Winter 2007

Table of Contents - Vol. III, No. 4


Poetry    Essays    Fiction    Book Reviews

Dave Eberhardt & Dan Cuddy


Notes on the Baltimore Poetry Scene:
A Short Collaborative Tour, 1964–2007

Following are the reminiscences of two Baltimore poets, Dave Eberhardt (DE) and Dan Cuddy (DC), more or less chronological with some contributions by others along the way. We wanted to be inclusive but have undoubtedly left stuff out. Our objective? A good story, well written, stylish, and amusing—a labor of love.

DC: Realizing that many of the readers of this article may not be from Baltimore and that most of the names we will discuss will be just names, we will try to fill in as much detail as we can without becoming the echoes of dust dropping on a windowsill. However, the article may seem nonetheless like the itinerary of a whirlwind travel tour. We will try our best to provide relevant and salacious detail. In the age of the Internet, the reader has an advantage over generations past. We suggest that you Google names as they interest you. Perhaps there will be samples of the individual’s poetry or more detailed information on the web. If there is no information and you want more please email Dan or Dave.

Since this is the age of quasi-journalism—that assertion is proven by any airing of TV news and/or chain newspaper stories—we are adopting a radio panel-like format. The initials before a paragraph identify a change of author. Just think of it as Public Radio’s “Car Talk” or another such show with two hosts. We also want to identify the guilty party who voices an opinion or point of view usually mute in solemn and press agent prose. We, the authors, are two hand-held cameras doing our cinema verité best, catching what we can of the Baltimore poetry scene.

To give you some background on Baltimore: it is a southern city below the Mason-Dixon line. Although there may be traffic flitting in from the interstates, it now finds a city armed and dangerous, drugged out with hopelessness and mindlessness, backs against the wall, a pace still of the south—of heat and the bead of sweat making its molasses-like way down the brow. It has a sweetness to it like the saddest and “baddest” of blues. There is a mix of African- and Euro-American that feed off each other. It is not New York or Philly or Washingon, D.C. There is some modern glitz and a tremendous—nay, unbelievable—mix of architecture.

Compared with the other Eastern seaboard cities just named, Baltimore moves at a slower pace. It has a gentility gone to seed—but the gentility is still there—like Samuel Kirk’s repousée silver bowls, or like a dowager in a shawl along with the poor immigrant and tattered ex-slave.

Baltimore has always been a blue collar town, a branch town. Its poetry had never achieved a cutting edge. The musical world had Billie Holliday and Eubie Blake and the Left Bank Jazz Society. Journalism had H. L. Mencken and Gerald W. Johnson. But the poetry now? The new formalism may still be sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, but the spoken word poetry wails like a sax from somewhere down the street.

The future of Baltimore is like that of a mixed race child—brown, not black or white. Not the child of the past often shunned by both black and white society but the child of the future where any eyes that look on see not skin but dance and life and tears from the deep wide eyes of two cultures, finally realizing they both have a stake in the future. The child is more of a poem than the whims of the continents that brought him or her to Baltimore. The poetry is written by dreamers and mourners—looking as well back to Europe and Africa but forward to the Midwest and West Coast—like incoming ships and the outgoing trains of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

DE: When I came to live in Baltimore City in 1964, I noticed the rows of abandoned houses, the stinky ailanthus weed trees sprouting in the alleys with their leaves turning a cocoa color in the winters, the serrations of their leaves: the wan, faded colors of the bricks, and how steamy summer can get in this town. Does that effect the poetry? I rather think so.

The career that I had pondered as an English major and poetry editor at Oberlin College, Ohio, as “poet” would have to be placed on hold while I became an adult. Amusingly, the father of Alan Furst, a writer in my class at Oberlin who has become notable as a mystery novelist, told Alan and me as we sat in his motel room at graduation in 1962, “You guys aren’t going to make any money as poets.” Neither of us have, it’s true. But Alan actually does make money as a writer! And poetry has meant a lot to us both!

David Franks—a dangerous poet indeed!

Alan’s father, at least, did not take the attitude towards our poetic ambitions as did the father of Baltimore poet David Franks, who wrote his son: “I am quite mystified by your approach to a new life... You wish to pursue something so esoteric... frankly, after three years I think it is time you found a real nine to five job like the rest of the world...” Dave’s response? He made an Dadaistic / surreal exhibit of this letter with bullet holes he’d shot through it! A City Paper article on Dave in August 1993 includes a photograph of the poet holding a rifle and and looking for all the world like JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

I can’t speak for the lady poets, but there is a generation gap thing that a lot of we male poets faced.

In 1964, it might have been said that there were two tents in the sleepy little camp of Baltimore poetry for which descriptive words had already been coined: “redskin” or “raw” or “beatnik” on the one side, and “paleface” or “cooked” or “academic” on the other. But, actually, Baltimore was hard to classify in terms of these polarities—Elliott Coleman was holding forth in the vein of the Dadaists and symbolists at the Hopkins Writing Seminars and Josephine Jacobsen (with her cooked style) were the figures of renown. Through the ‘60’s, there were few hippies or beatniks of a poetic stripe in “B’more.”

