still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin

 

Coming in November: A new dystopian anthology

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining two distinguished local authors to celebrate the release of our first collaborative project at a book launch party at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion in Detroit on Saturday, November 2, 2019, from 1 till 4 p.m.

IMG_0807

Andrew Charles Lark, Wendy Thomson, and I have been working hard on the anthology of original dystopian novellas. Titled Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers/Whistlebox Press), it’s currently in the final stages of production.

At the launch, we’ll read from our sections in the book and sign copies, which will be available for purchase.

The original idea for the book was Andrew’s, and when he invited Wendy and me into the project, we both said yes immediately.

Andrew is the author of Better Boxed and Forgotten, a supernatural thriller set in Detroit’s Indian Village. Wendy is the author of Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, an international tale of suspense.

My previous works include the six novels in the Martin Preuss mystery series (Crimes of Love, The Baker’s Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and Cold Dark Lies); two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine; and a mainstream novel, The House of Grins.

The three pieces in Postcards from the Future are thoughtful and engaging short novels that embrace the precepts of the dystopian—a subject much in the news lately owing to the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the works in Postcards from the Future offers a dark and imaginative take on the end of humanity:

Andrew’s “Pollen” is a riveting multiple point-of-view account of a strange atmospheric phenomenon that destroys humankind’s ability to reproduce, ushering in the extinction of our species.

Wendy’s “Silo Six” is a suspenseful story of love and survival set far into the future when the sun begins its transformation into a red giant and scorchesthe earth into a virtually uninhabitable cinder.

My “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” is a gripping tale set in a desperate, post-apocalyptic future where a heroic woman battles ecological and social collapse in an effort to save her tribe—and humanity—from certain annihilation.

IMG_0796

The Arden Park Kresge Mansion is located at 74 Arden Park Boulevard in Detroit. The launch celebration will be quite an event; in addition to our readings, it will feature live music and refreshments along with an open house at the historic mansion. The event is free and open to the public, though a small donation to support Detroit Cristo Rey High School is suggested.

Space is limited, so if you’re interested in attending the launch, please RSVP through the Contact tab at Andrew’s page, www.alarksperch.com.

If you can’t get there, our book will be available in November through Amazon in print and ebook formats, and on order from bookstores.

For me, writing my section was great fun and a wonderful change of pace from my mystery series. I’ve already started to work on a spin-off from my novella, and I’m looking into an entire cycle of works based on what I’m calling the Dry Earth Series. Watch for more information as this develops!

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Thomas Galasso

0

Every other Monday, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

Today’s featured guest is the multitalented author, musician, actor, and teacher Thomas Galasso. Thomas received his bachelor of arts in English from Wayne State University, and eventually earned a teaching certification in Secondary English, Speech, and Drama. He also received a master of arts in English from Marygrove College. He has been teaching in Detroit Public Schools for over twenty years. He worked on another certification, and now teaches kids with Autism. His “serious hobby” is playing guitar, bass, a little harmonica, and singing. Thomas is the author of a novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings (Aquarius Press, 2017), described in detail below.

Recently I posed some questions to Thomas. Here’s what he told me.

DLThomas, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

TG: I was born and raised on the East Side of Detroit. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy and never spoke English fluently. My mother at five or six years old, remembered pulling into Ellis Island and got so excited, she started ringing the ship’s bell. My parents never graduated from high school, but they were serious about education. They sent my sister and me to Catholic school for twelve years. Early on in grade school, I was an avid reader and I used to make what is now considered graphic literature. My first story I ever wrote was in third grade. It was about a kid who wakes up and has a head of cabbage instead of his own head. I won some contest in school for it. However, I stole the idea from a similar story I read at the neighborhood library and then put my own spin on it. At the time, I didn’t understand plagiarizing or its crime, but I certainly was not going to say anything.

When I got to be a teen, we took the bus downtown to J.L. Hudson Department Store and I fell in love with exploring downtown. We also spent a lot of time at Belle Isle, as well. I took Creative Writing classes at Wayne State and then got involved in theater. After doing a dozen plays or so, I spent one year making a living on just acting. I joined Actor’s Equity, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, three unions I no longer belong to since I stopped paying dues. I studied acting at the University of Detroit and with famed actress/acting teacher/author, Uta Hagan, both here in Detroit and at her old HB Studios in New York City.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those come from?

