New Review of My Poems

It is not often that someone across the ocean reads poems written here in Maine.  But a friend, John Hooper, who liked my novel, recently read some of my poems.  He had some lovely things to say.  As with any writer, I hunger for someone who appreciates what I’m trying to do with my work.  Here is what he wrote, which has a lot to say about what poetry is:

What is poetry, what does it mean, what does it do? These questions, and many more, can never really be answered by anyone other than yourself, never dictated, or lectured, they are personal choices and reactions to poetry, and that is the way that it should be.

 

Poetry is about observation and introspection, it can veer from wild passion to domestic bliss. It can be a vignette, or a sweeping vista. Poetry can be all to some, and nothing to others. It can be fragments of thought without context, or it can be concise and episodal.

 

To me, poetry is a means of producing focused awareness within myself, moments that can never really be addressed in the same manner or with the same success in any other form of written word, nor in screen, or dance, or song. Although all have merit, and all have a deep understanding of their own, there is not quite the same level of intimacy, of personal connection as there is with poetry.

 

Poetry brings us close to the joy and the tragedy of life. It gives us moments, scenes, vignettes, the building blocks of a life lived and in the process of living. It also gives us larger pictures of the mixed flow of life, from the turbulent central waters of the tumbling stream, to the quieter eddies at the edges, shadowed by the overhanging banks of the stream.

 

Both the smaller and the larger, both the turbulent and the quieter have merit, have importance, and have to be passed through and with, in order to live a life. To understand the harmony and balance between the ups and downs of life, of the celebrations and misfortunes, the love and the heartache, is to understand poetry, and is to live poetry.

 

The writer and poet Bruce Spang gives us this sense of harmony and balance in his poetry. Bruce introduces us to small slices of his life, slices that are rich, and deep, and valuable.

 

 

 

Sometimes his poems are tiny personalised vignettes, subtle moments of a daily life lived within the context and perspective of Bruce as an individual. The people that he has touched, the scenes that he has passed through, murmurs in the small hours between lovers and friends, all are picked out in loving detail. They are moments that are his treasures, they are what makes him who he has been, who is, and who he will be.

 

These are protected moments that sit within the borders of his poems. They are the glimpses of childhood, of early adulthood, of middle-life and beyond, all that is the stuff of life, that makes up the essence of what it is to be alive. They are the valued moments that Bruce holds dear, and moments that he understands are important to hold dear.

 

Life is all about these moments, the precious parcels of memory, and although they are personal to Bruce himself, because they deal with his life, they are also ones that he can feel confident in sharing with others. This is because we all have those same similar moments, individualised to ourselves of course, but with enough connections to mark the analogies that are ripe and relevant to our own individual lives.

 

We are all individuals, but we all share more than we imagine. We are together in those shared experiences, we have all loved and lost, we have all smiled and cried, we have all remembered and forgotten. It is perhaps the job of the poet to help remind us of those shared experiences, to be able to call up, through their personal experience, the experience of us all.

 

We are more than the individual we believe ourselves to be, we are part of the collected experience that is our connected lifelines. To not understand that shared experience is to not understand what the poet is trying to show us, and with that we fail to find the poet that is in us all.

 

Bruce has produced a range of beautifully poignant and telling poems, and my admiration goes out to him for his willingness to share his life experience with me in order for me to reflect on my own. What greater gift could one human being give to another, but to give a chance for personal reflection, and for that I give thanks to Bruce, and warmly recommend his books of poetry.

 

 

This review is based on two excellent poetry books by Bruce Spang, To the Promised Land Grocery, and Boy at the Screen Door. Both are available on Amazon, along with his phenomenal and beautifully written novelThe Deception of the Thrush.