Baltimore had always had a small poetry scene. When I arrived, besides Coleman and Jacobsen, there was the influential figure of Richard Hart, who worked in the Humanities Department at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library; Sister Maura Eichner of the College of Notre Dame; Julia Randall; and Baltimore News American journalist R. P. Harriss, who had been associated with a poetry magazine published in Baltimore in the ’40’s. Everybody knew everybody else, as I suppose they had back into the mists of time (even Poe may have been known!). Our legacy in Baltimore includes, going back in time from Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton, the somberly fabulous Lizette Woodworth Reese, effervescent Ogden Nash, Mencken and his Saturday Night Club, the African-American poet Paul Dunbar, the writing Morley brothers of Park Avenue; the Poetry Society of Maryland where many greats had read, including Oscar Wilde; Sidney Lanier teaching at Johns Hopkins, Poe and the Delphian Club, lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key, who in 1814 wrote the poem that forms the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For a legacy tour, visit Sidney Lanier’s grave at Green Mount Cemetery—a rounded boulder of pure, pink Georgia marble. And after that, go twenty or so more blocks north up Greenmount Avenue and stop at calm, quiet St. John's Episcopal church graveyard to visit the grave of Ms. Lizette Reese—as the rush of cars from the avenue dims, ponder her stone engraved with the following gnomic verse of hers:


The long day sped;
A roof; a bed;
No years;
No tears.

Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935)

The definitive book on the local literary scene, Maryland Wits and Baltimore Bards, was not published by Frank Shivers until 1985. Not to be missed! This essay takes up where Frank left off—he mentions poets Clarinda Harriss and Daniel Mark Epstein at the end. To me, a significant line in his book cites “the pull of the past so many Maryland writers have.” I think he’s right about this. But let’s not generalize. Poets of San Francisco are undoubtedly obsessed about the past of San Francisco.

Speaking of links to the past, Mencken introduced R. P. Harriss, who had dated Lizette Reese, to his future wife. Mr. and Mrs. Harriss’s daughter is none other than present-day doyen of the Baltimore literary scene: poet, professor, and editor Clarinda Harriss.

Professor Richard Macksey, who had a distinguished career directing Johns Hopkins University’s Humanities Department, told me of two poetry festivals held at the University in the ’50’s, which had involved the century’s “redwoods” (as he called them): T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, e. e. cummings, and lesser known figures.

Clarinda Harris reports that her undergraduate alma mater and sometime employer, Goucher College, hosted a dazzling series of on-campus readings by the great and famous. From 1950 through 1974, the series comprised in this order: Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Josephine Jacobsen, Richard Eberhart, James Dickey, Robert Creeley, Sister Maura Eichner, Gregory Corso, Barbara Howes, James Tate, W. S. Merwin, Julia Randall, Peter Dufault, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Snyder, and Anne Sexton, according to Goucher’s own records. Harriss attended every one of them except Frost (“I was a little kid at the time”) and Sexton (“I was out of town giving a reading, alas!”). David Beaudouin told us that the Sexton reading took place a few months before the poet’s suicide and was highly dramatic.

Harriss points out, “Somehow the Goucher records missed Robert Duncan and John Ashbery. I know they came to campus. I was teaching at Goucher from 1967—when Dickey first appeared—through 1990, when Ginsberg read, and I not only heard both Duncan and Ashbery, but actually hosted the pre-reading ‘little dinner’ for Duncan, the guy whose ethereal beauty, Anaïs Nin raved about in a diary entry. He ate an entire pork loin all by himself; thank God, I had another one cooked that I had been saving for my kids’ Sunday dinner.”

Harriss claims Ashbery helped ameliorate her compulsive writing habits, perhaps even saved her from becoming a hermit, by insisting he loved interruptions, especially the phone ringing while he was working on a poem. Of all the poets whom she helped host, the most generous, most fun, and most compliant with student requests (big requests, like an additional reading, which he gave, wearing a yamulke, in the Goucher chapel the day after his scheduled reading) was Alan Ginsberg. The most difficult to deal with? Womanizing? “Mum’s the word,” Harriss says. (I hereby declare Clarinda Harriss to be the den mother of all the Baltimore poets—the meerkat poets, wombat poets, bat-eared foxes, platypuses, and komodo dragon poets.)

I became friends with redoubtable African-American poet Sam Cornish, who taught at Dunbar High School and who worked at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt. Cornish, who now lives in Boston, is the author of several books of poetry. He is, to my thinking, other than Adrienne Rich and Anselm Hollo, the most impressive poet associated with Baltimore still alive! Following is a little sampling of his work.

“These women (in black Baltimore) raised us on two things: chicken and God.” On Frederick Douglass’s mother: “white fingers walked into her mouth / to count the teeth and raise the price.” “Vermont: where white students, poets and radicals live / and expect to meet blacks skiing cross-country.” Sam has a great wry sense of humor.

Allow me to mention the following to give a bit of context. I poured blood on draft files in 1967 as a protest to the Vietnam War, for which I did 21 months in federal prison—mostly at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania—although I stayed for a short while at the federal facility at West Street, Manhattan, New York City, as did renowned poet Robert Lowell (see Lowell’s poem in Life Studies— “Memories of Lepke and West Street).” My stay in prison was relaxing compared to the turmoil on the streets and I spent my time writing. At last, I had something to write about! Poets really do need something to say—and the path I was taking was a political and radical one.

I found while doing my time that prisoners, with a lot of time on their hands, actually respect poetry. One asked me to do a greeting card for him.

I got out of prison in 1971 and began a career by founding a Baltimore office for the national prisoner help chain, Offender Aid and Restoration (O.A.R.). Although also somewhat rarefied of a vocation, like poetry, this job actually paid. (To get a paying job close to poetry, may I recommend that you become a teacher or a reporter or a librarian! Or, you could always work in a book store—all good occupations.)

