As a lawyer I was your advocate, but now as a Poet my job is to help you see all things differently. For example:
I have a silver gray antique BMW Z3 convertible. It looks like a ridiculous self important go-cart. It has five gears and a stick shift. It is loud. It is very low to the ground and only my head sticks out of the top.
When I drive this car I am publicly on display as a self-confessed idiot. Sort of a clown. Young boys with fresh learner’s permits pull up to me at stop lights, rev their engines, and laugh at me. I should be embarrassed.
But if I tell you, “I know I look like an old man driving a roller skate…” you laugh — but once you’ve imagined me in this car, you look at the car and the old man differently. It may be funny or it may be sad, but as a poet I have that ability to make you see things differently .
It is the ability to break the mold that we all live in and take for granted, again and again and again. The cement truck pours and we instantly take for granted that hardening cement and live with those forms forever. Poetry has the ability to break what is permanent and make it new by presenting it differently.
When I write a poem or a play I am asking you to hear my voice, look through my eyes, and see the “flash” vision that I create out of what we live in and take for granted together. I am driving the same roads, obeying the same traffic lights, and stalled in the same rush-hour traffic as you are. I’m using the same language and your words but I am aware of the sound of the words and the rhythm of our shared language in order to create that “flash” of the vision I want to create: “The old man driving a roller skate.”
That is the poet’s work. I must jackhammer out of existence something you have seen in your imagination, perhaps forever.
Let me give you two “flash” examples. Two quick comic examples from the best Poet of the English language: Shakespeare describes a drunkard who is upchucking on the street as, “Speaking with a full flowing stomach,“ or snidely describes a couple in an illicit affair as, ”being a beast with two backs.” In a “flash,” he can help you imagine what you expect, differently.
The job of the Poet is to bring you back to before the cement truck came into your life.
For me, the “future” is like a churning cement truck going to a job. The “present” is the dump of the watery mixture and its slow and permanent hardening. The “past” are the hardened roads I travel on again and again and again. Only the gift of “accident” can break apart all three and only with “creativity” do I become released and reborn to grow into a maturing perspective.
Over the last six years, I have been chosen to help The Alumni Association at Harvard put on graduation. I look forward to this and accept with pleasure each year when it is offered. I dress up in a silly top hat and tails to escort the honorary degree recipients and their families at Harvard’s graduation. It is an unusual and informative experience.
Rick, my son, and I are very close. After graduating from Dickinson College, his high school asked him to return to Baltimore to teach and help coach their football program. During these years Rick continued his commitment to education by getting a Master’s Degree from the night school at Johns Hopkins University, which allowed him only one night a week free. During these years Rick and I had dinner together every Monday night.
Rick has always been a very kind and socially conscious person. Rick also has an encyclopedic understanding of football and its rules and strategy. Because there is a deep divide in the opportunities provided in our city, after several years of teaching and coaching at his private high school, Rick elected to join his former head coach and teach at Saint Frances Academy in downtown Baltimore.
The year before Rick joined this school, it had only won one game. The next year, they were undefeated. The following year, they were ranked fourth in the nation.
All of the students on the football team went on to established and respected universities with mostly full scholarships. Rick told me several times that they were the most committed group of young men he had ever met. The school is located in the shadow of the penitentiary.
Rick continued his commitment to both education and football by accepting a graduate assistant position at the University of West Virginia, then followed his coach to the University of Houston. The last two years he has been working 24/7 as a GA for University of Houston’s football team and I never see him anymore.
So those are my hardened roads leading up to this year’s Harvard graduation. Here comes the cement truck: The week before my graduation duties this year, Rick called and said he had a free week. I wanted to see him desperately but I had made my commitment months ago. I asked him, “Do you want to come to Boston?” I couldn’t think of anything more boring for him but he said, “Sure.”
Was this a disaster about to happen or was this a gift of an accident? Rick would not know anybody…
We did everything together. A wonderful lunch with Rick and Lindsey Shepro and John Bowman at B&G oysters (Boston’s best oysters), and a dinner after graduation with Sam and Wendy Plimpton at No.9 Park (Boston’s best restaurant).
