Saturday Aug. 22, 2015

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Rebound Banjo

She left him for her ex
who played the 5-string banjo
in a bluegrass band and whom
she’d left for him—and not
three months before—for a short

sweet-smelling spring,
wound him like a string around
the tuning peg of her index,
touched him and he stiffened,
and he sang. And he broke

down and wept when she went back
to her banjo-playing ex
like a second thought about
a second fiddle, a repeating
chorus or refrain. So he went out west

to forget her. But he couldn’t forget—
he saw her everywhere, saw her hands
in the hands of strangers, saw her hair
on the heads of strangers, saw her breasts
in the shapes of the Grand Tetons

high against the big Wyoming sky
at twilight. And on a side street
in Jackson, he saw it in the window
of the pawn shop, its slender neck adorned
with mother-of-pearl inlay,

its fifth tuning peg indented like
a new paragraph, a new chapter,
its pale full-moon face a blank
slate. And he bought it for fifty bucks
which included the case, capo, strap, three

fingerpicks and a Mel Bay’s Learn to Play
the Five-String Banjo book. He was
motivated. To win her back, of course.
And of course he didn’t win her back.
But he did learn to play in a frailing way

“Cripple Creek” and “Old Joe Clark”
and “Sail Away Ladies Sail Away.”

“Rebound Banjo” by Paul Hostovsky from The Bad Guys. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Ray Bradbury (books by this author), born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). He published more than 500 works — novels, stories, plays, and poems — including the novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), about a "fireman" book burner in a world where books and printed material are illegal.

On his 80th birthday, he said: "The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was 12." Bradbury died in 2012 at the age of 91.

It's the birthday of writer Dorothy Parker (books by this author), born Dorothy Rothschild in Long Branch, New Jersey (1893). Her mother died when she was young, and her father remarried a devout Catholic woman whom Parker despised. Parker dropped out of high school when she was 14 and never went back, although she rarely admitted later in life that she had never graduated from high school. She told one reporter: "Because of circumstances, I didn't finish high school. But, by God, I read."

After Parker's stepmother died, she lived alone with her father for many years, taking care of him as his health failed. After he died, she wasn't sure what to do. She found a job playing piano at a dance academy, and decided to try writing some light verse. She sold a poem to Vanity Fair, and the editor liked her so much that he got her a job writing captions at Vogue, which was also owned by Condé Nast. For an underwear layout, she wrote the caption: "From these foundations of the autumn wardrobe, one may learn that brevity is the soul of lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise." She didn't fit in well with the proper and stylish culture of Vogue, so she went back to Vanity Fair. She worked as the drama critic there while P.G. Wodehouse was on vacation, and she wrote poems and stories for the magazine. She and two of her coworkers — Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood — started the Algonquin Round Table, a group that met daily over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel to play games, write funny poems, and make witty remarks. Their verbal escapades were recorded and printed in the newspaper, and Parker became famous for her witticisms. Members of the Algonquin Round Table were allowed in by invitation only.

Throughout the 1920s, she published poems and reviews — she wrote book reviews for The New Yorker in a column called "Constant Reader." About Beauty and the Beast by Kathleen Norris, she wrote: "I'm much better now, in fact, than I was when we started. I wish you could have heard that pretty crash Beauty and the Beast made when, with one sweeping, liquid gesture, I tossed it out of my twelfth-story window."

In 1934, Parker married her second husband, Alan Campbell, and they moved to Hollywood to work as screenwriters, which they were successful at. At a time when the average screenwriter made about $40 a week, Parker made $2,000 a week. She and her husband were nominated for an Academy Award for the film A Star is Born (1937), and she was nominated again with a co-writer for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947). She became active in left-wing politics, especially labor unions and the Spanish Civil War. In 1949, she was put on the Hollywood blacklist, and her screenwriting days were over. Parker stopped writing much at all. She wrote bits for radio and occasional pieces for Esquire.

Toward the end of her life, Parker said of the Algonquin Round Table members: "These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. It was not legendary. I don't mean that — but it wasn't all that good. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth."

She died at the age of 73 and left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr.

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