In 1974, O.A.R. had its Baltimore branch office in the basement at Christ Church at St. Paul and Chase. I discovered that, luckily for me, the Maryland Writers Council had offices in the next door parish hall. A short walk through undercroft tunnels and passageways would get me to their offices. I enjoyed chats with Paul Bartlett, the affable editor of the organization’s newsletter, Hard Crabs. I did a few reviews for this publication and attended readings they sponsored at the old parish hall, the “Red Door Hall”—a great venue for readings. The poetry reading scene was starting to percolate. Not only did I go to readings to trumpet my own stuff, but also to pick up girls and get buzzed on beer, or wine—or both. The readings were great for socializing and shameless parading of egos.

A 1995 Washington Post article on poetry readings quoted the Roman poet Martial who, when asked in the second century A.D. why he would not read his verses, replied “So I won’t have to hear yours.” Another great Italian writer, the 19th Century author Leopardi, stated, “I believe there are very few things that reveal the puerility, human nature and the extreme blindness, indeed, stupidity, to which self love leads a man—and which also reveal the illusions we have about ourselves—as does this business of reciting one’s own writings.” This was to a degree an apt description of Baltimore readings in the ’70’s (and ever after).

Michael Egan (whose daughter, Moira, is also a great poet) was, along with Daniel Mark Epstein, a poetry mentor of mine at the time. In the ’60’s and early ’70’s, Baltimore poets were able to see themselves as big frogs in a little pond. After that, into the late seventies, then eighties, the scene unraveled and diversified, following charismatic personalities or cliques centered around central figures who founded small presses, edited magazines, or organized readings, taught at local colleges, or who published themselves and their friends and lovers: Apathy Press, the Cultured Pearl, Shattered Wig Review, Clarinda Harriss Lott’s “Poetry at the Angel” with cohost Diane Fancey, the City Paper’s “Poem of the Week,” Sam Schmidt’s “WordHouse,” David Kriebel’s Lite - Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper, to name a few. At this time, more and more people partook of poetry, the poetry scene oozing out in the city, and as well across the country, into a mighty swamp of chirping, burping writers, like the following lines by Emily Dickinson:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog

I like that “livelong June.” And note that the poet has had the thought, maybe it would be nice to be somebody. Do you think she ever said to herself, “If only I. . .?” I know she did. But! She got over it.

I felt it best to read when the spirit (or when the spirits, i.e., alcohol, moved me and only then), or if I was invited to read (which I seldom was!). I thought it unseemly to “invite myself” to this or that reading or publication, but still, I couldn’t stay away. Poetry, to me, should be a place of utter honesty (of course, self-promotion is an honest enough effort also). Shyness is also an honest trait. Part of me doesn’t like having to “perform” poetry. Is that what it takes to be a professional poet—be a performer? (I have heard some well-known poets read boringly and poorly). I am a purist who believes in spontaneity. I feel relieved to be working in an “honest” trade, i.e., helping inmates. The very idea of making poetry, writing it, speaking it for money or fame seemed ridiculous and wrong. Poetry should be spontaneous and inspired (and may best exist privately.) Does one need an audience? But we all like to share our enthusiasms.

At most readings, after the featured reader, here would be an “open mike” for any and all to sign up and read their work. Ours was an open and democratic trade after all.

DC: Besides some of the Hopkins imports, Josephine Jacobsen was “the” nationally recognized Baltimore poet. She was a Consultant to the Library of Congress (now called the Poet Laureate). She was published in all the prestigious publications. If you are inclined to be a namedropper (guilty) just listen to these names: The Atlantic, Grand Street, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, Saturday Review, Southern Poetry, and Yankee. In her dotage, she was as respected around here as Robert Frost. She was the Grand Dame of Baltimore poetry. Now she wasn’t the Virgin Mary. She was an ordinary flesh and blood woman who had a certain gentility mixed with the hard-nosed determination of a craftswoman. Her poetry was forged in steel. Her lines were tensile, flexible and encompassed the intellectual and the emotional. If anybody could be characterized as blending the strains of Southern and Yankee poetry, it was Ms. Jacobsen. Common touch and aristocratic reserve met in her writing.

Josephine Jacobson

Does Ms. Jacobsen leave a legacy? Hopefully she will not be like Lizette Reese, who was revered in her day, but later in the twentieth century relegated to garden party readings and reminiscences. The poetry is too good to waste on the shelves of some historical society or perpetually twilit library section where only ghosts and scholars breathe dust.

Today, Ms. Jacobsen’s memory is kept alive by poets such as Elizabeth Spires at Goucher College. Hopefully, Ms. Spires is revealing the pure flame of Jacobsen to her students. Perhaps that flame will ignite a love of poetry and the keeping of Jacobsen’s intelligence in this world. Certainly Josephine Jacobsen might be a greater poet than Poe. The problem is she was a decent woman. No scandal. No demons hanging on to her voice or imagination. Fame is a precarious thing. A talent gets to a certain level of accomplishment and the vagaries of fortune steer or sink the author’s ship.

If Josephine Jacobsen was the secular muse of poetry in this city, Sister Maura was its religious muse. Oh, she may have looked holy, and saintly, the pale complexion of innocence and the cloister, but that was illusion. This woman’s poetry rolled up its sleeves. In a poem titled “Julie” she writes:

When, after college class, she tutored in the inner city,
She was silent about broken bottles, leering whistles.
Once she said the boy’s eyes were loud as cavities
Exposing the nerve.

