Filming a docuseries on Walt Whitman’s birthday

Yesterday, Andrew Galati and I embarked on filming the first episode of a docuseries about poetry. It was an experiment as much as a celebration. We wanted to see if we could capture on film all the experiences and conversations around poetry I encounter everyday behind the typewriter when I set up in public spaces and write personalized poems.

Using Walt Whitman’s birthday (May 31st) as a launching point, we traveled to Camden, NJ which is where Walt Whitman spent his last years. But the documentary isn’t about Whitman and it’s not really about either of us either.

It is about how poetry still has an impact in our current day and age. About how the spoken word unites and connects so many different communities. About how it empowers so many people to find their voices to breathe into life a better world.

Andrew and I both thrive in spontaneity, and we had no real plans other than to visit Whitman’s grave and house in Camden, see if we could hone in on his spirit through the typewriter and have conversations with residents about what poetry means for them.

Unsurprisingly, it led to a unique experience of shared stories and overlapping legacies. From the start, we met Rocky Wilson, a teacher and Walt Whitman interpreter. A poet in his own right, he provided a historian’s knowledge about writers that had inspired him in his youth and how growing up around the corner from Whitman’s house first gave him a taste of what a poet can live to be.

After taking our time at Whitman’s grave, admiring the wildlife and sharing moments of silence to hear the breeze, we ventured to his house where I set up my typewriter and wrote poems on demand for passersby. There we met Zulay Rojas, a social activist and admirer of the writers of the civil rights movement. She caught how auspicious it was that the first poem I wrote was about the requested topic “King”.

Whitman’s house is on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown Camden, which intersects with Broadway, renamed Black Lives Matter Boulevard after the George Floyd uprisings around the country in 2020. In my poem, I combined themes of MLK with the realization in wearing a golden crown that we are all kings, queens, royalty. A poem about self-empowerment as much as about social change. Rojas told us about her own activism and remarked poetry is where magic happens.

Soon we were joined by Youssouf, Jordan, Ron, and Richard. They had driven to this part of the city to wave from the sidewalk to friends and family currently detained in the Camden County corrections facility across the street. A moment for me and Andrew to acknowledge our own privilege in what we face in our own experiences and how they differ, based on circumstances like where we reside, the color of our skin, and what we have available to us. These four had made a ritual of showing up to show support so their loved ones behind bars didn’t feel forgotten. Scheduling a time when their friends would be in front of the window to see their community on the outside.

They each requested poems on topics like “Love”, “Girls”, “Money”, and “Stuck”. The latter gave the most room for thought. An abstract word, but looking across the street at the prison I had many a wall to understand the imagery for the poem to explore. Further, I looked at the requester’s age and thought of myself in my late teens / early 20s and how sometimes my own emotions at that age felt like a prison. How sometimes being stuck is a depression that is hard to escape. This poem tried to offer the key to unlock the dream, but it mainly tried to give words to a feeling that is difficult to describe.

After the exchange we invited this group to share some of their own writing. Youssouf had described the typewriter poetry as being similar to freestyle, and was quick to spit some bars for the camera with a backing beat. He kept repeating sometimes a good bar is enough to dash the other lines, and his bars struck a high mark. Capturing the street life, imagining what it’d be like to be POTUS, giving heart to the flow of growth.

Soon it was time to pack up and we made our way over to the Pizza & Poetry reading series. Rocky had invited us earlier, saying it was a series he’d been organizing for over 30 years now. Today was a special one with the possibility that Walt Whit would make an appearance.

We met students from Rutgers, teachers and nurses, musicians and artists, and all sorts of writers. They each sat around with their fair share of pizza and without a list took to the stage to share their writing. Some shared lines from Leaves of Grass or Emily Dickinson. Others recited odes to Walt Whitman and the world he lived. Still others recounted their own experiences and emotions.

It was exactly what the day’s end demanded. A collaborative celebration of the community and its residents. The endless volley of spoken word, laughter, and applause. And before it was over, cake was served and Whitman got to blow out his candles.

I don’t know if the film will capture the spontaneity. It will seem as if we scripted the entirety of the day. The lessons and the power. The beautiful resounding glow of community members talking about how poetry has influenced their world. Instead, though, this is life in a nutshell. When you hop on the road and give your imagination to the wind, you are oft to find like-minds, like-spirits. A connection that feels synchronous. If only, because it is. There is beauty in this world and we are lucky when we get to share it.

