Mischief which is being serialized in It’s a Rat’s World Magazine. (To read an installment, click on the magazine link and scroll down to My Improbable Mischief.) We are writing the second book of that tale which takes our heroine, Skyler Goode, to Mozambique where she has adopted a Gambian pouched rat, one of the amazing Hero Rats of Apopo who are trained to clear fields of landmines and diagnose TB so many lives are saved!
So yes, I will keep writing and meeting lovely people like along the way who still value a good story and the joy of time alone spent with a good book!