Sister Maura was no shrinking violet, but engaged the world in her poetry. Perhaps her role as nun somewhat limited her circulation in the rough and tumble of literary politics, but her students at the College of Notre Dame often placed high in the Atlantic Monthly literary contest for students.

Occasionally in a used bookstore one may still come across Sister Maura’s book, Walking on Water. It contains both traditional and modernistic poems. Thirty years from now, sixty years from now they will still be readable, and, if they don’t excite the reader, that reader has no head, no heart, no tinder in their imagination.

The Washington Monument, Mount Vernon Place, scene of Baltimore's annual Book Festival

If one has to admit that they have experienced euphoria, and that is not a thing to be admitted lightly—for it is a madman’s emotion as well as a poet’s and a mystic’s—I must admit that in 1997 two literary events had me soaring with happiness, or, at least, illusions of grandeur. The first was the Baltimore Book Festival. Beautiful autumn light, no humidity, which meant no dirty urban haze, and the temperature was cool but without bearing a chill. You felt alive. In Mount Vernon Place, around the infamous appendage of the “Father of Our Country” (the nation's first major monument to George Washington), were booths and booths of books. Authors were standing before microphones and reading their works, or paraphrasing, if it wasn't a literary work of the imagination, it was social or political commentary and/or commercial fluff. Baltimore was celebrating not music, not caricatures of the human face in paint or papier-maché, but the written word, and that included poetry. I was a part of it, like the guy who helps set up the big top at the circus, the guy in jeans, mud at the knees, a blister on the thumb, and sitting at the toss-the-rings-at-the-coke-bottles booth. I was excited. Baltimore, the city of mediocrity, the city which folds up its lawn chairs and closes its shutters at dusk, had the intellectual excitement of a Nevada ghost town, excepting John Hopkins University, of course, was hosting a Book Festival. Did anybody famous read? Who cared? I knew some of the poets. They were contemporaries. I was ecstatic! It was like going to a football game and cheering.

For me a second grand event was the “Word Up” CD reading held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on whose grounds Poe was buried a century and a half before. Blair Ewing was the force behind the CD. Under the auspices of the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society, Blair created this coming together of poets and dedicated the CD to his deceased mother. I had a poem that I recorded on it. I was happy to be included. Although not all the famous and the famous-in-their-own-minds writers were included, a great diverse selection was. Each poet read at the altar of poetry that night—literally the altar of poetry in that church: Mary Knott, Alan Barysh, Alan Britt, Lynda Joy Burke, etc., etc. Mark Strand read three poems. Josephine Jacobsen and Reed Whittemore also lent their voices to the choir of eclectic Baltimore poetry. A magnificent reading, a tremendous assembly of poets! I experienced the euphoria of a body lifted up and handed on down over the mosh pit, or something of the sort. Somewhere, perhaps in a used bookshop, or maybe in among used CDs, or buried in a large cardboard box in someone’s attic, that particular disc will be found. It will become a collector’s item in the decades ahead. Church was never this good.

Joe Cardarelli

DE: Throughout the ’70’s and ’80’s until his untimely death in 1994, Joe Cardarelli at the Maryland Institute College of Art was a huge force in the city. He favored the beat or Black Mountain or “disembodied” Naropa–Ginsbergian school of poetics, inviting such visitors as Ginsberg, John Giorno, Ed Sanders, Ed Dorn, and Anne Waldman to town to read. Joe’s own beat-style poems had energy and let politics and sex and honesty in. He was not an uptight, guarded guy. He was a friendly, good man who had done more for poetry in Baltimore than any one else during my lifetime. His and Marta’s home had been a hub for all the visiting poet dignitaries.

Joe was one academic in town who gave readings. Some did, some didn’t. Few poets from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars ever did. It was as if they were above all that. Don’t get me wrong, the Writing Seminar poets, such as Coleman, Allen Grossman, Peter Sacks, and David St. John, were darn good. But they did not participate in the local scene like Clarinda Harriss and other teachers, and my conclusion was, they wrote for books and not for people so much.

DC: One unfortunate phenomenon about the poetry scene is its amnesia. Baltimore was lucky that Mark Strand, Allen Grossman, and Karen Fish (at Loyola College) spent some time in the area. Often their sphere of local influence was limited to their students and university-related acquaintances, but the fact that they were in Baltimore, breathing the same air, stepping in the same gum discarded on the sidewalks, watching the same clouds change their phantom shapes, makes them a part of the history. There are poets though who have immense talent and whose presence is like that of a glass of water left by an open window. People may recognize the name, if mentioned, just like an eye might see that empty glass on a desk or table, but the essence of the writer is forgotten.

David St. John taught in the Hopkins Writing Seminars. Does the Hopkins bookstore even have his books of poetry? Do the current Writing Seminars students know who he is, and what he has written? I think he is a very accomplished poet, and unique. Take this sonnet “Rhapsody” from his book The Red Leaves of Night:

In the dictionary of sapphires
Only the rain confesses its regrets.
Even the Venetian courtier asleep
At the end of the bed forgets

The naked jewels at his fingertips.
Still, in our own prosaic silence
Even a simple breath upon the ear
Is a kind of violence.

Then, beyond the facets of sex,
Level as moonlight, some lost aspect
Of solitude touches your shoulders,
Still bare and glistening with sweat,

The soft white of new ice & fragile as air;
& so I know I must take care.