It is not easy to be shocked as you watch your child become, before your eyes, more sophisticated than you are. My old friends became his new friends almost instantly. And then we slipped back to our welcome past and beer and a Bruins game on TV and a Red Sox game at Fenway… and a stunning and subtle speech by Angela Merkel in the afternoon of graduation.
So often now, as I become older and easily set in my ways, I look for the gift of the “accident.” It breaks my safe world apart. From broken expectations comes the unexpected rebirth.
I’m extremely fortunate to have had a class with Elizabeth Bishop, who was one of our great, late 20th Century poets. She taught us that any two poems, no matter where they are from, when placed side-by-side will cause an unintended contrast that will illuminate both. Once grasped, this is an eye-opening idea with endless potentiality for creative thought.
I grew up between two schools, two cemeteries, and Harvard Square. The Cambridge cemetery was relatively flat, had few trees, was wide open, and pretty much existed to hold the military dead of foreign wars and the citizens of that city. In contrast, behind the impenetrable black iron fence and gate of Mount Auburn Cemetery, spread a small and elite universe of acres of hills and valleys with shaded walkways and still ponds, as an arboretum of carefully preserved trees and as an aviary for local and migrating birds. These two cemeteries existed side by side divided only by a single two lane road.
As children we would freely ride our bikes among the military dead in the Cambridge cemetery but we were strictly prohibited from even entering Mount Auburn. It wasn’t a place designed for us. However, when the gates were open adults were permitted to walk among the graves and in its verdant splendor. Mount Auburn rested like a shared understanding of what a patrician heaven might be while the Cambridge Cemetery was a plebeian limbo.
When I visited after last Memorial day the Cambridge cemetery had rows and rows of flags. One at each grave. No one was there except a lone bagpiper striding along one of the empty roads. Unexpectedly, I could find only one flag in all of Mount Auburn and it was guarded by a wild turkey that had become domesticated by the place. There was a quiet urgency as groups of horticulturalists or birdwatchers clustered as they whispered observations to each other.
Miss Bishop, as she called herself, was right. The accident of the unintended contrasts caused by my time and location that day opened up worlds for me about the two cemeteries, about the living generation and the predeceased, as I walked between the four.
After 80 pages of wonderful foolishness, rhymes & hip-hop, we are on track for operetta submissions by September 1st. Christian De Gré Cardenas and I have set August 10–17 to retreat to Mexico to complete The Voice of the People, our operetta about the seventh of the Seven Deadly Sins — pride.
Is it wrong to say I’m proud?
Last Friday, Patrick Alberty, Christian and I met to go over my most recent draft and we are all excited and happy about our progress. Our target is to have a commitment and opening next spring or summer.
Last week I presented my ode for the Harvard Alumni Association to keep them laughing. As the Poet Laureate, I love doing this every year. This year, the subject was Harvard Magazine, and my ex-father-in-law, both of which I love.
For Harvard Magazine
(Portrait of Gentleman Jim)
By Robert R. Bowie, Jr. Ab’73
Whenever I became too confident
Of my perfect Harvard education
My ex-father-in-law, concomitant,
Was there to deliver expiation.
His timing was perfect. He’d watch and wait.
He’d set me up and then he’d set me straight.
Let me describe this kind and gentle man:
In profile he was blessed with a perfect
Semi-circular belly and no can.
Perfect as a backlit window silhouette:
A photo I still love and regret.
A photo my ex-wife wouldn’t forget.
A small piece of a small, but sad divorce.
He has ‘passed on’ but I miss the man.
Comfortable with himself. Steady. On course.
Leaning back with a scotch glass in his hand,
“I sell seeds and satisfy farmers’ needs,
Go to church, plant the garden, pull the weeds.”
Every Easter the two of us would go
Outside to smoke illegal Cuban cigars.
He’d get me to tell him what he should know.
He’d always wait until I’d gone too far.
