Friday, April 29, 2011

Nancy King – Part 1 I made a trip to Portland, Oregon during which I did not Interview Nancy King.

Since 2008, every February 22 has been Nancy King Day in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the original decree was for one day only – February 22, 2008 – but the tradition lives on.

4/23/11 – I am in Portland, Oregon, the coolest city in the USofA. I am in the coolest spot in the coolest city; the café of Powell’s Bookstore. I am drinking a soymilk steamer with a shot of hazelnut syrup, a pretty cool drink, but arguably not as cool as a latte, or a cappuccino, or an Americano. Unfortunately, for my cool factor, I recently gave up caffeine.

You don’t have to take my word for it that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the country. I will offer you various proofs of this fact.

Proof #1 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:

In a recent medical study conducted by Kaiser Permanente 2,500 citizens of Portland were randomly chosen and interviewed by phone. They were asked to describe their tattoos. Fifty three percent had tattoos. Every fourth person who acknowledged having been tattooed was offered fifty dollars to attend a screening with a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. One hundred screenings were carried out during which each person’s tattoos were carefully measured and photographed. Results showed that on average 6.8% of the participants’ body surface was inked. Therefore, extrapolating from this data, with a total population of 583,776, there is approximately, 582 football fields worth of tattooed flesh within the Portland city limits. *

I made the trip to Portland to dye Easter eggs with my west coast grandchildren, an annual tradition. I hoped to combine the visit with the grandkids and an interview that I planned to turn into a profile for Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man – Part 2. However, I couldn’t connect with the subject of the profile, the jazz singer Nancy King.

A couple of months ago during another interview for the blog with my friend, the jazz photographer Fran Kaufman, she said to me, “You know who you should really do? Nancy King. She is fabulous. Fabulous! When she performs in New York every singer who is not working is there and they all have a story about how she has influenced their career.” (A profile of Fran will appear here in the near future.)

I got Ms King’s number from Fran. She told me it was hit or miss whether Nancy would answer the phone. In fact when I called I got a recording of a man’s voice saying, “We can’t answer the phone right now. Please call back later. If you want to send a fax begin transmission now.” This was followed by the high-pitched whirr that fax machines emit.

A little bit of Googling got me to Ms King’s Facebook page. I sent a message sayng I was Fran’s friend, that I was planning a trip to Portland, that I would like to see her perform and that I’d like to interview her for my blog project. I was pleasantly surprised when I got this message back in less than twenty-four hours: “Hi John, unfortunately, I have no gigs during the time you will be here. But, I would love to meet with you about your project! Call me when you get to town! Look forward to meeting you, Love, Nancy
PS tell Fran hi for me please! “

The night before I flew to Portland I called Ms King’s number again and again got the same message with the fax machine whirr at the end. I sent another Facebook message. In Portland on Thursday afternoon I called again. No answer, same message. I sent another Facebook message. No response. By Easter morning, having heard nothing, I realized this was going to be the trip to Portland during which I did not interview Nancy King.

Proof #2 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:

Food cart cuisine was invented in Portland. In Boston, eating out involves making a reservation at a restaurant, ordering from a menu of maybe twenty-five items, and dropping fifty bucks. In Portland you go to the center of a paved parking lot, sit at a picnic table under a tent and choose food from a variety of carts parked around the periphery. Each cart has a specialty. In the parking lot at the corner of SE Hawthorne and Twelfth Avenue, to offer one of many possible locations, you can mix and match from Perierra Creperia, Bubba Berni’s New Orleance Café, El Brasero Mexican Food, Wiffles Fried Pies, Potatoe King Belguim Fries and Pyro Pizza. Therefore it is possible to dine on a clam strip Po’ Boy, a basket of chili fries, a glass of orchata, and bites of your grandson’s banana and Nutella crepe for about $12. **

Within a couple of blocks of Powell’s Bookstore there are two large record stores; Jackpot Records and Everyday Music. I try Jackpot Records first, but they don’t have anything by Nancy King. The young woman helping me is exceptionally beautiful. She has on a low cut black t-shirt showing a lot of cleavage and tattoos that seem to swirl across her shoulders and down her chest. “Nancy King is a local jazz singer,” I tell her. “Do you have a section for locals?”

