29 May 2016

A poem for the Little Criminals

For a very long time, maybe a couple of decades, I've belonged to a list-serv dedicated to the great singer-songwriter Randy Newman. This guy:

Randy Newman is one of my Top 5 favourite songwriters, along with Nick Lowe and Bob Dylan and Aimee Mann and David Ackles. (Sometimes Van Dyke Parks is on that list, sometimes Kristin Hersh, but Randy is always on the list.) We on the list-serv call ourselves the Little Criminals, named after the Newman album of the same name. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to meet half a dozen or so Little Criminals, and what amazing people they are. There are many more I haven't met but who I consider friends.

On November 28, 2002, I wrote a poem called "Poem for Randy Newman's Birthday." It appears in my 2003 collection, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected (ECW Press).  The same book also contains the poem "Sonnet (Storm & Cat)," a poem about Toluca, a cat that lived with a Little Criminal named Joan, down in California. The Little Criminals are all over the world. Some are poets, some are musicians, others are impresarios, airline employees, students, nurses. They have been great supports at difficult times. They are intelligent, funny, interesting people. I mean, they must be if they love Randy Newman, right? And they have made it possible for me to meet my hero a few times in Toronto and once in Rochester.

In my new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak & Wynn), Randy makes a very significant appearance in a poem I wrote last year, "And Oscar Williams Walked In." It's about the time the poetry anthologist Oscar Williams, who probably edited just about every American poetry collection up until the early 1960s, visited me at my home on Pannahill, about a decade after his death. Oscar Williams is this guy:

Anyways, Oscar Williams came to visit. So I went to the park and I took some paper along, and that's where I made this poem, posted here as a gift to my dear friends the Little Criminals:


I’m sitting in my bedroom listening
to Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel
and then Leo Sayer’s Just a Boy
and after that Randy Newman’s Sail Away
for which I read the lyrics on the record sleeve
while it plays, every word, even though
I’ve listened to it about a hundred times before
and my mother’s in the kitchen burning steaks
and making mashed potatoes and she yells up,
“Stuart! Your friend is here!” and Oscar Williams
(as I later find out his name is) walks in
wearing a bow tie and John Lennon glasses and
says, “I see you like reading,” and it’s not because
I’m reading the lyrics to “Simon Smith
and the Amazing Dancing Bear” at that
moment but because—I follow his eyes—
one wall of my room is covered in bookshelves.
I find him pretty creepy even though
I have lots of friends who are older than me
mostly because of this poetry workshop
led by a guy named George Miller
I go to every Saturday with Mark Laba
where everyone is older than us.
“Have you ever read this?” asks Oscar
Williams and he holds out a mouldy copy of
Immortal Poems of the English Language.
“I saw you have a mother down there. My mother
was named Chana Rappoport and my father
was named Mouzya Kaplan. I am Williams
in the same way you are Ross. Have you ever
read this?” Oscar Williams asks and he holds
out a dog-earred copy of The New Pocket
Anthology of American Verse from Colonial
Days to the Present. “They’re pretty good,
you know, they have poems by people like
Ezra Pound and Robert Frost and Edna St.
Vincent Millay and William Carlos Williams
and Oscar Williams of course. Do you want to go
hang out at the cigar store?” The album cover for
Sail Away has a big picture of Randy Newman’s
face and I hold it up over my own face so it
looks like I am actually Randy Newman.
“Pardon me,” says Oscar Williams, “I thought
you were Stuart Ross, teenage author of such
immortal poems as ‘jesus tobacco’ and ‘Ritual
of the Concrete Penguins.’ I died in 1964
so I sometimes get confused.” And then he is gone.
Like it was a dream. I go downstairs where
my mother is opening a can of peas and say,
“Why did you let that guy in, Mom?” and she says,
“What guy? All that rock music you play is giving
me a headache and you hallucinations. Go wash
your hands, we’re having dinner soon.”
It is 1974. In forty-two years I will include this
poem in a book called A Sparrow Came Down
Resplendent. Barry and Owen sit down at the table,
and me and my mom and dad. We take turns
trying to pronounce Worchestershire.

Over and out.


At May 29, 2016 7:21 pm , Anonymous Laurie Anne Fuhr said...

This sellout poetry book even sells music! You're a money making machine. Oscar Williams is rolling in his grave, not over but this way and that, a cigar between dirty fingers.


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