He’d lean back: “Ahh, hoist by your own petard?”
Flick off his ash and say “Harvard-smavard.”
They’re all gone now, his wife, mine and him.
But still up until the very end
I would package and carry up to him
All my old Harvard Magazines and then
He always put them there in the same place,
Next to the kindling and fireplace.
I drove up a month or so before he died.
He so deeply missed his loving wife.
The reconciliations I had tried
Had failed. Love was leaking out of his life.
The door unlocked, sleeping in his chair
With a Harvard Magazine spread out there
Heaving on his perfect snoring belly,
What a perfect find was all of this?
There was food in the ice box from the deli.
I found whiskey and two glasses. I kissed
Him and asked “What’s this you’re reading you fool?”
With a cagey smile: “It ain’t that bad a school.”
Copyright © 2019
Several years ago Professor Mike Millemann, on the left, contacted me to see if I wanted to help him fulfill a grant made to the University of Maryland Cary School of Law to teach law differently by using the theater.
We signed up Elliot Rauh, of Single Carrot Theatre and decided the class should write plays about prisoners who had been released from prison after they had been determined to be absolutely innocent after years of incarceration. One of those plays was about Michael Austin, at the center, who was imprisoned in Maryland for over 27 years for a murder he did not commit. He was freed through the brilliant legal work of Larry Nathans, Esq., of Nathans & Biddle.
Last week we got together again at Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore as a reunion of old friends to help Michael because Michael had just found out that due to a typo in his arrest record he was never exonerated and that has kept him from getting work. This will be resolved but the reunion between friends nonetheless was wonderful.
In Michael’s case, and in most of the cases that we turned into plays, the process was remarkably similar. On the first day of class we brought Michael in to meet the class and answer questions. He was calm, collected, and despite the injustice of his incarceration not angry but very wise. In prison he had perfected himself and along the way he had become quite a remarkable musician.
Throughout the following weeks of the semester, the first third of the class was used to do deep research on what went wrong and what led to his conviction. The class went through trial transcripts, records of an incompetent defense lawyer, and files of prosecutors that withheld evidence and a transcript recording of the judge that sentenced an innocent man to life in prison.
The second third of the class the students wrote the backstory, and in the third and final part of the class, Elliot Rauh taught acting and turned inexperienced law students into the actors of their own play which was performed before the law school.
Michael stayed with the class from the beginning. One of the students said that he should provide music for the play and he agreed. Another one of the students suggested that at the end of the play, Michael should leave his instruments behind and identify himself as the Michael Austin about whom the play was written. The audience gasped and some wept.
At first I thought this class might have limited value so we asked that the students provide a one minute clip to the people who had provided us the grant to state whether they thought the grant money had been used appropriately. I became convinced when one student faced the camera and said “I wrote the part of a defense lawyer who was unprepared, acted the part of the prosecutor who withheld the time card that would have exonerated him, and read the exact words 30 years ago when an innocent man was pronounced guilty by a state court judge in the circuit court of Baltimore city and sentenced to life and I have never been in a courtroom.”
At that point we were convinced that the class worked. People were learning from mistakes made before they were fatal. We taught the class for seven years and it was ranked as one of the most appreciated classes at the law school during that time.
As I wrote last week, my day job now is to write a “bawdy libretto” for an operetta about the seventh deadly sin: pride. It will be performed in NYC (and hopefully elsewhere) next year. I now have three plays in the works. One was produced in New York last October and remains in development for future professional productions. One I have reworked and is now as fresh as spring time and ready to be sent out. And one I killed by overwriting, but it is on the autopsy table for study.
Right now the future is the libretto for a bawdy operetta. This is what I’ve learned so far:
My bosses and co-collaborators are Christian and Patrick, the founders of Mind the Art Entertainment. Their six previous operettas about the six other deadly sins have either been performed in New York or are in development for performance. This thing is going to happen, baby! These guys are real, and real talented.