 

 

 

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New Book of Poems: Not Just Anybody

Recently my brother died after a long eleven year battle with cancer.  Before he died, I put together a book about our lives together.  As with any sibling, we had our ups and downs. But over the seventy years, we remained close. We were particularly close in the last decade as he found to keep alive.  He would often call me to tell me the good and bad news. Making this book was a way of memorialzing him as well as to celebrate our lives.  But it was also a testimony to anyone who has a loved one dealing with a fatal disease.  My hope it that it will allow those of your who have had someone with cancer to know that in the belly of despair there is hope and that sometimes great joy.

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A Reader’s Comments on My Novel

Recently John Hooper wrote me about his reaction to my novel.  I was touched by what he said.  I asked him if I could share his thoughts.  He said yes. So here they are:

I just want to say how much I enjoyed your book The Deception of the Thrush. To me it was one of those books that I rarely find, a book that I so wanted to finish, but not finish at the same time. I wanted to consume the story voraciously, but doing so would have meant that the world of the book would have collapsed, would have ended the faster I read it.

When I wrote him a thank you.  He expounded quite beautifully on why he liked the character Jason.  Here are his comments:

I am really surprised that you haven’t had a better reaction to the book. To me it is a great piece of American literature. All I can say is that it will be found and treasured at some point in its life, perhaps by a few now, but many more in the future. It is beautifully written, and honestly so. The character of Jason might well not appeal to some, and he might not have a neat journey of struggle, epiphany, and eventual happiness, but why would he? I was surprised that one of the comments on Amazon expected some sort of resolution at the end of the book regarding his sexuality, why? Surely it is a story of an individuals journey, not that of a fictional construct.

 

I understand that many will see the story of Jason purely on the lines of sexuality, and to be fair it is one of the main engines that runs his journey. However, to me there was so much more besides. In many respects, Jason had a set of different paths of journeying, all running along with his sexuality, and all had stepping outside of the ‘norm’ as their goal/fear.

 

Our culture lauds the ideal of the individual as the standard of our western way of life, but to me that has never really been that apparent. On the ground the reality has always been very different, it has been one of conformity, of not standing above, or aside from the crowd. To want to create an individual path, to become who you were meant to be, is often viewed with suspicion at best, overt hostility and bullying at its worst, and so many end up hiding so many more aspects of themselves than just their sexuality. To have to hide the light of who you are, and who you were meant to be, has to be one of the saddest stories ever told.

 

The struggle so many of us have in our early adulthood is between conformity and individuality. We live under the enormous pressures of expectation of continuation, from our parents, from our friends, from the world around us. We are expected to continue the status quo, whilst developing as an individual, but within strict parameters. Who can develop fully from that situation, I know I didn’t.

 

Jason seemed to suffer from the struggle between the expectations of others, and the expectations he wanted for himself, in all aspects of his life, whether it be sexuality, politics, creativity, lifestyle, the list goes on. That is what resonated with me, the struggle to be who and what you wanted to be, against the expectations of those close, and far from you.

 

Reading a book like The Deception of the Thrush envelops you, it becomes a part of your life. For the period that you read, and for a time afterwards as well, you are connected to Jason and his world, and you really don’t want that to end, or at least I didn’t. His journey briefly became my journey, and it has been a profound one for both of us, so thank you so much for that.

 

Anyway, I think this is the second time in my entire life that I have ever written to an author about their work, so something has shifted somewhere in my own journey for me to do that, and that can only ever be a good thing.

 

If any one of you has read the book, I would loved to hear your reactions. I know it has its flaws and still some edits and corrections that I need to do.  But I hope it holds up as a novel and speaks to you as it did to John.

 

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Why I Trust Gardeners as Politicans

For the first time this year, the weather on Sunday, the 4th of May, was warm enough that I could dare put plants in the ground.  Previously, the nights nipped near freezing, sending some plants I put out too early (several basil) into shock.