St. John, certainly a disciple of John Keats, speaks like no other contemporary American poet. To me, his work is a joy to read. Yes, artificial, perhaps, could be viewed as Beardsley decadence, but I think “exquisite” is an appropriate description. There is a refined sensibility. Consider the inner dynamics of sound in that poem.

If a poet who could write such verse graced the city even for a month, is that poet’s presence here not worth remembering? It is not the writer’s name, degrees, honors, or even his personality: it is the work, the magic of creation, that should be remembered. It elevates the history of Baltimore poetry into something greater than mere narrative. The soles of David St. John’s shoes, and his poetic soul, walked the streets of Baltimore. (DE: Dan, “soul”, “soles”…you go, guy!)

DE: The poetry crowd I knew in the 1980’s was a friendly crowd—especially James Taylor (who was to become my editor), Mike Fallon, Gary Blankenburg, Sam Schmidt, and Alan Reese (an even later publisher of mine). You could say that we were minor, fairly half-assed poets, that we were wannabes, but so what: we were poets! What did it take to be an established poet in the America of these days? A lot of us had an image of what a poet should be in our mind and hoped to be that image. I, for one, did not work very hard to become it. And there is no need to be negative about it—none at all!!

DC: When looking at poems—you can see good and bad—if they reach a certain level. It is just how you look and how much something speaks to you. I remember Billy Collins’ poem “The Death of Allegory” in Poetry magazine in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s—before Collins hit it big. The poem in its clarity was such a welcome relief from all the clutter in the poems around it. True, today, Billy Collins has become somewhat of a parody of himself, but that is due to overexposure.

I guess all of us will be ignored—except for the few on the national scale. Our little flights of imagination will be so much wrinkled paper in the waste can. It is often exciting to write. Is it exciting to read? We can find value if we have an open mind and are not too cynical. I think all of us as poets dream that what we are doing has value beyond ourselves. It might be an illusion, but it is not one we will, or perhaps should, give up easily. And what is sublime or good or better than good? Tastes vary—there are some standards. But look at contemporary art. I enjoy reading poems that relate to me and my worldview, or that, because of their power and/or beauty can change my worldview.

DE: Many of the young readers at the myriad poetry readings I attended in Baltimore in the ’80’s and ’90’s were reading or performing prose—in my opinion, prose with no content. I knew from experience, poetry was an easy way to make one’s mark, a way to socialize. All one needed was a pen or pencil and an audience. Many Baltimore poets might read loudly, passionately (often in the annoying manner of a fundamentalist preacher). At least they were funny (although not always in ways planned by them). Most of America may be about image and advertising. But, these were real people, these poets.

I would go to readings and come away relieved that no one was good enough to supplant me in my own fantasy world of greatness. But at every reading you could find glints and glimmers of greatness. Then, too, at most of the small readings you went to, the audience consisted mainly of other poets who ignored your stuff and fantasized their own careers as they waited to read. Of course, we did, also, genuinely enjoy each other’s work and got something out of it.

In 1987, Dolphin Moon Press published my first little chapbook, The Tree Calendar. I could claim that it was not from a vanity press... in a sense. Only problem was, I had to pay for the 1,000 copies we printed (it ran about $1,400) and the book sank like a stone. We had a publication party for it at the Cultured Pearl, a popular hangout in “Sowebo”, southwest Baltimore—the host being poet Teddy Goetzle. You are not going to make money at poetry!

In the ’90’s, the scene morphed again into the poetry competition or “slam” movement. The scene democratized even more—everyone and anyone could be a poet. The poets in Baltimore became legion. The poets were like a school of fish after a while—so many that it was hard to pick out the good ones and harder and harder for any one person to make a splash. I guess, to follow my imagery, it helped if you were a shark!

In March 1995, I read twice with my old pal from the peace movement days, Father Philip Berrigan, at the Raven Bookstore in Hampden and at the Halcyon Gallery in Fells Point. These readings were high points of the decade for me, the ’90’s being otherwise a pretty dry stretch. It helped to ride Phil’s coattails. In 1998, I had submitted poems to a book that would be a memorial to Margaret Diorio, a local poet who had also been interested in peace and justice.

I wasn’t invited but I did not want to recognize that the fact that I had been overlooked had nothing personal about it. Do you have to be stroked? Do you have to be noticed to be a poet? If you want that kind of success you have to work hard at it no matter how talented you may be. You need tons and tons of patience, and tons and tons of promotion. And don’t assume that Americans in the main are interested.

Artscape had always been a place for me to touch base back with fellow poets. In summer 1999, I almost didn’t go. And yet, when I did, some of my old friends were still there. Not my friend and publisher of my chapbook The Tree Calendar, James Taylor. He was now involved in a magazine and later with the American Dime Museum on Maryland Avenue, since closed, a museum concerned with carnival freaks and other oddities. James had made the short step from poetry to midget mermaids and bat people in formaldehyde-filled jars. Not a big distance, when you think about it, from us freaks—the poets (just kidding).

I considered entering a poetry “slam” at the Artscape of 2000. But, wasn’t the concept of a “slam” antithetical to the art of poetry? My first thought was that I would read my poems on sex, drinking, and violence—but might I come off looking like a fool? I was succumbing to the “make it popular” mindset. But who doesn’t want to be popular? If we couldn’t be rich as poets, could we at least be popular?

The “slam” was not what I expected. It turned out that the new generation had reinvigorated the poetry scene—it always will! The slam was a delightful event. Yes it was competitive, but full of energy. Poems were recited from memory; poets were passionate; they were full of rhyme. They were political; the room was mostly blacks but there were whites there also. Each poet was given three minutes; for two minutes there was a green light, the light turned yellow for the last minute, and at minute three it turned red like a game show.