But this is what they have taught me: collaboration. They are amazing. They told me to write a libretto. They said they needed 10 songs in the first act and eight songs in the second act. There would be eight actors performing over 35 rolls, it would be entirely sung and it would be a bawdy comedy. Once I wrote the libretto Christian would put music to it. But I had never really understood artistic collaboration before. I kept going to them and saying “is this what you want?” “Is this what you want?” And I kept getting the answer: “Write the libretto you want to write! Make it your voice. Make it your story.”
“How about if it’s totally rhymed?” “How about if I try and do hip-hop?” “How about if I have a singing dog?”
Last Friday I met Patrick at the Opera Center in New York and we were scheduled to work through the first draft that I had provided. It was a corner room with wood floors and perfect acoustics. The sunlight came in through the seventh floor windows. We worked at a central table in the middle of a room, which was much larger than we needed.
I started with my same stubborn questionings: “Is this what you want?” Patrick, almost with an air of irritation, said again: “Write the story that you want. Tell the story that you want. We will collaborate. We will collaborate.” And we did for the rest of that day.
He knew the first draft as if he had written it and just offered ideas for consideration. They were amazing and creative beyond my wildest expectations. I had expected head-banging. I got laughter and collaboration instead. Later on the next night Christian and I went out to dinner at the Algonquin Hotel, the historic home of the round table and Dorothy Parker, and he leaned over and laughed and said, I can write to your words. The rhythms makes sense. And we both laughed. I asked for his thoughts and because I had not brought paper I took notes on both sides of a bar napkin and carefully folded it and put it in my wallet before we left to say good night.
I am now halfway through April and deep into the second draft. This is more fun than I could ever have imagined.
As we closed the bar late that night, Christian said: “Our job is to create art and have fun.”
Thanks to Christian and Patrick, I’m learning that.
Let’s agree on one thing.
We are Americans.
We are not two polarized political parties. We must never forget that. We are Americans. We agree?
In light of our agreement let’s take a fresh look at: 1) gerrymandering and 2) the Mueller report.
First let’s look at gerrymandering. Politicians should not be able to reelect themselves by defining their districts. They are our employees. Our taxes pay their salaries and lavish benefits ( but that’s another story). Whoever heard of dividing a country to secure your own job?
The Supreme Court has once again an opportunity to address redistricting and gerrymandering. This issue is so much greater than any single provision in the Constitution. It is at the very bedrock of our republic/democracy. Very early on the Supreme Court recognized “the right to travel between the states” or “Constitutional judicial review” that are not in the language of our Constitution but are at the bedrock of our government. We are Americans.
Second, let’s look at the Mueller report. It is absurd to define the question as “collusion“ or “conspiracy.” There is no doubt that the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government both wanted to see Trump elected. Two horses pulling the same wagon don’t have to “conspire” or “collude” to make the wagon move forward, if it is in each horse’s interest to move in the same direction.
The question is, should the Russian horse be pulling the wagon at all. I think every American would agree we do not want a foreign government involved in any way in our elections and in any way affect our choice of leaders. The Mueller report misses the point. Who cares about “collusion” or “conspiracy”? That’s not the issue. The issue is that no foreign government should intervene in our democracy in any way. We are Americans.
There are two things I learned as a lawyer: 1) if you let me define the issue I will always win the argument, and 2) once you make up your mind any reason will do.
As Americans I think we have let others who do not have our interests at heart define our issues.
I think all Americans would agree that they do not think it is appropriate for their elected officials or political parties to secure their jobs at our county’s expense.
I think all Americans would agree that it is inappropriate for a foreign government to affect our elections in any way.
Polarization can create this kind of chaos. As Americans we have prospered because we have always trusted each other to talk, and then compromise. How did we lose this? That is our genius.
Rise up! We are better than this. We are Americans.
The impossible dream continues and maybe even is gathering steam.
Sue Marinello, Onaje’s producer and her ever-talented daughter Katie, are marketing Onaje after its spectacular reception at the New York Fringe festival in October. During the preparation for Onaje’s opening and throughout the production and thereafter, I have made many friends who have taught me in a way that only talented and experienced people can.