So, today a neighbor and I went to Skillin’s nursery, to pick up plants.  Of course, this being Memorial Day, the traditional day that gardeners, and would-be gardeners, come out to buy plants.  You can tell the difference between the gardeners and those who dabble with it.  Gardeners have carts filled with exotic plants– some for the shade, some for the sun–different stands of lilies, sneeze weed (a favorite of mine), phlox, ligularia, coral bells, and coneflowers. The conventional dabblers have annuals, the marigolds, petunias and pansies, one that make a bold statement and, once the season is over, fold up and back their bags.  They aren’t really gardeners and don’t pretend to be because they know, whatever it is that makes gardens to grow, is a lot of work.  And that’s not what they want to do.  They want to put the plants in the window box or on the porch or front bed and be done with it.

Established gardeners have to contend with taking care of the perennials, knowing how to snug them for the winter cold, how to snip them back so the new shoots can come back, and to prune them and prevent one from invading another’s space.  They have to know when to dig up a lovely plant and move it to a new location. They need to pay attention to it failing and replenish the soil or subdivide it so it’s not too crowded.  With a particular plant, a type of Plume poppy that I was told will take over a garden as quickly as the Japanese lantern ( a plant that’s completely extraverted and DOES not have any boundaries), I had no luck in propagating it in my back yard. A small patch would come up each year, a squat plant a foot high with the pinkist panicles of flowers sticking up like sparklers on the 4th, the olive green leaves hugging the ground, and, as soon as it bloomed, it would retreat as if exhausted.  I moved it to the front yard three years ago in full sun.  I’m now in full containment mode, trying to keep it from taking over the front garden.  The plant is eight feet tall, a whole colony of brilliant flowers. It screems, “I’m here and I like it!” The rose next to it told me the other day that it’s had enough: get rid of it.  So I pull out the runners and put them in another sunny spot, loving the richness of the flower.

So it goes, the constant adjustments, the seeing how something fare and working with each plant to make them happy and beautiful in their own way.  Gardeners are people who do pay attention and who must be flexible and accommodate to others needs, particularly if you want to have new plants, to relish in something different, something new.  It takes time to find how they can fit into the garden, where they will fit best.  But you do it.  You work with the plant.  You learn to listen to it, to watch it, to care for it, and love it. It takes time and patience. But the rewards are the bright blossoms of their being.

For that reason, I trust gardeners.  I can’t help but think that the qualities that they have would be good ones for making good politicians.  Patience. Listening. Wanting to care for someone other than oneself. Adjusting circumstances to fit new needs. Openmindedness. Creativity–to name just a few of the traits.

When I think of a govenor as a gardener, I can see someone who delights in the wide-range fo people and needs of his/her state, the change in the culture and diversity of his/her state, and the challenge of keeping an open mind and accomodating the needs of this changing world.

That’s the exact opposite of our Maine governor. Our governor  is a dabbler of the worst kind.  He’s the kind who sends someone else out to buy the plants and forbids them from planting anything new.  He wants only what has been in his yard from day one.  And at the end of the year, pull them up and toss them. No need for them. Any wonder he wants to take general assistance away from immigrants.  He wants to remove health and child care benefits to mother’s at risk—those who are young, single and poor.  He’s trying to remove social services to the poor.  He even wants to have local municipalities pay to jails ( an role that traditionally was left, from tax revenues, to the state).  He doesn’t want to the do the hard work of finding out the real needs of our recent immigrants whose lives in countries where genocide have left many of their relatives dead.  They don’t belong in his garden.  So he cuts them down.  He’s like the other governors in Wisconsin and in Florida who I don’t imagine have ever stuck their hands in the soil and who want a well-manicured lawn with lots of pesticides and six or seven annuals at the right place, well watered, and no bother, just pretty to look at, something that does not call attention to themselves, something they don’t need to think about so they can go about acting as if their garden is what it has always been and will never include anything else.

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Review of The Deception of the Thrush

When someone likes your novel, it’s like coming to a lovely inn after hiking many miles up a steep, winding pathway, one that seemed with each turn to get steeper, and the innkeeper saying, “It’s so good to see you.”  This review felt like such a moment.

