Monday Jan. 16, 2017

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After Second Shift

She’s stopped to shop for groceries.
Her snow boots sloshing
up and down the aisles, the store
deserted: couple stock boys
droning through cases of canned goods,
one sleepy checker at the till.

In the parking lot, an elderly man
stands mumbling outside his sedan,
all four doors wide to gusting sleet
and ice. She asks him, Are you okay?
He’s wearing pajama pants, torn slippers,
rumpled sport coat, knit wool hat.

Says he’s waiting for his wife.
I just talked to her on the payphone
over there. He’s pointing at
the Coke machine. What payphone?
she says. That one, he says.
It’s cold, she says, and escorts him inside.

Don’t come with lights
and sirens, she tells the 9-1-1
dispatcher. You’ll scare him.

They stand together. The checker
brings him a cup of coffee.
They talk about the snow.
So much snow.

They watch for the cop.
This night, black as any night,
or a bit less so.

“After Second Shift” by Lowell Jaeger from Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone. © Shabda Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet and memoirist Mary Karr (books by this author), born in Groves, Texas (1955). Her parents were both heavy drinkers, and her mother was emotionally unstable and sometimes violent. Once, in the middle of a psychotic break, she tried to kill Mary with a butcher knife. But she was also a voracious reader, so the Karr household was always full of books. Poetry helped Mary cope with her tumultuous childhood: “From a very early age, when I read a poem, it was as if the poet’s burning taper touched some charred filament in my rib cage to set me alight,” she wrote. She published four poetry collections: Abacus (1987); The Devil’s Tour (1993); Viper Rum (2001); and Sinners Welcome (2006).

Around the time her second poetry collection came out, she began work on the book that would put her on the New York Times best-seller list: her first memoir, The Liars’ Club (1995). The book is about her childhood, and it took two years to write, because she could only work on it on the weekends when her son was with her ex-husband. A second memoir, Cherry, followed in 2000; and a third, Lit, in 2009. She threw away 1,200 pages of Lit because it felt untrue, and actually wore out the “delete” key on her computer. “I spent about four days in my pajamas, she said later. “I saw nobody but the curry guy. And I was just sobbing.” But she picked herself back up and started over at page one. The book is about her recovery from alcoholism and her conversion to Catholicism.

Her success helped pave the way for memoir as a genre in its own right. “I think as fiction has become more hyperintellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people hungry for the real — for real, lived experience — have been forced to migrate to memoir,” Karr told NPR in 2015. Her most recent book is a memoir about writing memoirs, called The Art of Memoir (2015).

Today is the birthday of the English-born Canadian poet Robert Service (books by this author), born in Preston, England (1874).

From “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”:

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant … hunger and night and the stars.

It’s the birthday of the man who didn’t give up his shot: Broadway composer, actor, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (books by this author) was born on this day (1980) in New York City.

Miranda is best known for penning the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton (2015), about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who wrote most of the Federalist Papers and was famously killed in a duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr. Miranda was born in Washington Heights, but grew up in the mostly Latino neighborhood of Inwood, 13 miles and 28 stops north on the A train from where Alexander Hamilton is buried in the Trinity Church Graveyard.

Miranda’s father was a political advisor to New York City mayor Ed Koch. His parents were big musical buffs and the first Broadway musical Miranda ever saw was Les Misérables. He says, “I know that show like I know my family tree.” He grew up listening to Broadway cast albums, but also soaking up rap music by Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. At Wesleyan University, he cofounded a hip-hop comedy troupe called “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After graduation, he worked as an English teacher at his former high school, wrote campaign jingles for his father’s clients, and acted on the television shows House and The Sopranos.

It was after seeing the musical Rent that Manuel became serious about trying his hand at composing. He wrote early drafts of a musical called In the Heights while still in college. It featured a character named “Usnavi,” whose parents named him after the first thing they say when the came to America: a U.S. Navy ship. Miranda played the lead when the play premiered on Broadway in 2008. It ended up winning a Tony for Best Musical and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Miranda first got the idea for a musical about Alexander Hamilton when he picked up Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton (2004) in an airport bookstore. He was so intrigued by the possibilities that he began writing songs while on his honeymoon. Miranda would write at the piano until he found a melody he liked, then loop it into his headphones and go for a walk. “I kind of need to be ambulatory to write lyrics,” he says. Miranda’s musical style is a combination of hip-hop, rap, salsa, rock and roll, and propulsive couplets and triplets. He says, “It’s 12 art forms smashed together.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®