After the close of the show I was invited to write a libretto and help co-write the book for an operetta produced by Mind The Art entertainment for Christian De Gré, the super talented composer of, and producer of numerous successful operettas and musical pieces in New York.
I am finishing the first draft by the end of March and then going over what I have written with Patrick Alberty, the co-writer of the book and Christian in April, and then going to Mexico for a week with this team to put Vox Populi, “the voice of the people,“ based on the seventh deadly sin of pride, into a final format for marketing and production.
I have almost finished the first draft already and I’m optimistic and full of joy at the future prospects of this and other pieces I am working on. Though I loved the service to others that I was blessed to be able to do as a business lawyer, this life after law is truly a dream I have always had come true.
I will keep this blog alive and track my progress by it.
In the West Village of New York City, on October 13th at 7:00 in the evening, ONAJE opened as my first professionally produced play. I sat in the back, in a balcony with lights and sound equipment around me and watched the audience file in and take their seats. I gave the appearance of being calm but I was terrified.
I have been to opening nights for nine of my prior plays in the little theaters of Baltimore and I have learned there is an immediate courtship: the call offered by the actors at the beginning of the play and the audience’s response. You can feel it. It is confirmed with the first laugh but the commitment can also be felt in the early silence.
As the play unfolds, from the back of the theater, you can watch for physical movement, restless disengagement as evidence of the loss of commitment to a play. It can become contagious in the dead silence and then nothing can resurrect the play. Once you lose them, there is no getting them back.
My friends, the composer Christian De Gré and our producer Susan Conover Marinello, and I had been fortunate to have Tom Viertel as our dinner guest three weeks before we opened. Based on years of experience as a renowned Broadway producer, the founder of the Commercial Theater Institute, and director of the O’Neill, he told us a “no-intermission play cannot run more than 93 minutes” without the high risk it will lose its audience. There was no doubt in his voice. We took his advice. We knew he was right. I went to work cutting lines and shaping the script with four script reductions.
Opening night at FringeNYC was to be judged by a sold-out crowd as they rendered their verdict first in the dance of commitment as the play got underway and then after 90 minutes by the way they moved in their seats.
For me, knowing every line and the slightest modulations in an actor’s voice, the experience was, of course, different than an audience seeing it for the first time. The audience will be engaged until they’re not. The only measurement that is credible is how the theater feels and how the shadows in the seats sit engaged or start to move. That is the only language.
I could feel this audience’s early engagement and commitment to the play and surprisingly when I did, I started to daydream about the genesis of this project:
I am the oldest son. The oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son, all of whom have been well-respected and distinguished lawyers, professors, and public servants. Although my father supported my love of storytelling, bringing me hand puppets from his travels and building me a little puppet theater so I could perform for my seventh- and eighth-grade classmates, there was no doubt my next step was to carry on the family profession of law.
While I dreamed of writing plays, I grew to love being a business trial lawyer. Before my father died several years ago, while I took care of him during his final years, he quite casually one afternoon looked at me and said, “I am very proud of what you have accomplished. I could never have started a law firm and succeeded in the way you have.”
Almost accidentally, he had released me to change my avocation to my profession. I soon retired and made a full commitment to become a professional playwright.
Opening night at FringeNYC was for me, unconsciously, like a flock of carrier pigeons released well over fifty years ago coming in to roost.
The last seven pages of the play runs 12 minutes to conclusion. I leaned over the rail and listened for the quality of the silence and looked down on an audience that did not move. They were engaged after 96 minutes, three minutes longer than Tom’s ultimatum. We had pushed the envelope but still survived.
The lights came down and there was a moment of silence, and as the actors came to their curtain call they were met by increasing and sustained applause. As the theater emptied out I saw many of my friends, some of whom had traveled from as far as California and Canada, as they walked to the stairs to exit past my door from the balcony.
I was not conscious at the time, even after I was welcomed by the audience and my friends, that like the characters I had written in ONAJE, after a long journey, I had finally come home.