Unfortunately, the “honchos” of Artscape decided in 2003 to move their focus on the literary arts to the Baltimore Book Festival in September and to abandon the official readings and the large literary tent at Artscape. A spokeswoman told me, “It was hard for literature to compete with the food, the visual, and musical arts.” Which was true. But I think there was still room for literature at Artscape. Indeed, Julie Fisher organized a tent of exciting readings at the 2007 Artscape.

DC: Before the Baltimore Book Festival, before City Lit at the Pratt Library in April, there was Artscape. True, the literary arts took a backseat to the visual arts and to music, but the literary organizations in town saw Artscape as the focal point of the year. It gave them a chance to showcase and sell their wares to a wider public than was usually available to them. I worked for both the Maryland Poetry and Literary Society and Lite at many an Artscape. It was always held during the hottest weekend of the year (and it often rained as well!).

There was an annual competition that was fairly prestigious at the time. Poetry, fiction and playwriting were the categories judged. The winners received publication of their work through the auspices of the Artscape Organization, and they were presented an award and given a ballyhooed reading at a large University of Baltimore air-conditioned lecture hall. Millie Bentley, Bill Jones, Hiram Larew, and Marta Knobloch were four winners of the poetry award that I knew and recall. There must be some record in the city’s archives that list all the past winners. Fame and fortune of this sort are smoke and mirrors. In 2000, the awards were taken away from the 3 generic categories and presented to winners of a memoir-writing contest. Then, in later years, the prizes were removed from competition and the celebrated readings were by writers who had received a grant from the Maryland Arts Council. The local organizations were de facto eliminated from Artscape except for their space in the Literary Arts tent, which they paid for. That too, in the final years of the written word at Artscape, moved to a more marginal location adjacent to Maryland Avenue, away from the large music venues and the spillover crowd. However, the Book Festival had been inaugurated in 1995 and Artscape no longer mattered for the Literary Arts.

  At its height in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, Artscape gave most of the literary organizations a chance to nominate poets for the literary contests. Of course, there was only one winner per category, but each of the nominees had a chance to read their work before friends, peers, and the stray members of the public who were looking for air-conditioning and relief from the broiling sun. Why did the literary organizations fall out of favor with the Artscape movers and shakers? Local poetry and novels aren’t as sexy as bands on a stage. The new generation of the spoken word, which was an outgrowth of rap and the poetry slams, brought a genre and semblance of literary art to public festivals, and drew crowds. Drawing crowds and selling food and doing PR for civic groups is what Artscape had become. It is now a street festival, with music headliners and an opportunity for other musicians to entertain, and get exposure. There is art for sale, and there is art on display at the Maryland Institute, but Artscape is now basically about community and PR and free music. Now, don’t get us wrong—it’s still pretty groovy.

DE: On February 10, 2002, another of the yearly Valentine’s Day “Poetry Marathons” at the Maryland Institute took place with 45 poets participating. I was able to give my chapbook to Michael Collier, the Poet Laureate of Maryland and, as well as to Ms. Chezia Thompson-Cager who had had taken over from Joe Cardarelli at the Institute. She is the originator and premier diva of the fabulous “Diva Squad” of the four Afro-American lady poets who also include Lenett Nefertiti Allen, Lynda Joy Burke, and Jaki-Terry in When Divas Laugh: The Diva Squad Poetry Collective (Inprint Editions, 2001). Now the Divas include Kendra Kopelke and Clarinda Harriss as Thompson-Cager, Kopelke and Harriss appeared in a follow-up volume, When Divas Dance (Maisonneuve Press, 2004). The Divas are not segregated!

There was a great range of poetic styles in this reading, from mousy novices to suit-and- tie bourgeois types. The audience was well integrated—the slammers were represented. Clarinda Harriss was there, and I remarked to her how far she and I “went back”. Also, there was a magnificent spread: a Mexican-style bean dip, a cheese spread, nicely rolled sandwiches, and a beautiful cake! (Some wine would have been nice.)

I ran across Gary Blankenburg in the bathroom. In one of the poems he read, he referred to going off Prozac. I asked him, “Are you still off it?” We discussed the anti-depressants for a while, for I share the ailment of depression (who doesn’t), and he told me that he has found Viagra to be helpful for his love life. I tell him about some joky, generic names for Viagra-like “dixafix”, or “mydixadrupin” or “ibpokin”, etc. Here’s a little semi haiku for you (you who are cognoscenti):

“We are getting gray and fat”, he laments- my fellow poet.
How are the ailanthii trees
doing in the alleys?


Two old poets in the bathroom—
Lao Chen and Hamzi—
but the urinals are eternal.

(note the internal rhymes)

In 2003, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave a reading at Goucher College. He was enthralling. I was the first to ask him a question from the microphone at the side of the hall. I asked him about political poetry, mentioning the examples of William Blake (“Bring me my bow”) and Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet. I had done my homework by reading Heaney’s Nobel Prize address in which he shows that he is concerned with the political genre.

I asked, “You say you disavow political poetry, but what do you think are the best political poems, not just in English, and what makes good political poetry? Is it possible?” I was lobbing him a softball for Heaney doesn’t really disavow political poetry. He responded that it has to be in context—honest, not preachy. Part of the reason I had poured blood on draft files was to be able to write political poetry! Any modern poet of worth considers the question of political poetry. After the wars of the 20th century could they not?

