Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shots from the Heart: Of Basketball, Politics, and Soul—The Good Words of Robert Pomerhn, Poet

What is passion and unapologetic truth worth to an Artist? It seems this question is confined to lecture hall Lit classes and private discussions among the distrusted students of the arts and sciences condescendingly called Hyperintellectuals, but there is an argument to be made for judging all artists first and foremost by the depth of emotion and pure guts they bring to their work.

If such standards bear weight, then Robert Pomerhn is a poet of note and worth. His work remains in no genre for very long and he moves freely from spoken word poetry- slamming in his hometown of Buffalo, New York to treatises and homages to the Surrealists, Andre Breton first and foremost among them.

His life’s journey is clearly reflected in the path and progress of his work, as demonstrated by taking a close look at the form and content of his first three books of poetry, which is the aim of this review.

Some poets wear their heart on their sleeve—Robert wears his poetry on his heart…his first book, “Blest for this Poet Crest to Rest on My Crest” (published in 2003 by Press of the Third Mind in Chicago, who notably published the early poetry of Colorado poet, musician, and artist Patrick Porter) is a raw and unapologetic mix of pop culture and sports references delivered in high-energy spoken word rhymes. One of the more engaging and multilayered phrases is “asphyxiating on auto exotic exhaust.”

I was first introduced to this book after receiving a note from Robert in August 2003 about my own work (we had both been published by Mark Sonnenfeld’s Marymark Press and had a common colleague in Porter) and was struck by the series of photos of Robert on the cover of “Blest”—hands in attitude of prayer, Poet tattoo on his bare torso, and his spirit and energy came through in his note. So I bought the book and read it several times, gleaning new things, removing layer upon layer each time.

He covers an immense amount of territory in the political, cultural, and entertainment landscapes—he references Al Pacino, Mr. Magoo, and Roderick Usher all in the same piece. He references personalities through word play—“burning Bridges like Todd” or “Donald holds Trump” and recalls infamous moments in sports, like the booing of Darryl Strawberry in New York.

His love and knowledge of sports—especially basketball—gives him an extended palette of metaphors on which to draw (hey—if our military can use sports metaphors to rationalize and dehumanize their conquests, why can’t a poet?). I appreciated his references to old-school wrestlers like Sgt. Slaughter. Robert and I are the same age and grew up in the NY–NJ area, so we work from similar experiences culturally and it’s good to see some of the forgotten names and events reborn. I also got a smile from his take on the infamous Holyfield–Tyson fight where mad Mike “de-earring[’d] him like Van Gogh” and a chill when he recalled Jack Tatum paralyzing Darryl Stingley with a vicious spearing. I still remember the images in Sports Illustrated that I looked at over and over again as a teenager.

He provides us with a wide array of cultural personalities and infamous icons—Anthony Robbins and his “turn-IT-around tapes”; Jared from Subway (who is STILL around); Jeffery Dahmer; he even gives us an image of Pinocchio and Dumbo exchanging their oversized appendages.

Being a spoken word artist, he’s keen to hear a beat, and so he talks about the “drummer from Blink” and white rap artists like Fred Durst, Everlast, and, of course, Eminem (who he refers to by his given name of Marshall—appropriate given that they are colleagues with different levels of audience reach). His musical tastes also run to the classical with a call-out to Chopin.

Robert’s work goes from the street straight into Heaven, as he implores his readers to “meditate, don’t medicate.” His anti-drug stance is appreciated by me, as the students in my writing classes seem to gravitate to his poetry books as they sit amongst the likes of Rilke, Kerouac, Whitman, Poe, cummings, Lorca, and a wide array of books from the small and independent presses. They are drawn first by the covers and next by the varied and innovative layouts of the poems themselves. Robert uses a variety of line breaks, fonts, and point sizes to emphasize his main themes and to cue the reader to the rhythms and emotional qualities of the poems. This is much more engaging for teenage writers than a book of verse poetry in 8 pt. Times New Roman.

He is obviously well read, as he references a wide array of writers, including Jim Carroll, EA Poe, Joyce, Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, and Allen Ginsberg. Antonin Artaud is quoted more than once. These writers share a common thread—their passion and even madness threaded through every word and every line they ever wrote.

Beyond sports and pop culture, Robert appears to be a student of mythology, spirituality, and history, as he references shamanism, Thomas Merton, and the myth of Osiris and name-drops the likes of Robespierre.

