Poet Micah Towery studied at Binghamton University and Hunter College before becoming an instructor himself at Indiana University in South Bend. He share selections from his new book Whale of Desire and other recent works at Library Express at The Mall at Steamtown with special guests including Joe Weil, a former teacher, on Saturday, March 8 at 3:30 p.m. The poems in Whale of Desire ($12) have been described as “little miracles of lyric intelligence pitched against a skeptic’s need for faith: faith in God, faith in other people, faith in love and faith that daily life means more than its repetitions and its downward spiral toward death.”
How long have you been writing poetry? How did you come to it?
I grew up musically inclined but always tinkered. Kids are natural tinkerers, like the old country parson doing scientific research in his back garden. I came to capital-P Poetry in high school when I read and started trying to imitate TS Eliot.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you write every day? Do you have a place where you like to write? Walk me through your ritual.
I never gave up the tinkerer approach, so I don’t have a ritual to speak of. I am productive with long stretches of unstructured time. It often starts with some skimming, different books or topics. Ideas converge. Then, as Dickinson says, “a formal feeling comes.”
The poems in your book have a spiritual leaning toward Christianity, though I would never micro-label Whale of Desire as being a “Christian” book of poems. Rather, religion or spirituality seems to be a doorway into your pieces. How do writing and spirituality work together for you?
Because most expression springs from inner life, I think most writing is spiritual. My own inwardness has been explicitly shaped by the Christian tradition–from the Apostle Paul to Augustine, Theresa of Avila to Dorothy Day. Still, readers connect with concrete experiences, so I strive to say what Robert Francis says: “My inner world and outer make a pair.”
There are literary allusions and poetic homage throughout the entirety of your book. I see influences of Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney and Robert Hayden, just to name a few. Who can you name as other inspirations or poetic predecessors to your work?
Too many to name and growing all the time! As my teacher, Joe Weil, used to say, “Learn from all. Be loyal to none.” It’s probably better to name my teachers and what I learned from them: Maria Gillan taught me instinct and poetics as a democratic art; Christine Gelineau firmly grounded me in the 20th century poetry; Tom Sleigh gave me access to the classics and a sense of both tradition and lively continuity; Joe Weil taught me that love and self-giving, an openness to the world, creates the only truest art.
What was the process of publication like? Did you submit to many places or was it a more organic process?
Most blind submissions happen through contests these days, but those fees add up! Contests also give the veneer of accolades and accomplishment but don’t always deliver enduring work. I had submitted to some contests but ultimately figured I could wait for the right opportunity. It came faster than I thought: Joe Weil and his wife Emily started a new press and said they wanted mine to be their first book. Small-scale, relationally-driven publishing has always been the norm for poetry. Poetry is more professionalized these days (‘Welcome to po-biz’ writers joke). That’s a boon for some talented folks, but other deserving writers have definitely fallen out of favor undeservingly. I just feel lucky Joe and Emily gave me a platform to share my work.
You have a reading on March 8th?
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Steamtown Mall, 3:30 p.m. in the Library Express. I love libraries, and I love public spaces where people wander in and out. I loved the way Pete Seeger turned his solo art into collective experience. He released control, invited others to have input. I want poetry readings like that. I want people to interact with me and each other. I want people to go out for a good meal after. And buy the book, of course.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and dc.
Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Friday Weekend
Extending this month’s First Friday Scranton thrills into Saturday, the Slingluffs’ gallery at 527 Bogart Court in Scranton will introduce The Electric City to the work of Providence, Rhode Island-based artist Jenny Brown (far left and top half of page). Titled Lavender Lily Sea, this new exhibition features selections from her new Blossoming Creatures collection and opens Saturday, March 8 with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Visit www.jennybrownart.com for more information (and one of the most deliciously poetic artist’s statements we’ve ever read.)
Among the highlights of Friday night’s art walk are an exhibit of recent works by painter Allison LaRussa (bottom left) at The Vintage Theater on Spruce Street and “Couples Therapy” by Paul Venditti (bottom right) and Kelsey Renninger on The Bog Art Wall at The Bog on Adams Avenue. The exhibit is expected to include floral spray paint works and large-scale, abstract “mountainscapes” and small, intimate watercolors. First Friday Scranton runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Visit firstfridayscranton.com for more information.