Heaney praised Ginsberg’s “Howl” and a poem by Neruda about socks. He elaborated on Wilfred Owen. The poet had returned to the front and died with his men, and that there was no “sanctity” in Owens’ verse. Exactly.

I have always been interested in the intersection of poetry and politics. I find a lot of poetry to be a bit too self-absorbed—even my own. My father advised me not to gaze at my own navel.

In 2003, I held several readings at the City Jail for my work in Programs and Activities, some with local African-American poets such as the charming Olu Butterfly or Min Ra and with inmate poetesses, some of whom were very talented. One recited charmingly about her different types of automatic weapons. Here’s an example of verse by an inmate:

“The Actress: ‘Dress me up and take me out / I can play any part you like. / I can be thugged out, buzzed out / or even slightly drugged out/ if you’re paying tonight. / I can be prim and proper, / a real heart stopper / if the mood is right. / I can be educated or mis-educated / however you feel./ I can be low key or high profile / depending on our deal. / I can be the itch that you can’t scratch. / I can be your morning blast. / I can be many things, just ask. / Just don’t ask me to be myself. / I never played that part before. / I don’t even know who she is anymore!’”—B. H.—inmate #? Now, do you see poems like this in any national magazine or in any “literary arts” magazine? So poetry can take place most anywhere!

On May 21, 2005, I was at my part-time job at the group home. On the television came a program sponsored by the Howard County Literary and Poetry Society: Henry Taylor interviewing my old acquaintance, Baltimore poet Daniel Mark Epstein. Dan had recently written a book on Edna St. Vincent Millay and he talked about her. Dan is a formalist, a classicist, and a gentleman. Although not on the scene recently, he is one of Baltimore’s poetic treasures.

Another reunion—this one sadly a memorial reading—on November 11, 2005, at the Maryland Institute’s new, modern Brown Building. A “Hail to Joe Cardarelli” night brought out many old friends and older poets such as Daniel Mark Epstein, David Franks, Ed Sanders (now living in New York), Anselm Hollo (now Colorado-based), and Andrei Codrescu. I felt like a star-struck kid—maybe also a jealous one—I got their autographs.

Baltimore poets photographed at Poe’s grave for a Baltimore Sun magazine cover story, November 22, 1981. Left to right: (back row) David St. John, Clarinda Harriss, Andrei Codrescu, and Dyane Fancey; (front row) Daniel Mark Epstein, Elizabeth Spires, Joe Cardarelli, and Michael Weaver.

Also present were David Beadouin, Kendra Kopelke, Clarinda Harriss, Gary Blankenburg, Tom DiVenti, and John Giordano (from New York). The featured poets for the evening were Codrescu, Hollo, and Sanders. Clarinda mentioned to me a 1981 Sunpapers photo of Baltimore poets taken at Poe’s grave at Halloween. “How young we were,” she says.

Fast forward to 2006. The publisher for my new book, Blue Running Lights, Alan Reese (a wonderful local poet) hips me to the Poetry in Baltimore (PiB) website run by Julie Fisher. Julie’s site has all the latest news. The website, begun in 2005, is fantastic—many bells and whistles. She is doing a lot to promote poetry in Baltimore.

On October 21, 2006, a reading took place at the Minás Gallery on 36th Street in Hampden, Baltimore. The readers were poets published by Julie Fisher and PiB in a Baltimore anthology, Octopus Dreams. Some of the contributors I have known for some while, such as Chris Toll, David Franks, Alan Barysh, Dan Cuddy, and Joe Fanzone. I thought to myself, I would have to figure out ways to make my own upcoming publication party more interesting, more special. Never forget to provide wine and cheese—for with that present, all is forgiven. Gallery owner Minás Konsolas (a graduate of the Maryland Institute) and his wonderful wife Peggy must qualify as Baltimore’s greatest poetry hosts—first in Fells Point and now on “The Avenue” in fashionable Hampden. His gallery is an iconic Baltimore poetry beacon!

On February 18, 2007, my own publication party took place at Minas. I approached it trying to relax, rehearsing, and going over the order of poems and singing to warm up—singing exercises like I did with the Baltimore Symphony chorus. Some 30 people were in attendance—old friends and relatives, but others who came because it was a Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society presentation thanks to the indefatigable couple of Rosemary Klein and now sadly departed Barbara Simon. Some, possibly came because of the pre-reading publicity we did—I had put leaflets up. Barbara and Rosemary were organizers in the scene from way back. The mantles of Joe Cardarelli and David Beaudouin definitely fell on them.

DC: I have been involved with the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society for 25 years or so. Originally in the mid-1980’s, the Society is now less of an old-style garden club and more an organization seriously devoted to the art of poetry, had the publishing of the Maryland Poetry Review (MPR) as its chief goal. Michael Fallon, Rosemary Klein, and Gary Blankenburg were the founding editors. Eventually, Rosemary Klein became the sole editor and continued publishing the well-received magazine until the Millenium. Rosemary was interviewed on a page of Judson Jerome’s Poet’s Market Annual. The MPR published many of the local lights as well as those nationally recognized. No, it wasn’t the equal of Poetry Magazine or the American Poetry Review, but it was more than just a locally published “zine” or amateur production. Both in content and layout and art—it stood out.

