Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chris Waters

Three sketches of Chris Waters:

top: my sketch of Chris
middle: a portrait done while he was teaching in Connecticut
bottom: a drawing by a fellow student done in Paris

Chris has been a poet for seventy-seven years. He published his first poem when he was seven years old. Here it is:


When I go out shooting, I always

Like to shoot;

But I can’t do it now

‘Cause I’m only a little boy!

I’ve just got a bow and arrow toy.

When I grow up, I might catch a bear!

And it won’t even cost me a fare!

I’ll do what the Indians do.

They kill bears and shoot birds, too.

So when it is spring, I like to sing

And pretend I am a bird!

This poem appeared in the New London Day in Uncle Andy’s column in the fall1933.

Chris’ latest poem to be accepted for publication is entitled “Elegy for Fred Howard.” It will appear in the magazine Caveat Lector. The poem contains the stanza,

Another? Down there, Cousin Bea’s

Life was the church. Never, I’m sure,

Did she use the word. (I once did.)

“Y’all butter up two while they’re hot!”

Patience is a virtue,

Virtue is a grace. Put the two together

And you’ll have the price of eggs.

Chris says, “I’m surprised they accepted it. It’s a long poem and, after all, just an elegy for a friend. I think the appeal was the surrealism. The way my mind was jumping all over the place.”

Surrealism, as an artistic movement and as a philosophy, emerged just after World War I. In fact, Andre Breton, who wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto, had treated shell-shocked soldiers and knew first hand the horrors of that conflict. The surrealists attribute the war to an excess of rational thinking and bourgeois values. If such tragedy could come from rationality, they said, they would throw their lot in with irrationality. An art movement developed based on disorienting juxtapositions, surprise, incongruities, automatism, and free association. There was a general disdain for established tradition and a belief that art could set people free.

The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can… adults learn best if presented with a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired. The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding… for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own.

How to Train the Aging Brain


New York Times

December 29, 2009

Could it be that creating surrealist imagery, letting his thinking jump around and find new connections, tunes Chris’ brain, keeps it running like the lovingly restored, V-8 engine in a vintage car?

“My father came from Down Under,” Chris said. He was born in New Zealand to Australian parents. The family returned to Australia. Harold Waters was a merchant marine. He jumped ship in Seattle when he was sixteen or seventeen. He was quickly arrested for robbery, because he was young, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had money in his pocket. He was back on the street in a couple of days and made his way to San Francisco where he joined the Coast Guard.

“They liked it if you were an American citizen,” Chris said. “But they weren’t that particular.” Apparently, they weren’t even particular enough to care that the young enlistee, who claimed to have been born somewhere in the Midwest, spoke with an Australian accent.

(Harold would eventually publish books about his long career in the Coast Guard. A typical one, Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol, came out in 1971.)

Chris’ mother, nee Theodora Beatrice Baring-Gould, was English. She was visiting American relatives in North Carolina when she encountered Harold. They were married on December 25, 1925.

“It was a marriage made in hell. He booted her right away,” Chris said. They were no longer together when Chris was born on November 8, 1926.

Theo moved back and forth between England and the States with her young son. Chris went to eight different schools in eight years. She worked as a secretary and clerked in grocery stores. His father was nowhere to be seen. His mother fabricated a story that Harold was “at sea.”

Chris said, “It was hard scrabble.”

Theo and Chris eventually settled in New London. They were there when an officially unnamed hurricane struck. Known as The Great New England Hurricane, it was one of the most destructive storms of the twentieth century. In New London, a short circuit in a flooded building started a fire. Spread by 100 mile per hour winds, it burned part of the downtown business district.

While I was interviewing Chris in his home in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, I sat in a beat-up leather armchair in his cluttered second floor office. On the wall just opposite me was a black and white photograph of a startlingly beautiful woman. I became a little preoccupied with this picture. It wasn’t just the beauty of the woman that kept drawing me back. The style of the photograph was also arresting. It looked like a still from a Fellini film. I imagined it came from a lost masterpiece made about 1954 as his neorealism was morphing into something more baroque. The woman searches the back alleys of Rome for her missing lover, played by Marcello Mastroianni. At the same time, she is remembering the loss of her childhood sweetheart during the war. Two men departed from one young life. One loss wouldn’t be enough to explain the sadness in her eyes.

In reality, it is a photo of Chris’ daughter Jennifer.

Paris has been a pivotal city in Chris’ life, a place that has engaged him deeply and provided the impetus for life changes.

After serving in the army in W.W. II and going to Harvard on the G.I. bill to study economics and French, he found himself working in a dead end job at an insurance company on Wall Street.

“This was a very depressing time in my life,” he said.

His escape was to go to Paris in 1950, to The Cours de Civilisation Fran├žaise de la Sorbonne, to study French culture and language.

“I took it seriously. Most of the Americans were there to have fun in the bars. I did that too, but after my studies. I did well and got interested in culture in general.”

Upon his return to the States, Chris met his first wife, Lenore. They were married from 1952 to 1975 and had two daughters, Jennifer and Gwyneth.

Chris taught French and math at the Salisbury School in Connecticut. It was another bad year for him. It seemed like a dead end and he wasn’t comfortable socially in the milieu of an exclusive boarding school.

