Monthly Archives: October 2014

Back from Berlin


Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany.


My return trip from Berlin last week started with an airline pilots’ strike and ended with a twenty-seven hour trip that required eight boarding passes. I was relieved to get home, to say the least.

My article about the Zebra Poetry Film Festival will be available to read at Connotation Press November 1. Until then, here’s a memory from the trip.

One of my favorite things to do in Berlin is visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The Berlin Wall, that grim concrete symbol of the Iron Curtain, was constructed by the Soviet Union and East Germany between 1965-1975. Checkpoint Charlie was the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.

Most people could not leave East Berlin legally, whether to visit or to emigrate. The more daring attempted to escape, breaching the Wall via tunnels, homemade aircraft, or by hiding in unimaginably tiny spots. My favorite parts of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum are the escape rooms, which are divided into “successful” and “unsuccessful” escapes. Here you can see old photos of people emerging from the backs of cars, where they had hidden under black tarps, or stepping into West Germany from a tunnel they dug under the Wall, or – the photo I find most striking – a young woman folded into a stereo cabinet. This image inspired my poem, “In Front of the Reichstag,” which first appeared in Lake Effect in 2011:


In Front of the Reichstag


When he stood here in 1956

my father decided to set his life to music.


American jazz, the language of home.

To learn forgiveness, listen to the blues.


Fifty years later

I step across the mended street


to read about the girl

who bent herself into a quarter note


and escaped to the West,

wedged into a stereo cabinet,


her body twisted

like the fossil Archaeopteryx.


She was so small, a gamine –

airy as the swan-bone flute


dug up in the Hohle Fels cave

from which the oldest music comes.


Where else did the children hide –

crammed into cello cases, coiled into drums


as the little birds of Berlin

called out in tones of gold and mercy?



How times change. You can buy pieces of the Berlin Wall in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum gift shop. Sections of the Wall stand behind Plexi-glass in museums, safe from souvenir hunters. In a suburb of Berlin, near Kleinmachnow, a dozen sections stand ignored in a field.

I think that’s why I visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It reminds me of the power of the human spirit to affect change. People put the Wall up, and people brought it down.


For some interesting facts about the Berlin Wall, courtesy of the Checkpoint Charlie Mauermuseum, go here:

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Off to the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin



I’m leaving in a few hours to attend the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany. This is my second festival, and I am really looking forward to it.

Zebra is the biggest poetry film festival in the world, and the oldest. It started in 2002 and has occurred every two years since. This year, the international focus is on the poetry of Norway, and the special focus area is on poetry films made in Nordrhein-Westfalen, including the cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf.

If you’ve read my bio, you know that I was born in Germany. My maternal grandfather was born in Düsseldorf, and my mother grew up in Cologne. I’m excited at the chance to see poetry films from this part of Germany.

Zebra always includes a call to filmmakers to base a film on one poem specially chosen for the festival. This year the poem is “Love in the Age of the EU” by Björn Kuhligk:


Love in the Age of the EU


As a border patrolman draws

a line again, shooting is necessary,

is permitted, filming

is necessary, is permitted


how unworldly this continent

with little stars on its lapels, how it

builds up its defenses, Mummy

quickly does the washing up


when the first sneakers were washed

up in the south, later two, three bipeds

were fished out, firing back

is necessary, is permitted


Here is Nic Sebastian’s video of the poem:

There will also be a retrospective of the work of the poet, filmmaker and action artist Dieter Roth.

For some pithy answers to five questions about video poetry, check out this article in Chased Magazine (it includes answers from myself, Dave Bonta, Marc Neys, Cheryl Gross and Alastair Cook, among others):


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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life

Mt. Whitney Photo

The last of my posts for Awkword Paper Cut. It’s been a long, dry spell in the West:

Drought: What is it Good For?

In California, a four-year drought has left the landscape brittle and the people irritable. I was complaining to a friend about the dead weeds that lined the freeway and the lack of green hills last Spring. “Drought’s not all bad,” he told me. “During a drought, the exotic species that usually compete with native plants die back because they are not adapted to droughts. The native species are drought-tolerant, so they have a chance to increase their numbers.”

Mary Austin’s classic book about the California desert, The Land of Little Rain, states that “not the law, but the land sets the limit.” Like California’s native plants, we need to become more drought-tolerant. A writer’s life is subject to similar cycles: never take success for granted; expect and prepare for setbacks. To extend that metaphor a little further, a dry period is also a good time to evaluate how we’re spending our time. Are we putting all of our resources into a losing proposition? Is there a project that’s taking all of our energy but giving little in return? Are we planting lawns in the desert?

Writer’s block, rejection, criticism, financial problems – we face those things and more, on a regular basis. Depression and self-destructive behaviors often result from these dry periods. We should expect and accept these droughts, prepare for them, and develop coping skills, the way the California poppy has developed deep roots to carry it through dry times.

I was fortunate as a child to have spent a lot of time in the Mojave Desert, that area Austin writes about with the mysterious and detached voice she uses in her book. The desert teaches thrift, teaches making the most of every resource, especially water: “Very fertile are the desert plants in expedients to prevent evaporation, turning their foliage edgewise toward the sun, growing silky hairs, exuding viscid gum.”

As a writer, I’ve had my share of setbacks. In just the past few months, I received a rejection on my birthday, and another one just before I was due to give a performance. My conference proposal was rejected in favor of a similar one given by more famous writers. I’ve given readings to near-empty rooms more times than I care to remember. Like the drought-weary residents of California, I treated these periods as aberrations rather than the normal cycle of a writer’s life. Instead of learning from them, I tried my best to ignore them.

Maybe next winter will be a wet one; time will tell. If it is, I hope we don’t forget the lessons of this drought. I hope we don’t keep planting lawns and washing sidewalks. Writers need to prepare for long, dry periods, using resources wisely and getting prepared for whatever may hinder us in the future. These are not periods to squander. As Mary Austin wrote, “For all the toll the desert takes of man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.”