WINDY CITY TIMES
The Deception of the Thrush 
BOOK REVIEW/PROFILE Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Lauren E. Childers
2014-12-09
By Bruce P. Spang, $16.99; Piscataqua Press; 448 pages

Bruce Spang begins his book pointedly in 1964—a coming-of-age, journey story that occurs right in the midst of large scale socio-political upheaval in the U.S. and abroad. Spang frames the story as a classic hero’s journey through the life of a closeted gay college student, Jason Follett.

Following the archetype of a hero’s journey, Spang utilizes historical moments as the “initiation” and “return” to juxtapose Jason’s personal struggles with his secret in addition to pleasing his domineering father, pledging for a fraternity and playing college football. All of these events lead to Jason’s being drafted into the Vietnam War which serves as a moment in the book in which Jason is finally forced to decide between appeasing his parents and facing his identities.

Jason’s character is initially confronted with high expectations of him in college, sports, and a fraternity following his brother’s failed attempt at bringing the family honor. He later gets caught up in the anti-war and civil rights movement and through addressing war and racism, he is forced to face his own struggle around his identity. Chicago, as one of the settings, functions as a place for Jason to go to be exposed to the gay world.

Spang, burdening himself with the task of representing the vast political moments between 1964 and 1968 doubled with the layer ( word? ) of homosexuality, is able to do justice to these intervening tales and identities. Rocky in terms of flow at moments, Spang’s honest portrayal of this historical moment, raw recantations, and strong storyline make this book a worthwhile read.

While the book particularly appeals to the Pre-Stonewall generation, Spang successfully writes a story that appeals to all generations and audiences through detailed depictions of the era and well developed characterizations.

Talking with Spang

“I didn’t want it to be a gay book—I wanted it to be a journey book” said Spang.

On Oct. 16, Spang returned to his hometown of Glen Ellyn to give a book talk for Deception of the Thrush for homecoming weekend. He expressed his intentions for the book to address many different forms of evil, especially internalized evil within an era that portrayed evil as external, and coming to terms with one’s own evil.

Spang estimated that about 80 percent of the book is based on his own life events that are exaggerated or slightly changed and then compacted into four years.

“So the novels are kind of telescoped” expressed Spang as he explained the process of crunching an entire era of history into four years.

Prior to writing this book, Spang was a teacher of English and poetry. Spang has multiple poetry publications and is the third Poet Laureate of Portland 2011-2013. He expressed that he had always loved to write and wanted to write a novel but knew that wouldn’t pay the bills and so waited until now to write one.

“I’ve been journaling since I was a young kid, so when I started to write this book I would go back to the journals and literally type up what I’d written” said Spang. “Then the art was trying to get it into a book and make sense.”

After going through his journals, making his life into a piece of fiction was the fun yet difficult part for Spang.

“It’s all here—I’ve been writing a novel my whole life” said Spang.

Spang narrated some moments in his life that were mirrored in Jason—yet altered for the purpose of the story. For example, his “return” in the hero’s journey, or his moment of reflection, didn’t come until much later in life when his wife sat him down one evening to tell him she would leave him for another woman.

“Oh shit, I guess this is the moment I need to check out who I really am” said Spang.

Now Spang is recently married to his partner, Myles, and they have been together for 16 years.

“I was always at war with trying to live up to this image of who I should be versus who I actually was and fear that if I did come out those close to me would abandon me.”

Spang pointed out the novel’s timely aspect as a sports coming-of-age story during a time when football players are starting to come out. He references Michael Sam’s coming out to highlight the stark difference in what Spang terms the “don’t even think about it rule.”

“In 1964, there wasn’t even a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ rule but a ‘don’t even think about it’ rule for any football player,” asserted Spang.

Spang also expressed the pertinence to gay youth now because although there are role models now, he expressed the continued difficultly around homosexuality in this hypermasculine arena.

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Review of Boy at the Screen Door

It’s nice when someone gets what you’e trying to do.  This review captures what I’d hope my poems do.