“Yeah,” she says. “But it is all rock and alternative. Let me check the computer.”

A couple of minutes later she says, “Only one thing shows up. A live album from 2006 and its in short supply. You’re going to have trouble finding anything. Have you tried Everyday Music? That’s your best bet just because they are so big.” This is typical customer service in Portland, Oregon: be extremely pleasant, do anything you can to help the customer, show some cleavage and tattoos.

At Everyday Music a friendly young man waits on me. His tattoos start at his wrists and disappear up his t-shirt sleeves. He is wearing a narrow brimmed hat that Louis Prima could have sported around Las Vegas in 1960.

I ask him, “Do you know off hand if you have anything by Nancy King? She is a local jazz singer.”

He says, “We don’t really have an inventory, but jazz is through those doors and everything is alphabetized.”

Yes! Not only do they have three copies of Live at Jazz Standard, also Ms King has her own section separated from the other CDs by a black plastic divider with her name embossed on it in white letters. (Nancy King’s discography includes ten full albums and guest appearances on fifteen others. They are not easy to come by. Amazon lists five titles, I-Tunes about the same.)

I carry a copy of Live at Jazz Standard back to the counter.

“You found it,” says the young man.

“Yes,” I say. “Have you heard her?”

“I don’t really listen to jazz.” The Louis Prima hat had misled me.

“I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but she is really quite amazing.”

He says, “Well… I hope you enjoy it.”

Moments later, I slip Live at Jazz Standard into the CD player of my rental car. I listen to it all the way through for the first time as I drive around Portland, through downtown, past the iconic Michael Graves’ designed municipal services building, along the river, out to the Southwest suburbs near Lewis and Clark University where my stepdaughter, Helen Devol, lives with her family, listening to Nancy King, driving through Nancy King’s city.

Proof #3 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:

In Portland, little league coaches only give positive feedback and never loose their patience. Take, for example, my grandson Simon’s coach. His name is Todd Mansfield. Here is a transcription of everything Todd said during one twenty-minute period of a game: “Great swing!” “Nice job!” “Way to back him up!” “There you go! Yeah!” “Good eye!” “Awesome! Way to stop that ball.” “Good job, buddy. Way to cover second!” “Very smart! Way to hold that runner.” “Saved a run. Your thinking!” “That was sweet! What a ball player.”***

Nancy King presents lyrics with amazing lucidity. It is never necessary to strain to catch a word. Nor is the meaning of a phrase ever anything but admirably specific. And yet, what is going on is anything but simple or ordinary. I’ve heard the words to “Aint Misbehaving” sung a thousand times.

I don’t go nowhere

But I don’t care,

‘Cause all your kisses

Are well worth waiting for

Aint misbehavin’

Honey, I’m savin’

All my love for you.

I’ve heard Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald sing them. Nonetheless, I am most convinced by Nancy King’s version that this is a woman who knows she’s made a good deal. It has involved some sacrifices, but she has no regrets. It is a breezy song. It is a sassy song, but its sentiments are not trivial. Nancy King swings it, but she doesn’t disrespect it.

As good as she is with a lyric, at some point during most songs she cuts herself free from words and goes into extended periods of scat singing. When she does this, there is a sense or release and expanded possibility that is thrilling. Her voice becomes purely instrumental and her improvisation is remarkable for its variety and creativity. I’ve never heard better.

Proof #4 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:

In Portland, vegan is the default position. The city council recently debated, but did not pass, a “non-binding resolution” that would have “officially discouraged” the eating of meat and other animal products within the city limits. The discussion that resulted in the tabling of the resolution included the view that such a statement would be “insensitive to ethnic and cultural minorities that traditionally eat meat.”****

4/25/11 - Besides my stepdaughter and her family, my sister in law, Loie Drew, also lives in Portland. On Monday morning, she was scheduled to come over for coffee. I sent her a text asking if I could draw on her I-Pad. I hardly ever send texts at home, certainly not to people over sixty. I bet I would text a lot more if I lived in Portland.