The next installment of the Writers Showcase at The Vintage will be held on March 1 at 7 p.m. at The Vintage, 326 Spruce St., Scranton. The reading series, hosted by Brian Fanelli and Jason Lucarelli, will feature readings by local and visiting writers including Laura Duda, Jeff Rath, Emmalea Russo, Kevin McDonough, Amanda J. Bradley and special guest, Le Hinton.
Laura Duda is a recent graduate of the Wilkes University Creative Writing Master of Arts program. Her fiction has been published in the Osterhaut Library’s Word Fountain, and her non-fiction short story “Bonnie” was published in the Fall 2012 edition of the East Meets West American Writer’s Review and won honorable mention in the 2012 Fall Writer’s Contest. She is employed full-time as the Director of Institutional Research at Lackawanna College where she is also an adjunct instructor in the humanities division, and co-chair of both the Creative Arts Club and First Friday Committee. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University as an instructor in English composition and creative writing.
Jeff Rath is the author of three collections of poetry: The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009) and Film Noir (2011), all published by Iris G. Press. His works have been published in a number of journals including Everyday Genius and Fledgling Rag. He is the 2007 R.E. Foundation Award winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee.
Emmalea Russo is a poet and visual artist. Her books are they (forthcoming GAUSS PDF, 2014), CLEAR1NG (dancing girl press, 2013), and book of southern and water (Poor Claudia, 2013). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Kevin McDonough is a full-time Assistant Professor at Lackawanna College. He teaches a range of English and writing courses including College Writing, Introduction to Literature, Women’s Literature, American Literature to 1900, and Language, Literacy and Play. Kevin also works as an adjunct professor for Marywood University’s English department teaching Composition and Rhetoric, Children’s Literature and Structured Linguistics. He spends his time outside of the classroom writing and performing original music and working on short fiction. His New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to start submitting stories.
Amanda J. Bradley has two books of poems out from NYQ Books: Hints and Allegations (2009) and Oz at Night (2011). She has published poetry and essays in journals including Kin Poetry Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, The Best American Poetry Blog, Rattle, The New York Quarterly and Poetry Bay. She was interviewed in The Huffington Post in April 2013. Amanda is a graduate of the MFA program at The New School and holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She is an Assistant Professor at Keystone College.
Le Hinton is the author of four poetry collections including Black on Most Days (Iris G. Press, 2008) and The God of Our Dreams (Iris G. Press, 2010). His work has been published in Gargoyle, Little Patuxent Review, Unshod Quills, Watershed, Off the Coast and in the poetry anthology/cookbook, Cooking Up South. His poem “Epidemic” was the winner of the Baltimore Review’s 2013 Winter Issue contest. In 2012, his poem, “Our Ballpark,” was incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread and installed at Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as part of the Poetry Paths project.
The event is free, but donations are encouraged to help support The Vintage. Light refreshments will be provided.
Andrea McGuigan’s Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: email@example.com.
SONS OF RAGE AND LOVE
Green Day’s American Idiot plays The Kirby on Wednesday
You could call it the RENT of the Oughts or the Hair of the 21st Century. Critics looking for a way to describe something they hadn’t exactly seen before also compared American Idiot to The Who’s Tommy. Offering almost no dialogue (director Michael Mayer actually cut what few lines existed when the show moved from Berkeley to Broadway), it is more of a rock opera than a nostalgic ‘jukebox musical’ like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia. But pulling its punk aesthetics from the chaos of the suburban media-warped alienation of its soundtrack, it is to performance what abstract art is to painting.
Led by songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day had imagined its music scoring some visual performance piece as it created the concept album American Idiot, released in 2004, and later 21st Century Breakdown (2009). But it wasn’t until Mayer and musical arranger Tom Kitt sketched out a workshop of the show that the band saw the full potential of what it had created. The story following American Idiot from multi-platinum album to Broadway musical is documented in the film Broadway Idiot released in October. Meanwhile the third national tour continues to penetrate middle American, playing the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre for one night only, Wednesday, March 5. American Idiot is a period piece that is still contemporary, proposed Dan Tracy who stars as Tunny on the road. It may be a decade or two before we have the perspective to see the whole picture.
Your bio cites just as many, if not more, straight shows than musicals. And American Idiot doesn’t offer much dialogue.
