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.
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.