Filming a docuseries on Walt Whitman’s birthday

Saturday, May 30th: Walt Whitman virtual reading at Artistry Above Ground Virtual Market

This Saturday, May 30th at 12pm, I’ll be performing a virtual reading of my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass for his 201st birthday, as part of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s #ArtistryAboveGroundMarket. I’ll also read from Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise, a collection of poetry by our current poet laureate that offers an indigenous perspective on the American pastoral. This reading will be followed by a demo where I lead the audience through my writing process for spontaneous typewritten poetry.

Click here to RSVP and attend this virtual event on Zoom

As part of the virtual market, I’ll also be typing poetry on demand based on requests given in real time. Follow the link and sign up for a time to get a poem on any topic and support the other vendors at one of the coolest cemeteries in Philadelphia.

I think as a contemporary writer, it’s important to pay homage to the literary giants who drafted the modern canon before us. I think it’s also the task of every poet out there now to find ways to celebrate the writers who redraft and update this canon for the present moment. I’m excited to share these two narratives in celebration of one of Philly’s literary voices on his 201st trip around the sun. Hope to see you there!
.
.
📸 by Alexa Lewis

Saturday, May 30th: Walt Whitman virtual reading at Artistry Above Ground Virtual Market

Moon Flow

The moon comes out from behind the fog
Radiant and alluring
She has so much to say
And yet she remains
Quiet,
Secretive
Perhaps musing where the ocean tide will take her next
High cheekbones
Charm in a smile that makes the coyote howl
I have dreams of her
And they always end badly
But the reality is much more satisfying
For in my waking state
I know it is better to stand back
Meditatively
And admire her glow.

IMG_4777-0.JPG

Moon Flow

Smoke, Fire, and Fog

IMG_3851.JPG

This morning I watched the fog roll in off the ocean, expand over the bay, and traverse the hillside like an invisibility cloak transporting us all into the spirit world with ghostly wonder. I felt the sadness in the stillness when I looked at it from afar behind a closed window, but once outside in its embrace I felt its potential for casting magic, the full moon already set and the sun not quite over the horizon though gaining momentum, the whole scene ripe for a vision. In my half awakened stupor I light a block of palo santo wood and a stick of incense for vitality. The sunlight begins to break through and for a moment I breathe out huge funnels of smoke and behind it what I expect is fire. There is a gift in this rebirth, this revolution in the fog, the dense vapors passing over me and soaking every living thing in its wake. There is the insight that every day is temporal and this reality a shift in perspective from dreamworld to the living. Ultimately, the trick is being able to lessen the instituted divide between waking life and the wandering dream body. But I already know this from my own studies and I think to myself about each time I have been faced with the metaphysical transportation through a cloud and what it has offered along this trip. The animal spirits found in Crater Lake and the dreams of giants up on Shasta. I laugh a little that perhaps the next time I find myself in the fog again drifting so deep I will finally have the balls to take the leap and attempt to fly. Perhaps my dream body will carry me higher up into the sky. And my vision will take me to a place deep inside myself and closer to my own being than I have ever been before. The invisibility cloak wraps around me tighter and I and this city, still blowing smoke and fire, we all disappear.

IMG_3968.JPG

Smoke, Fire, and Fog

Thoughts While Sitting On A Mountain Above Woodstock

20140901-195339-71619320.jpg

Mountains so high they turn blue along the horizon
Everything covered in an earthy layer of lichen
Detritus and fungal matrimony
Reshaping the heavy landing
Wearing away at the jagged crags
That space and time spent eons waiting to form
Working on one stone at a time
Relatively, in the blink of an eye
A whole range of mountains beginning to disappear
Like a whole clan of humble Buddhas
Transcending the otherwise normal egocentric dive.

Thoughts While Sitting On A Mountain Above Woodstock

Good morning, Maine

20140824-124048-45648602.jpg

To all the beavers swimming past
The water snakes shedding skin
Fish big and small hopping into the wind
The bald eagles flapping heavily
The mournful loon echoing through the trees
The geese gliding gallantly
The icy water that is everywhere
The fog rising up thick like outstretched arms
The mountains in and out of consciousness
The water bugs
The floating flowers
The dog sleeping in the cabin
The crickets
The daddy long legs
The bat with a broken wing
To all of you and everything else
To every single one of you I want to say
Good morning
Good morning, Maine
Good morning and hurrah! hooray!