“Boy At the Screen Door” by Bruce Spang— Meditations on Life

boy at the screen door

Spang, Bruce. “Boy At the Screen Door” , Moon Pie Press, 2014.

Meditations on Life

Amos Lassen

The beauty of men together is the theme of “Boy at the Screen Door”, a collection of poetry by Bruce Spang. It is also a celebration of love and how it affects our lives. I do not know the author or anything about him but I sense that he is passionate about life and love as well as to understand. I read a lot of poetry and I have remarked several times in the recent past that we seem to be in a new period in which gay poetry is making a comeback. Just this past week I attended a reading by three new gay poets who had a great deal to say about how we live so I was fully prepared to undertake this book. However, what I was not prepared for was how much it knocked me flat.
The beauty of poetry is that we can say in it what we cannot say in prose because we are allowed to show emotions in poetry. I was taken back to the days of my youth and the infatuations that were part of me. Youth dares to question and to feel new experiences that as we get older become more foreign to us. We take being human for granted and it is only when we reach a level of maturation that we allow ourselves to think about what it means to be a man and to be human.

“I am trying to make up my mind

 

when the priest nudges me and says

“I’m not much for miracles, but I do

like watching those who are.””

The poems are about life and reading them takes us to life and Spang takes us through all of the emotions we experience from love to remorse, from sensitivity to hurt, from negative to affirmative and he does so in great style. I suppose I could give examples of all of this but I would rather that you have a look for yourself.

I came upon this book by accident when reading a magazine and I was feeling like I needed some poetry in my life before the winter locks us in for a few months. I want to be able to remember when we could go and enjoy life without bundling up against the elements. Spang is a poet who can take us from amusement to solemnity, from sadness to joy by using his carefully selected words. For me, sheer relaxation is sitting down with a volume of good poems and that is what I got here. There is something about the lyricism of poetry (even when it is a dirge or a lament that just makes me feel good) and that is what Spang has done for me today.

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A labyrinth of snow

After a balmy fall and a measured beginning of winter–a few storms, some chilly days–the last few weeks have ratcheted up the fury of snow.  The twenty four inch blizzard blasted into the state, rubbing the edges off of everything.  Long sweeping drifts whipped into roads, over hillsides, up to houses and, by the force of the wind smacking against the exterior walls, left an apron of nearly snowless ground so that, as we took the dogs out, if we walked five feet from the house, the drifts stood up to our chests.  But if we walked right by the house, the snow barely covered our boots.  Once the plows severed the drifts and cut the roads back to their corridors, driving on the streets was like passing from one alley in a labyrinth where the cars were like pac-men blinking back and forth, up and down, the narrow confines of the streets.  Snow banked five to fifteen feet depending on what embankment, tree or curb it was piled against.

Taking the dogs out into these drifts–a yellow and black lab–was entertaining.  The black lab thought she was at an amusement park.  She took off leaping up and down, throwing her body into the paths we carved out, rolling off, sliding down the hills.  When our yellow lab got off the paths, her head would pop up, then down, lost in the snow, then like a dolphin, her body rose up, her ears flapping, her mouth grinning, and she’d disappear, leaping up and down until she found the path again where she’d shake off and look at us as if saying, “This is fun. You should try it.”  I did.  I’d trudge through the drifts up to my thighs, lifting one  leg up like a drum major and then the other, huffing and puffling.  Then a drift would come up that was above my hips and I’d lean forward and do the breast stroke for a few yards until I could get my feet under me.  On top of that first blizzard, we had another ten inches and now have another 12-18 inches due.  If that happens, I’ll be swimming down hills like our black lab Midnight, just coasting, seeing how far I can go on top of it before I tilt upright and find I’m submerged, sunk in a drift, and nestled up against a daffodil that calls to me and says, “Be patient.  Our time will come.”  And I’ll dream of their yellows bright and clear on the hillside and the snow, the last of it, under them.

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