But it is really a piece of performance art. It’s in the vein of a piece of physical theater, like the post-modern pieces happening in the ‘60s or ‘70s reimagined as this rock musical. There’s a lot of really elaborate staging and choreography. Nothing is very literal. It’s representative in a way. So I feel that a lot of the training I got as a straight actor, which is more of my wheelhouse, has helped me to get here. Now obviously it’s a rock musical, so you have to have a strong singing voice. Plenty of the people in the show are straight actors and musicians. Not many American Idiot people are necessarily perfect for a show like Wicked, but we are a perfect for shows like American Idiot.
After watching Broadway Idiot last night, I went back and listened to the original Green Day albums and it was like listening to a demo. It was as if this is what was supposed to happen to these songs and the creative team knew it.
I think Billie had the idea that he wanted it to be something bigger than what he had laid down and he was lucky enough to find such an amazing team. The work that Tom Kitt did on this album is absolutely incredible. The way he was able to take one voice and four instruments and turn them into 12 instruments and 30 voices or 20 voices is simply amazing. Listening to this cast album is like completely transformative.
Those original songs are deceptively simple — they have the structure, the foundation to be able to hold all of that.
Absolutely. I think that was some of the success of the album, that he was able to sort of transcend his punk genre and jump into this land of — like I said earlier, the melodies are classic and they really stand on their own two feet in the whole spectrum of music, not just in the punk rock world.
Tell me about your character, Tunny. It’s political, but it’s not political.
I like to say that the politics are a context. The show seems, right now, as if it is a contemporary piece about contemporary politics but I think it’s actually more of a post-9/11 period piece that hasn’t really gotten past the point to be a period piece yet. It still looks contemporary and you can still buy the costumes at a store any street you walk down in the United States right now. But the politics of it all are all underneath the first couple of numbers to give you a feeling for how these characters are feeling and why they make the decisions that they do. It’s not directly anti any particular president or anything like that. It’s more just political in that it’s about growing up in the post-9/11 era.
And you’re playing a soldier.
My character grows up in a broken home in a suburb in California. He is very unhappy where he is. He gets into the hardcore music scene and he sort of defines himself by violence. He has 13 tattoos. He is kind of emotionally detached from the world and he and his best friend end up going to New York City, which he also hates because, as I have learned quickly about New York City, it’s not necessarily the most friendly place. It’s kind of scary and there are a lot of things that can upset someone, so he ends up channeling his violence into something good and ends up serving in the military. He has a really difficult stretch — I don’t want to give too much away, but he ends up back where he started at home, with a brand-new perspective on the world and I think his story is one of hope. And it’s inspiring, for sure.
Armstrong stresses how dark the show is but of course there has to be a redeeming message, even in a punk rock musicals.
I think the encore that we play ends up instilling a little but of hope with the audience and it leaves people with a smile on their face. It’s definitely a dark story but punk rock isn’t all about the darkness and anger. It’s also about the joy of banding together with a group of people who feel the same way. It’s about community and that’s … where the love comes from.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography is fascinating. That was probably a lot of the rehearsal work you all had to do.
That’s definitely the hardest of the structure, especially for the ensemble members. We had 12 days to learn all of that stuff and put it all together. In a featured role, I and the other principal actors have a little bit of different responsibility in trying to figure out what our stories are and what we are saying to the audience and how that acting is executed throughout the show. But most of the ensemble spent that time learning the choreography which originally was conceived with a group of actors and the choreographer piecing it together bit by bit. He would bring in three pieces, three physical actions which describe breaking out of a glass box, and then the next days the actors could come in with their three little movements to break themselves out of the box and then slowly but surely that was weaned down into what you see on stage in “Jesus of Suburbia” today. So our process was more learning what the original company had conceived. We didn’t conceive any of it on our own, but that’s only due to time constrictions. It still has that flavor of that organic movement that comes from inside of you and everything is a form of that personal action.
It’s really exciting that this kind of movement is coming to middle American because I don’t think a lot of our audiences have had the opportunity to see people move that way on stage.
It’s a show that draws people who have never seen musicals before and that’s really cool because I think it may bring them to see another musical in the future. It is dance and people recognize it as dance but it doesn’t have the same connotations that other form of dance have, where people have pre-conceived notions of how they should feel about ballet or what ever it is. I think it can bring a new appreciation for what we do as performers.