He intimates the fuller treatment he gives to the Surrealists in later books with a poem that he credits as an “ode to Breton’s ‘Free Union’.”

Not to be forgotten are his political poems, where he talks about the current Bush administration and its policies with word-plays like “Guerillas in the mist” and “Operation Iraqi Liberation.” That’s OIL, by the way.

Robert’s second book, “Til Death Do Us Art,” put out by Scintillating Press, already starts to show the growing maturity as an artist that is truly made manifest in Robert’s third book. He began teaching children about poetry and creative freedom around this time (the poems range from 2003–2005) and his own growth is made evident by the cover of “Til Death,” which has some cut-up word collage. The book opens with a longish quote from Artaud and one of the first poems says “the lord speaks through me to write down this rhyme.” That is abundantly clear.

He is not abandoning his former inspirations as he journeys on—not by any means. We get the sound-play of Kobe and Obi-wan Kenobi and a reference to another drummer (remember Travis Barker of Blink in “Blest”?). This time it’s Rick Allen of Def Leppard—I was a junior in high school when he had the car accident that took his arm. I still remember the shock of that afternoon, listening to the radio with friends.

We also get an array of references ranging from Rosemary’s Baby and the Son of Sam to Randy “Macho Man” Savage and his manager/lover Miss Elizabeth. As Robert himself admits: “I’ll throw everything at you including the kitchen sink.” We’ll take it, because he’s painting a portrait here, surrealist though it is. And they are right there with him—Breton, Dali and many others listed in his “Surrealist Smorgasbord,” including Artaud (yet again), Ernst, Freud, Kandinsky, and the Marquis de Sade.

But more than anything else, like many artists’ second works when they have met some critical acclaim and negativity with their first effort, this book is a defense of who Robert is as an artist. He says (and this is not at all unusual) that the critics don’t get it but the audience does. His poem “”I’m not your typical underground poet” enumerates some reasons why and also stands as a manifesto of sorts. He references the iconic prayer-posture on the cover of “Blest,” linking the two books overtly as well as thematically. He says he feels like a caricature in Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

His defensive stance plays through the rest of “Til Death,” as he takes on the spoken word scene in Buffalo, New York. If the spoken word scene is anything like the community that contributes to the University of Buffalo poetics listserv, and I suspect that it is, then I can see why Robert is frustrated. It is a pretentious and opinionated battleground where it is the Author not the Art that is most often discussed. He calls upon the ghosts of Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Huey P Newton as he admonishes the poor work going on at the poetry slam competitions, most notably in the poem “Hip Hop crisy.”

Robert’s third, and most recent book, “Abuse Art, Not Children,” signifies the fruition of his spoken word skills, his teaching, and his love of the Surrealists. He himself is aware that he has changed as he says later in the book: “I make a conscious effort not to write the same book twice.” This collection, presented in a much larger folio size than his previous two, is put out by Highest Hurdle Press and features color front and back covers, notable enough in the small press scene. He really takes the visual art leaps and bounds in this 2006 effort, and I have to say that having seen hundreds of word art collages over the past 8 years as part of the small press and independent artist mailing lists, Robert’s skill is considerable and the visual collages spread out through the book are well worth the price in and of themselves.

The book is dedicated to his father “for always serving as a safeguard to his two sons.” There is an excellent explanation of his visual art process on the inside front cover and the book begins proper with a 22-point manifesto called “heart attack,” a “tribute to Victor Brauner’s ‘On the Fantastic’.” This is followed up with a companion poem to the book’s cover art.

Not ever straying too far from his roots, Robert shares some works on the state of professional sports and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. He then gives us a Ginsbergian poem called “this hearse doesn’t have seatbelts” wherein each of 35 lines starts with the word “Like.”

Two poems on race relations make further use of the prayer photo from “Blest.” He then gives us a “Surrealist World Series” visual art piece and a “dadacument” on cut-up art. Bridging these treatises with his more mature and layered calling out of spoken word artists is a quote from William S Burroughs that I found to be a nice touch.

Toward the end of “Abuse Art” we get Robert’s longest published poem, “SHISH KABOB,” which is a remarkable culmination of everything he’s done, been, and read as of the time of writing. It brings all three books together by referencing a large array of personalities and subjects, all familiar to us, yet reconstituted in new and compelling ways.