When Loie arrived, I used an app called Sketchbook Pro to draw Nancy King, working from one of the photos on the cover of the CD. I’ve drawn on other people’s I-Pads a few times before, just enough to see the potential, but not enough to feel at home. I bet if I lived in Portland, I would own an I-Pad and do all my drawing on Sketchbook Pro.

The I-Pad drawing seemed like the right portrait to accompany this profile since all my contact with Ms King so far has been digital: Facebook messages, CD recordings, Youtube videos, and internet searches. It is a lot of information, but it is all second hand. I hope sometime soon to be able to write Nancy King – Part 2: The Interview and Nancy King – Part 3: Live in Concert.

* The study and statistics are fictitious, but the point is factual.

** Personal experience accurately reported from an outing on 4/22/11.

*** Personal observation, Cardinals vs. Dodgers, 4/22/11, Stephenson Elementary School ball fields.

**** This is a total fabrication.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Marti Giovan

Part I

Poetry as Therapy

Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, Tony, Marti’s husband of 27 years, gave her an ultimatum. He said either she come home and be a proper wife or the marriage was over. The ultimatum was not unexpected and Marti’s answer was a forgone conclusion. Home was the Caribbean island of St. Thomas where the couple had lived for many years and had raised their five children. However, Marti had been spending more and more of her time at her second home in Charlestown, Rhode Island and she had no intention of returning to the role of “proper wife.”

As her children had gotten older and left St. Thomas for better schools, Marti had found less and less to hold her on the tropic island. In Rhode Island, however she got caught up in a new passion: poetry, especially the idea that using poetic forms to express deep feelings could have therapeutic benefit.

Tony became her x-husband, she wished him well, made Rhode Island her full time home, and became a poetry therapist.

The idea that writing poetry can have therapeutic benefits is not a new one. It wasn’t even new thirty years ago when Marti got a masters degree in Creative Arts Education and taught poetry in state institutions, including hospitals and prisons serving the criminally insane. The National Association for Poetry Therapy offers this description of the roots:

Poetry Therapy, or poetry which is used for healing and personal growth, may be traced back to primitive man, who used religious rites in which shamans and witchdoctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible. It is also recorded that around 1030 B.C.E., the music of a shepherd boy named David soothed the "savage breast" of King Saul.

Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.

Early in her career, Marti had a mentor and partner in her work as a poet therapist. His name was Dr. Art Berger. Art was a charismatic presence in psychology in Rhode Island at that time. Partially through the influence of his brother Stan, who was chairman of the psychology department at the University of Rhode Island for many years, Art, who was more artist than clinician, more hipster than academician, was an early advocate and practitioner of expressive therapy, working with inmates in the prison system and patients at various state hospitals. The work that he and Marti did was funded by state grants in the arts and in mental health. Together they wrote about the theory and practice of poetry therapy and put together anthologies of the writing that came out of their workshops. Writing in 1984 they had this to say about their work:

In a mental health institution the reading and writing of poetry can be a therapeutic process… The writing of poems is a problem solving activity using fantasy to elicit fresh meaning, exaggeration to clarify, symbols to illuminate. Transforming feelings into words heightens awareness of self. Giving form to thought is a growth experience compatible with therapeutic aims… We use as stimuli films, poetry, popular music, folklore, advertising and journalism. Our goals for these groups are to (have patients) compose out of their inner self and life, thereby keeping alive the sense of who they are, and to assist the growth in others through a sharing of their experience and values.

To read these words and Marti’s descriptions of her visits to locked wards is to be reminded how much the field of psychology has changes in thirty years. Marti began doing this work before the height of the historic push for deinstitutionalization, before psychotropic drugs reached their current level of effectiveness, and before length and type of treatment was determined by insurance companies rather than doctors.

In the current era, when mental health services are judged mainly in terms of economic efficiency, Marti’s faith that writing poetry can make you a healthier person may seem a little naïve. On the other hand, no poet, or artist, or musician will need much convincing of the validity of this premise, because they will have had their own experience of being kept sane, engaged, and fully alive through artistic expression. Read some of the poetry that was written with Marti’s guidance.

I played hero
I saved my brother
from my father’s blows
I have played helpless
but got beat up anyway
my father said he was sorry
when he was 45 and couldn’t
drink any more
then he died
I play forgiving.