It must be challenging to fit the show into so many different spaces (e.g. the walls of Christine Jones’s original set were 40 feet high). Do you do any of the flying choreography on this tour?
There are lot of one nighters and we are plying some smaller spaces this year which is exciting because we get to go to a lot places in middle America and they get the opportunity to see the show but a lot of those theaters are only 20-to-25 footers and can’t support the flying system so they had to make the decision not to continue the tour because they needed those cities or take the flying away. So the flying has been eliminated and the choreographer conceived a piece that, if you haven’t seen the flying, most people don’t miss it. If you have seen the flying, it’s this element of spectacle that my character experienced that really added to my story. But I think they still have the same level of storytelling and I think it still really works the way it is now.
So that is your character, Tunny, and “The Extraordinary Girl,” who is a nurse, in that scene.
She’s either a nurse or a doctor, but she becomes a personification of my morphine-based fantasy and then she ends up kind of saving my psyche and I recognize this person who I saw in my dreams and then in “21 Guns” she kind of talks me off the ledge and shows me that everything can be OK. And we end up together in the end.
Is there a scene you especially enjoy playing?
I have a blast executing the first few numbers where we set the stage for what’s about to happen. It’s just a group of 20-somethings on stage screaming and yelling and dancing and having a lot of fun together and then for me it takes a turn into this more serious dark place. And that’s been a challenge to try and keep that fresh and allow myself to go into the darker places inside and present all of that truthfully to the audience every night. But it’s fun to experience that whole arch every night and its very cathartic once I get to the end of the show having experienced all those things and then I can just leave it on the stage and walk away.
What else might our readers want to know?
It is important to note that some of the content is explicit. There is representational heroin use on the stage. There is a bit of choreography that appears to be live sex although it is a choreographed dance and they are fully clothed.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll …
I like to say it is important to go into the show with an open heart and an open mind so you can really see the fully trajectory of the story of these people and not just shut them out because you might not agree with some of the staging choices that have been made.
Did you grow up listening to Green Day?
(American Idiot) came out in 2004 so I was 14. I didn’t listen to Green Day before that, but once it came out I listened to all the other Green Day albums and now that I’m in the show I’ve listened to even more. I’ll always feel some kind of connection to Billie Joe and his story and to this story and the people associated with the show.
Something about coming of age after 9/11?
Absolutely. I think I really connect with my character on the level of when 9/11 happened, it was when I realized that the world wasn’t as carefree as it was in my small little town in New England. I come from a really supportive and loving family and I didn’t have a lot of the difficult experiences that my character had and I also really didn’t know of a lot of terrible things happening in other parts of the world until that point and I think that’s what you see on stage and that’s what keeps us all going here because we realize how important this story is to so many people.
Tickets to American Idiot range from $36 to $77. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the show scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Call the box office at (570) 826-1100 or visit kirbycenter.org for more information.
Can you come out tonight?
Jersey Boys runs through Feb. 16 in Scranton
Before teeny boppers started shrieking themselves hoarse over the Beatles, regular blue-collar Americans lapped up The Four Seasons, sending four kids from rough New Jersey neighborhoods to harmonic heights with hit after hit. Meatier than your average jukebox musical, Jersey Boys’ greatest triumph is making that music part of the journey of four men who didn’t want stardom so much as just a chance to make a legitimate living.
The contemporary musical opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in the fall of 2004 and moved to Broadway and won four Tony Awards in the fall of 2006 thanks largely to positive reviews. Broadway Theatre League of NEPA’s presentation of the second national tour opened on Wednesday evening at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple.
Composer Bob Gaudio’s influence on the musical is apparent and younger generations will walk away with a new respect for him as a songwriter. As the structure of the songs is revealed — cycles of repetition, rich in dynamics built around Frankie Valli’s (Hayden Milanes) talent with business-like awareness of the trends of the day — we can see why they call him “the genius.”
It’s this backstory that gives us a greater appreciation of the musicians, the musicianship, and the songs. It’s a scrappy little bowling alley kid named Joey (Ian Joseph) who brings Gaudio (Quinn VanAntwerp) to Four Seasons founder Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard). Turns out he’s that Joe Pesci. (Fun fact: Pesci’s character in Goodfellas is named Tommy DeVito.) We see the band’s sound finally click as Gaudio, seated at a real piano, plays and each member gradually joins in, finding his place in the song. They get the name Four Seasons from a bowling alley sign after they fail to land a gig.