20140824-124123-45683446.jpg

Good morning, Maine

We went to Maine and all we found was the American Dream

20140823-100531-36331654.jpg

We went to Maine and all we found was the American Dream.

Camped out on a lake in the mountains
Swam and canoed in the clouds in the morning
Felt the stillness, the subtelty, the cool-breeze warmth of this raw American dreamland and then rested a little till early afternoon.
There is where there were trees floating in fog that swayed like men
And men standing nearby that settled down like the trees on the horizon
With leaves changing all the shades of red and orange.
Islands only approachable during low tide.
Whole areas of land rustic and uncivilized
Small hill tops
Water like glass
Heaven’s playground
Hop to and fro
Gallop like a goose
In the honky tonk air
This is how simple life could be
Fashion yourself a rich pilgrim
And climb into the ease of the earth
Don’t think too deeply
Just imagine you are there
And there you will be
The American Dream
Opening up wide at the seams.

We went to Maine and all we found was the American Dream

Where The Water Meets The Wind

20140812-114426-42266925.jpg

This one goes out to my main man, Walt Whitman! But also Ben Frank and Betsy Ross who keep equal watch over this resourceful river front in Philadelphia. And to Marian McLaughlin and Ethan Foote for sharing this awe-inspiring adventure with me today. And my buddy Matt Bennett for first putting the terminology of how a forest first finds it’s roots onto my periphery. Peace and love. Peace and love. Peace and love, my friends!

Where The Water Meets The Wind

Hold fast, my dear
Hang on for dear life.
The breeze that pushes against the sails of your soul
And gives you flight
Is also what stirs the butterflies
Fluttering their little hopeful hearts
Careening down the stream
A warm vibration
Across the river top
Making eddies and waves against this abandoned pier

Hold fast, my dear. Hang on for dear life.
In the abandoned land of industry
Lies a quiet revolution
Slowly growing
Making waves of its own
As well as peaceful eddies
For us to find our balance in.

There one can spread out fully
In a meadow
Surrounded by sunflowers
Slowly growing
In the cracks of urban decay
Replacing destructive habits
With a new reality.

It was the muse who first brought me here
When I was still finding my way
Now that I am back again
I see what I have been missing all along
Even in a city,
There are places where things still lie still
Where flocks of gold finches
Fly neon yellow wings in the summer sun
And crickets sing their tribal chorus
In tall grass made to lie upon
Where local herbal remedies
Slowly grow naturally
Repopulating what was once arid
With a truly holistic scene.

See, let it be still.
Let the earth take root.
Let it gain some energy.
And soon enough,
Along the side of the long eroded jetty
You can find the magnificent color
Of purple thistle
Hanging on to the wind
Where it meets with the water.

Where The Water Meets The Wind

Today I am all poetry

Today I am all poetry.
Some days, not so much.
But today everything I do is poetry.
Everything I feel is poetry.
Everything I write is poetry.
Today I am all poetry.
And these are the kinds of days I look forward too.
The morning starts with pleasant dreams
And a humble dance with bedside literature.
When I finally venture out, the warm sun is there to greet me.
Blue skies and playful clouds
Turning from one recognizable shape into the next
The birds chatter and without anything better to do
I hike in a park and climb a mountain
The city rolls away from me
Along with its depression
Instead there is only the earth and me
And today I am all poetry
These are the days I look forward to.

Today I am all poetry

The Purpose of A Poet

20140708-212024-76824883.jpg

Thunder showers pass over the city
Washing away all of this heat wave
Along with the aggression
The confusion
The violence
The starvation
We are going to live through this summer
And this rainwater is going to nurture us like no other.

A poet’s job is to breech people’s short attention spans with a timelessness that exposes them to another layer of reality. This new layer could involve mythology. Or it could be all astrology. Mescaline or some other pseudoscience. Acid and dream theory. Meditation or just plain simple unrelenting intimacy.

The point though is that we are in fact a very closed sort of people. Poetry is the life force to open us up. The same could be said about all forms of art, though with poetry this process just happens to be the most literal.

The best poetry is that which connects the greatest amount of people to this other side. To do so, it needs to be simple. It needs to be in the same language as that which is popular at the time. It needs to do all of this and somehow still manage to stand the test of time. So that it stays current for many more generations to come.

This is what makes good poetry hard. It’s also what makes it so easy.

None of this clouded meaning, inside joke, tongue in cheek, meta drivel.

We need something that is real. Something honest. That’s got feeling.
The word on the street.
Leave no reader behind.

The Purpose of A Poet