We get his first love poem at the end of this collection, a 2006 Valentine’s Day gift to a girl named Meghan, as well as a tribute poem to the October 2006 storm in Buffalo that is an echo of his work on Katrina.

“Abuse Art” ends with a poem from the publisher, Highest Hurdle Press, laying down their gauntlets of intention through the past, present, and future. It is clear that Robert Pomerhn—with his triple armory of vision, talent, and passion—is at the vanguard of this intention, and I look forward to seeing where it takes them.

We as artists are trying to reinvent ourselves and respond and adjust to the state of the world in this new millennium—a post-9/11 world on the brink of natural and spiritual changes in which we all will play a role.

It is good to know that the likes of Robert, who signs all of his notes and works, “Pomerhn, Poet” is right there in the trenches, leading the way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Into the Multiverse: A Review of Paco Ahlgren’s Discipline

As we settle into the 21st century, amid unending, questionable wars; escalating gas prices and the undeniable existence of Global Warming; a growing reliance on ubiquitous computing; and an ever-enlarging sense of coming Change (whether it be the far-right Christian Rapture or the mostly misunderstood implications of the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012), there is a growing focus on quantum theory and the idea that our universe is one of many, all existing in parallel (a collective entity called the multiverse). Within this multiverse are infinite probabilities and the ability to create our own destinies and realities on a daily basis. Films like What the Bleep?!? and the numerous theoretically accessible titles in quantum physics from writers like Fritjof Capra, Daniel Pinchbeck, Fred Alan Wolf, Michael Talbot, David Bohm, and Gary Zukov (or self-help systems like “The Secret”) give the interested reader lots to think about as he or she struggles down (this) life’s path.

One writer, first-time novelist Paco Ahlgren, has taken these ideas and married them with the fundamental theories of chess and international finance in a compelling new novel called Discipline (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2007).

The story is so intricately woven that any story-based elements in this review would only serve to lessen the ultimate enjoyment of the reader, so I will stay general with my remarks.

Ahlgren is an excellent storyteller, able to present complex theories in a conversational and easily accessible way. There is a danger of losing the audience when talking about international monetary systems, trading in futures, and the intricacies of chess in a mass-market novel, but Ahlgren never comes close. His main character, Douglas Cole, is intriguing enough that we follow his every move (whether at the chessboard or saving the world) with interest and I was interested in hearing his thoughts and explanations.

In a compelling twist on the teacher–student relationship, Douglas has two mentors, each with a very different approach to his education. While each of the relationships brings to mind such partnerships as the Star Wars pairings (Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan, Darth Vader/Emperor, Luke/Obi-Wan), Carlos Castenada/Don Juan, and Dan Millman/Socrates, the double mentor device opens up a world of possibilities for Ahlgren, and he takes advantage of all of them.

In the spirit of The Matrix, Equilibrium, and films and stories that tackle time travel and parallel universes, this subject matter brings up some thorny problems of story structure, plausibility, and readability, and again, Ahlgren succeeds with each of these challenges. He never writes over his head, and takes the time to explain the theories and circumstances that many authors don’t, for fear of slowing down the narrative. In addition to the illuminating conversations and first-person passages in the book, there is a helpful reading list at the back, which makes the case that virtually everything that takes place in Discipline could, when considering quantum physics and its parallel field of spiritual manifestation, actually happen. I found myself on more than one occasion putting the book down and giving thought to what had just transpired—given what I know of quantum physics and what Ahlgren shares in the course of the narrative, there is a remarkable plausibility to the fictional events he depicts.

He obviously did his research—when Douglas’s little brother has life-threatening asthma attacks, the story reads like a diary—such is the level of realism and detail.

Every good story has its villain and Discipline is no different. Groeden calls to mind the great Stephen King antagonists and helps to ground the fantastical in the everyday cruel. As elegant as Ahlgren’s writing is when he is fleshing out complicated theories he can be brutally cruel and vivid in depicting violence, and this book certainly has its share. I found the combination to be one that works amazingly well.

Pay attention to the section headings, dates, and the little details of seemingly unimportant meetings, places, and events. As you complete the book you’ll want to go back to them a few times (or more) and see what you gathered and what you missed.

Paco Ahlgren is one of the promising new writers of a promising new age. I look forward to seeing what comes next. Visit for more information and check out the Discipline book trailer while you’re there—it’s another sign of things to come.