Jersey Boys is arranged more like a television documentary or movie with a lot of cuts from one quick, short scene to the next. The book is thankfully more than elaborate segues connecting hits like perilous ladder bridges. They are packed with conflict, profanity and comedy (landfill jokes are always good for a laugh in NEPA), with each band member narrating one of the four different acts (spring, summer, fall and winter.)
The flow is seamless. New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley pointed out in 2005, it is “directed with more efficiency than originality by Des McAnuff.” A few of the musical’s most dramatic moments suffer from awkward blocking that alienates the audience from making a meaningful emotional connection to the actors. One finds the Boys trapped behind a table upstage cursing in Italian as melodramatic music swells. Another finds Frankie with his back to the audience singing “Fallen Angel” in mourning for his daughter. Unable to share his grief with the audience, it feels absurd instead of tragic when the girl, now presumably a ghost, enters. Howell Binkley won one of the musical’s four Tony Awards for his lighting design. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself admiring it — the lighting directs our eye and really goes along way in making up for the minimal setting required for constant shifting action with creative use of color, angle, spots, and silhouettes.
Musically there is a traceable progression as Frankie grows into his voice from a very jazzy “I’m in the Mood for Love” to the birth of the band’s first big hit “Sherry.” There’s a quick change into matching red suits and the boys are on camera with live stage shots projected between vintage audience footage. The audience applauds as nostalgia kicks in— finally, this is the band they know.
Milanes does his best work in the final act as Frankie goes solo. It climaxes with the story of Gaudio’s personal legwork to get radio play for what was dismissed as an “art song” — “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” We realize how different it must have sounded from other songs of that time, as a horn section enters and the song culminates in a literal show stopper with Gaudio standing there on the upper walk grinning like God over his creation.
The show doesn’t stand a chance of passing the Bechdel test but instead of throwing in the towel, it throws in The Angels “My Boyfriend’s Back” for no other reason, it would seem, than to give the cast’s three women a song. In keeping with the attitude of the times and the Boys’ upbringing, women are largely props. “You don’t lie to your mother and you don’t tell truth to your wife,” Nick Massi cracks. There are “girls, women, wives and other people’s wives,” DeVito explains earlier in the show. The show’s three actresses collectively play more than 50 different roles.
One serves Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Drommard) a meal as he sits on a recliner covered in plastic, another enables Gaudio to finally lose his virginity in a Chicago hotel room. One stands behind a counter in a waitress costume folding a towel under an unfortunate Lichtenstein-style pop art graphic of a coffee pot, so we know they’re in a diner. This is not to suggest Frankie’s liberated journalist girlfriend Lorraine (Jaycie Dotin), Frankie’s wisecracking wife Mary Delgado (Marlana Dunn) and Frankie’s talented, but tortured daughter Francine (Rachel Schurr) don’t have a lot of character. They’ve got heart and brains and guts and make sure we understand the kicks of life on the road are countered by the pain of leaving loved ones behind.
The boys smoke pot and buy cars and have “everything a 22 year old can want”… except family. Played by understudy John Rochette for Adam Zelasko on Feb. 5, Massi admits raising his kids to think he was their uncle so he could mess around. Considering himself the band’s Ringo, he quits the band and heads home to make up for his absence not longer after DeVito is bought out, debts and tax lien and all.
“I don’t want to seem ubiquitous, but we put Jersey on the map,” DeVito cracks as the show opens with “Ces soirées-là,” a contemporary French hip-hop cover of “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” showing us how the music of The Four Seasons has persevered and enjoyed an international influence.
We are fortunate Jersey Boys put Scranton on its map.
IF YOU GO:
What: Broadway Theatre League presents Jersey Boys
Where: Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple
When: Continuing Friday, Feb. 7 through Sunday, Feb. 16 with evening performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m, Sundays At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances are Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Some shows are close to selling out. Runs two hours and 35 minutes with 15 minute intermission. Not recommended for children younger than age 12.
Tickets: $47.50-75.20; call (570) 342-7784 for reservations or visit broadwayscranton.com.