DE: The grizzled poet, Blaster Al Ackerman, owner of Normals bookstore, who works there with fellow poet Rupert Wondolowski (both of the Shattered Wig Review stable of fine poets) gave me a tip on how to get more publicity for my little book. He knew of an artist who had gone to Australia and got into a cage with a wild dog, a dingo. I should try it, he said—as a stunt—“it’s unbeatable.” Blaster told me that my friends would feel sorry for me and my enemies would come to see the dog attack me! What an idea! I hereby bestow the Wild Man of Baltimore (first winner: Edgar Poe) on David Franks and Blaster Al Ackerman.

The Baltimore Book Festival of 2007 took place with many exciting poetry venues and readings. The Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society tent was especially active with readings as was Gregg Wilhelm’s tent, sponsored by the Baltimore Literary Project. I met my old friend Baari Shabazz and was reminded of how much he invigorated the African-American poetry scene in the early ’80’s. Washington, D.C., poetry icon Richard Peabody was at one presentation; he has published A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation (Serpent’s Tail, 1997). There were also new magazines such as Viviparous Blenny and Smartish Pace.

DC: One of the events at the 2007 Creative Café was a memorial reading of many of the poems in Barbara Simon’s book, The Woman from Away, by a number of family, friends and colleagues. [See separate review of Ms. Simon’s book by Dan Cuddy in this issue of Loch Raven Review—Editor.] Her poems make what passes for poetry in the many university and commercial bookstores pale in comparison. They are lyrical, humane, straightforward and moving. The imagery is accessible to any educated person. I don’t know if she would have liked the comparison, but Barbara Simon is Billy Collins with a heart rather than a quip. Here is a short poem, “Traveling,” from The Woman from Away:

We were young together and we believed
The world to be young like us, unlikely
The we in the green wood of youth would
Burn out, yet unwittingly, we bent
To the world’s wants, genuflected
At the altar of all we once believed
We could not honor. In the irony
Of years, marriages, careers, even our children
Grow old. One day awareness, like a splatter
Of rain on the windshield, sounded alarm.
Suddenly, the road behind was clear, a long
Dark fissure curving back to history, days
And stories only our siblings recall. Ahead,
The horizon lifts out of the storm, so close
It’s as if we could touch eternity.

DE: Two momentous events occurred on November 3, 2007. First was the release of “Words on War”, a CD of “poems on the subject of war” compiled by Jamie Wilson of Bird House Studios, featuring many of the local poets already mentioned, e.g., Alan Barysh, Alexander Carlin, Chris Ciattei, Mark Coburn, Judih Haggai, Joe Harrison, Michael Monroe, Bill Moriarity, Phil Smith, Nicole Swett, Tom Swiss, Jason Tinney, Chris Toll, and Steve Weaver. I think this may become a classic.

Second, on the night of November 3, a rare annual event: an appearance of “The Tinklers” at the Load of Fun Gallery on North Avenue in a “We Love the Tinklers” evening. Brian Averill of Id Publications has produced a telling documentary on this seminal Baltimore duo who combine poetry with unique music. The Tinklers are Chris Mason and Charles Brohawn and have been legends in Baltimore for 30 years. I can see them enshrined in the Smithsonian—maybe in 3016. They are an utterly honest band, who present music and words that are at the same time satiric yet sincere, fey, childlike, positive, quirky like Baltimore, loving, allowing of mistakes, etc., etc. The Tinklers are simply geniuses like many geniuses—they hide in plain sight—and go unnoticed until after they’re dead. Here’s some titles that will give you a feeling for their verse: “Trees like to rot in the Forest,” “Burpin Fungus People with Flashlight Heads,” “Mom Cooks Indoors, Dad Cooks Outdoors,” “Don’t Put Your Fingers in the Fan,” and “Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson.” The verses are as good as the titles.

DC and DE: Here are some other Baltimore poets we must mention: Christopher T. George, Devy Bendit, Marta Knobloch, Mary Azrael, Julia Wendell, Roxie Powell, Mark Hossfield, David Hilton, Roland Flint, Jan Sherrill, David Bergman, Paul Lake, Michael Salcman, Jessica Locklear, Richard Sober, “Bean,” Greg Mosson, Bal Tim Ore, Marion Buchman, Joyce Brown, Del Marbrook on Baltimore poetry in the Potomac Review, Roger Kamenetz, and Barbara de Caesare; there are also L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poetry readings at Clayton’s Bookstore on Charles Street, and we need to pay homage to the many great African-American poets beside the already mentioned avatars of the black poetry scene, Sam Cornish, Michael Weaver, Baari Shabazz, and Lucille Clifton. Thus, let us mention Ja Hipster, Gayle Danley, Petula Caesar, Rebecca Dupas, Tayree, Archie the Messenger, Bleek, and Fredlocks.

DE: Dan and I have barely scratched the surface, and, if you have been left out, believe me, there is a reunion going on tomorrow that you should be at but you won’t be. Get over it. We bow down on our knees and acknowledge our omissions. We dedicate this to the funky, quirky Baltimore poets, mentioned or unmentioned— Balteemorons all.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, who with Zelda once lived in Baltimore on Park Avenue, at the end of The Great Gatsby: “And so we prated / orated on, boats borne with or against the current, borne back senselessly or meaningfully into the past.” Do you realize that Fitzgerald could have been a great poet? But only if he had stuck to lines like these:

And so we beat on,
Boats against the current,
Borne back ceaselessly
Into the past.

But NOOOOOOOO- he had to write a whole book!



Note: Dave Eberhardt and Dan Cuddy wish to thank Clarinda Harriss as well as the editors of Loch Raven Review for their assistance with this article.


© Dave Eberhardt and Dan Cuddy

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