714JBcyWiWL._AC_UL436_

TG: My debut novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings, is under the genre of historical fiction. It’s about a group of black and some white businessmen, numbers runners, hustlers, and Hastings regulars who face the destruction of their beloved neighborhood to make way for I-75 in an age of segregation. The neighborhood was razed from Gratiot all the way beyond Warren Ave.

The novel has a very interesting upbringing. It started as a bunch of dramatic monologues and then morphed into a one-act play that I wrote and directed for my drama class. It was performed at Detroit Northern High School where I taught. A year before I wrote the play, I was teaching drama at a DPS middle school. We put on a show every year for Black History Month that would include my drama class, the vocal music class, and the school band. The vocal music teacher, Ms. Rosalind Stearns-Brown, is also the daughter of Turkey Stearns, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues. His plaque is on the wall outside Comerica Park. (Ms. Stearns-Brown also sings the National Anthem every year for the Negro League series game at Comerica. Recently, she sang it at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck where the Stars once played.)

For Black History Month one year, she wanted to do “something about my dad” for our annual presentation. I wrote some monologues of three Negro League ballplayers, Stearns, Cool Papa Bell, and Jimmie Crutchfield as older men reminiscing about the old days.

Segue to a year later, and I rewrote the monologues into a one-act play that takes place on Hastings Street in Detroit’s historical Paradise Valley. I did research on the Negro League players and on Paradise Valley for the play.

This mash-up of Negro Leaguers and Hastings Street came about from my befriending blues musicians who played on Hastings. I bartended in Greektown in the ‘90s, and when I got off work I would go down to the now defunct Music Menu Bar on Monroe to listen to music. They had some great bands playing there. Through the great Detroit drummer, R.J. Spangler, I met Johnnie Basset, the famed blues guitarist who played on Hastings. I also met the extraordinary blues vocalist, Alberta Adams.

IMG_0775
Hastings Street in Detroit, ca. 1960. Photo credit: Detroit Historical Society

When they took their breaks, I was lucky enough to corner them at the bar and they would tell me stories about Hastings Street and its lively music scene and nightclubs and after-hours joints. One thing led to another, and I decided to bring the Negro League guys into the world of Hastings Street. I also decided a novel was more accessible to an audience than a play; one can read a novel anywhere, even on the other side of the world. (Actually, I know someone who read it in South Korea.)  So I took a deep breath and said, “Well, I think I can write a novel. We will see one way or another.”

My work in progress is a series of short stories—a dozen or so that have to do with “working Detroit.” Two, however, are set in San Francisco. Three of them will be published in a few months along with stories from three other Detroit writers, Diana Wolfe-Popa, Ryan Ennis, and Michael Schwartz, in a collection.

I pull my art from my work and life experiences. The characters in my new batch of short stories are all working people—waiters, orderlies, assembly line workers, and actors trying to scruff their way through. I am also working on a screenplay of my novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings. I am co-writing it with Heather Buchanan, producer of AUX Media. We have a short film of the same name showing at the Royal Oak Main Theatre on August 28 at 7p.m. We are going to show the film and play some blues with a little band I put together. I play a numbers runner in the film. But I am most excited about the cast. Arthur Ray and Grover McCants, two acting veterans from Detroit, star in it. Shahida Hasan, a dynamic actress/vocalist, plays the “Aretha” role and sings her heart out.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

TG: I write because it is who I am. Creating is very important to me, be it playing guitar, acting, or whatever kind of creative activity. I could take a more spiritual stance and say it is a gift from God, which I believe. It would be wasteful if I didn’t create. Ever since I was a kid, I was an avid storyteller and it is natural for me. In terms of accomplishment, I hope to give my readers a fulfilling experience that leaves an impression after they put the book down. I want to take them “there.” I want them to feel something—visually, emotionally-—I want them to touch, smell, and listen to the world I am creating for them. I want to take them to a place that I have living in my head and in my heart. I want them to get inside someone else and feel their joy, pain, or other emotion. I believe when we read, we see the world better, and not just from our own perspective.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