How to be running water
is a flowing kind of thing
even though I’ve been polluted
I can’t be destroyed
I have different currents
and feel no fear
I started at the mountain tops
and flow down into the valleys
I can break dams
and release myself
I can make electricity
and light up cities
I keep flowing and lead,
like sunlight through the air.


I’ve slept under bridges, on roofs
One time, drunk I slept in a dryer
At a laundry mat and was woke
By women stuffing clothes on me
I slept in a dog house
And in the park with the birds
Slept in cars and most anywhere
Because I had no place to go.


The prison inmates and mental hospital patients, having written these poems, would then be written by the poems. It seems obvious that struggling for these insights, seeking the words to express them with clarity, committing them to paper, sharing them publicly would change the writer.

Part II
Poetry as Eros

I spent this past February 15 attending Marti’s workshop on erotic poetry. I thought what better way to spend Valentines Day than being encouraged by an 83-year-old poet to think about and write about sensuality. Marti teaches by providing examples from both her own poetry and from more famous poets; Carl Sandburg, Galway Kinnell, Morton Marcus, May Swenson, and ee cummings among them. She moves through a series of stages from the sensual, to the erotic, to the bawdy, providing writing prompts for the group to respond to. She responds to each participant’s written efforts with enthusiasm and delight. I remember feeling this way in kindergarten; as if I was the only five year old who had ever done quite such a good job of writing his name. Of course, I want my next poem to be even better so I can again get Marti’s encouragement and praise.

Marti says that when you awaken your personal sexuality your entire erotic self becomes alive and robust. You adopt a whole new way of being in the world, open to all the beauty around you. When we accept the pleasures of the sensual the whole world shifts. The image of the arrow shot by Cupid is an image of arousal, but arousal as a bridge to connection, to love. “When we are making love, the whole world is making love with us and that is the erotic.”

Marti says that in all world mythologies the gods are sexual beings and sexuality is held sacred. Therefore, she offers the prompt to write about, “a truly erotic experience worthy of the gods.”

I write the first draft of a poem called “Beyond The Reach of Science”.

Seismologists in white suits

Take core samples of the earth.

Drill down a million years

To predict the potential for rumbles and quakes.

Naked in our bed,

We undermine their work.

We slip below the surface into cracks and crevices,

We flow like water, like lava, deep down

Where science can’t reach.

With our tectonic slip and slide,

Our subterranean liquid jiggle,

With the amplitude of our shaking and

The magnitude of our thrashing and

The oscillation of our body wave moaning,

We are the log-a-rhythm of the earth’s holy vibration;

The epicenter of its transcendental throbbing.

Without us for lubrication,

The earth would seize up, become static.

It couldn’t hum and buzz as God intended.

Its hard work, somebody’s got to do it.

I’m glad it’s us.

I want to thank Marti for the inspiration. I can’t wait for next Valentines Day.

Life as Poetry

Sometimes life rhymes just like poetry. Sometimes a stanza gets repeated and brings things full circle. Sometimes the repeated stanza has a whole different meaning because of the poem that precedes it.

After many years of promoting the creativity of others, Marti is making more time to write her own poetry. Long ago, she recalls a therapist saying to her, “You’ve met your obligations to others. It is time to meet your obligation to yourself and the to world.”

Certainly, that is not an either/or proposition, but a balancing act we all have to perform all the time. Marti does it with grace and generosity.

Marti recently wrote a series of poems called Want Ads. Here are two:

WANTED—Circus Person

A circus person

Who can pitch big tents

Promote local show

Sell tickets

Control excited crowds

Must love big cats

Dub in as a clown

Fly the trapeze

Be at ease with elephants and antelopes

Experienced trouble-shooter

Finder of lost children

Be willing to travel

Consider the circus as home

WANTED—Ring Master

Experienced ring master

Should also be Freak show barker

Bare back rider

Snake charmer

Fortune teller

Certified animal analyst

Must enjoy stars in children’s eyes

Does not mind sweeping up popcorn

If available visit us in person

When the circus is in town

Among my reactions to these poems are the following: they sound like a pretty good description of the advertiser and they are also good descriptions of what it takes to live into old age with creativity and vitality.