One of his professors from Harvard arranged a fellowship at the University of Washington in Seatle, and he got his doctorate in French. With this credential he embarked on his life’s work. He had a long, distinguished academic career, including twenty-nine years at the University of Rhode Island. He retired from teaching in 1991.


What are you going to do now? means
they don't know you, is like
How are you? and no one wants to know.

Golden years sounds like fuzzy brains, the point is
time to do what you haven't done, or
doing more of it, and or better.

Lots of reading, writing, scarcely any
arithmetic, the rest to be sorted out, sort of
as if, given a day to live, decisions were in order.

Death Rowers know the Governor will
relent. Pensioners know they will outgrow
their charts. The thing is though to live until
you die. Neither a peach-complexioned nor a prune-faced
zombie be.

I yawn, open my eyes, see her eyelids move.
Retirement is four days away. Price the Cat
stirs at my feet at my voice: "It's almost over."
Then I feel guilty. He goes to the vet's tomorrow.

Chris’s daughter Jennifer, of the hypnotic photo, has renamed herself Jennifer Blowdryer. Jennifer Blowdryer fronts a couple of punk rock groups, does spoken word, writes, and organizes performances called Smutfest. A recent project, which can be seen on her website, is called “86ed Stories.” It consists of video and audio interviews of people telling stories of getting kicked out of places. Many of these stories are surprisingly touching and poetic. People who feel unwanted talk eloquently about their outsider status and the indignities they have suffered. The over all tone is harsh and unsentimental, but there is real feeling and insight. Jennifer plans to use this material to create a theater piece. Buy your tickets now.

In the “86ed Stories” interviews, Jennifer has a baby-doll voice. In her photos she is still beautiful. It has been a good year for aging punks. Patty Smith just won the National Book Award.

In 1968 Chris was back in Paris. He was on sabbatical from The University of Rhode Island and arrived on the tail end of student uprisings that had shaken French society and nearly collapsed the government of Charles de Gaulle. The term Mai 68 is used to refer to a general shift in France from a tradition-oriented society to a more modern and liberal one. France’s history of colonialism was very much open to scrutiny and criticism as part of this social revolution. Black French writers of Africa and the Caribbean had a new visibility and prestige.

In this context, Chris met Leopold Senghor, the poet and first president of Senegal, who many consider to be one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century.

These experiences in Paris refocused Chris’ academic career. In 1970 he taught a course in Black French Theater. He developed this material into his book Black Theater in French, A Guide.

In 1975, Leopold Senghor invited Chris to teach English in Senegal. Some of his most resonant poetry resulted from his time in Senegal.

African Wrestling

The crowd rose and cheered Papa Ndaye who led
a conga line around Assane Diouf Stadium. Griots
alongside him sang his virtues, marabouts
threw cowries in the sand, drew mystic lines with sticks.
How could Papa lose? The other wrestler,
whose name you could forget, bowled him over right away,
pinned his shoulders. The referee took off and is still running.

Around 1942, Harold Waters paid a visit to his 16-year-old son in New London. He wanted to have his picture taken with the boy, but Chris’ clothes were too shabby for a formal portrait. Harold took him shopping so he’d look sufficiently prosperous in the photo.

About this time Chris found out he had a half sister. Her name is Jane Davis and she goes by “Tippy.” She lives in Oakland, California. Once, Chris and Tippy were going though some of their father’s old papers. They discovered that he had written to acquaintances in New London at the time of The Great New England Hurricane to ask about their well-being.

“He knew I was in that storm,” Chris said. “But he didn’t mention me.”

Tippy told Chris that the old man had asked for him on his death bed.

Chris became a father for the third time relatively late in life. His second wife, Dora, gave birth to his son Matthew four days before Chris’ fifty-fourth birthday

On the morning of an ice storm, I called Chris to ask him a couple of follow-up questions. He had been outside shoveling his driveway.

“I know they say someone 84 shouldn’t shovel, but the shape I’m in its not a problem.”

A non-lethal skin cancer took a Mike Tyson-style bite out of Chris’ right ear. Otherwise he is healthy and fit. He plays tennis, rides his bike and swims several times a week.

I asked him if he has always been athletic.

“I think I had it in me,” he said.

However, he moved around so much as a child he never had the chance to develop skills at sports. In high school he was more of an observer than a participant.

“When I turned 18 and was in basic training I did quite well. I was #1 in sit-ups and push-ups.”

I told Chris that I had been reading and admiring Jennifer Blowdryer’s “86ed Stories” and was interested in the ways in which she had followed in his footsteps.

He said, “She seems to have inherited more from my father. She is a very gifted writer of prose.”

I asked Chris how aging has changed his creative process and he returned to the theme of Surrealism.

“I’m freer now. Surrealism gives free range to ones imagination. I have the right to completely change my mind. The metaphors are broader if you don’t compare two obvious things, but they are still metaphors.”

He adds, “You have to develop your ability to be beautiful. There is an extent to which it is given, but you’ve go to develop it… You have to describe what is around you, but also what is going on around you.”

I like that as a definition of poetry: poetry describes what is around you, but also what is going on around you.