TG: My writing process consists of rethinking incidents that I experienced in my life and finding the “literature” or the “story” in them. Everything in our mundane moments in life contributes to a bigger canvas or movie. I used to do a lot of writing with a glass of red wine or a pint of beer or at times a joint and sit in a corner at a bar and scribble away. Jack Kerouac called it “sketching.” I would sketch physical aspects of a room or people or conversations I overheard. I would scribble them down and then go home and within hours, maybe days or even weeks, I would take them and put them in a story with more meaning.

Then, there is the craft of the art. What can this story tell? What do I want my reader to feel? I love rewriting something I wrote months ago. I like to write and let it sit for a while and then come back to it with a clear head. A writer should not fall in love with one’s own words too much. Use only what drives the story. Pruning, cleaning up, watering, nourishing-—that is what I love. When I have nothing in the well, I stop. I play guitar and do other things, maybe act.

I can’t think of anything I don’t like about the writing process except forcing myself to write when I should be doing something else.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

TG: Ever since I was a kid, I was told I was a good storyteller. I never looked at it that way. I just said, “Man, lemme tell you what happened today.” After reading bios on Hemingway and Kerouac, I found how we can take our everyday moments in life and make them something bigger than that moment. There is so much to be found in our simple daily lives. The beauty of literature is that it takes these simple moments and makes them so much more important, psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. Every second of life is holy. There is a story in everybody and that is what makes being a writer so precious, exciting and yeah, HOLY.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What is the link to your book’s web site so readers can learn more about it?

TG: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Here is the link to the Amazon page for When the Swan Sings on Hastings: https://amzn.to/2LKL4Gk.

 

 

 

 

Launching the Newest Martin Preuss Mystery

 

On Saturday, May 11th, 2019, I held the release party to celebrate the publication of Cold Dark Lies, the sixth volume in my Martin Preuss Mystery series. 

IMG_0680
Photo credit: Lisa Allen

Close to forty people came to join me at the Color & Ink Studio in Hazel Park on the cool spring day. I was delighted to see so many friends I’ve known for years (in one case going all the way back to Bagley Elementary School in the 1950s), friends I’ve met as recently as last week, and family members from around the metropolitan area and as far away as Buffalo, New York, and Dripping Springs, Texas!

IMG_0682
Photo credit: Color & Ink Studio

My heartfelt thanks to all who were able to come, and all who might not have been able to make it but were there in spirit. Your support means more to me than you can know.

59928938_10214465295374822_2906854486070788096_n
Photo credit: Diana Kathryn Plopa

It was a very casual, comfortable afternoon, and my guests and I enjoyed ourselves. I talked about the new book, had a great conversation with the audience about the series (particularly everybody’s favorite character, Toby Preuss), read a few passages, and then, after a short break, played a trio of songs that are either referenced in the books or are similar to songs that the main characters might listen to or, in the case of musician Martin Preuss, might play on his guitar. 

60345909_10214791867496178_847305427258441728_n
Photo credit: Lisa Allen

I played guitar and banjo and accompanied my good friend and partner in crime, Tom Galasso, on guitar and vocals.

Tom is himself the author of a wonderful novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings Street, and as I mentioned at the event, I stole the idea to play live music directly from Tom’s own reading at the Hamtramck library. He joined me to perform last year at the launch party for An Uncertain Accomplice, and we had a terrific time preparing for this one and performing for the crowd on Saturday.

In addition to books and music, there was an excellent spread of food thanks to Suzanne Allen and an art exhibit in the next room (encaustic works from Melissa Rian). A million thanks go to Candace and Eric Law, proprietors of the Color & Ink Studio, for their generosity in allowing me to host my launch party there, and their gracious help in making the day a success.

And it was a great success. Books, music, food, art, good friends—all in all, a perfect day!

Please enjoy these photos of the event. I’ll be adding more photos as they become available.

IMG_0686
Photos credit: Dave Plopa