Junkyard for Poetry: The fair trade of a couple living in Madison, Indiana

When I tell people I’m living in Madison, Indiana while my husband is on assignment here for work, two things happen. Firstly, they only hear the “Madison” part and start asking me about Wisconsin cheese and Green Bay Packers. Secondly, when they figure out that my Madison is a historic little town on the Ohio River, bordering Kentucky, they ask me what I can possibly do with myself southern Indiana.

Frankly, a lot. At least, a lot of the things we enjoy doing. Kurt’s day off was Friday, and he really had his heart set on a trip to the local junkyard. He wanted to “browse” he said, and maybe find some scraps to use in metalworking, his latest hobby.

Kurt digging for inspiration in a junkyard near Madison, Indiana

I agreed, with the caveat that he accompany me to that evening’s reading of poetry and piano at Village Lights Bookstore. We had a deal.

Bookstore cat Oscar Wilde showing customers his favorite new books.

To nab some phrasing from Margaret Atwood at this year’s AWP Conference, I’m “artsy-fartsy,” but admittedly not very “craftsy-waftsy.”

Maybe I should be. Ms. Atwood’s point, despite my watered down and warped rendition above, is that literature is part of the “arts” but often denegrated in that “artsy-fartsy” cliché phrase. But the word “craft” denotes skill and effort and the time writers really do put into their work. Her point was that we don’t hear the phrase “craftsy-waftsy” because “craft” is something done by hard-working individuals. I guess I do want to be a craftsman of words to my husband’s tactile craftsmanship.

Where I’m always inspired to write, Kurt is inspired to create with glass, or iron, or other formed/built objects.When I go to a reading, or read a good book, I hear and read pieces that inspire me to go write something more. It can be a single word, a reverie where an image sends me, or something about the artist herself. I’m inspired by people and places and yes, sometimes junkyards. But I’d much rather be in a bookstore.

Village Lights Bookstore is a cool, indie hub in downtown Madison. They regularly bring pianists and writers in for readings and music in the back section of their store, the Twain Room. Owners Nathan Montoya and Anne Vestuto aren’t the only regulars you meet when going to Village Lights. Resident cats Oscar Wilde and Grrrtrude “Trudy” Stein may or may not give you an opportunity for a petting. They are almost as much librarian as they are cat. If you’re sitting still, reading or writing silently and offering a calm presence, they may come say hello. Otherwise, they’re best enjoyed by letting them have a nice, quiet run of the bookshelves.

The bookstore brings vitality and big-hitting writers to Madison. Earlier in 2012, Village Lights presented Scott Russell Sanders to Madison. SRS is required reading for many students studying literature and writing. His essay, “Under the Influence” has been much anthologized and knowing he had been in this store, reading to these lucky customers, gave me goosebumps. I was blown away. These people really know their books and their writers. It’s why I spend several afternoons a week writing my blog or my own poetry in their store, and why I prefer to order my summer reading list from them.

Oscar greets shoppers while Trudy enjoys the open mic from atop the ladder at the back of the store

I hadn’t read anything by the featured poet, Jeffrey Phillips. I love hearing a new writer for the first time. I get a feel for the whole person and the poem simultaneously. Then, when I read them later, I can still “hear” their voice with the words in front of me. The launch was for his new poetry chapbook, The Beauty of Imperfection.

Admiring the cover of Jeffrey Phillips’ book. The cover was drawn by his young son (now 16) and represents the wonderful pieces of life found in imperfection.

Village Lights held a book signing prior to the reading, and I had a chance to talk with Phillips and his wife, Peggy, before and after the reading. Hearing about his organic gardening and simple lifestyle, I was looking forward to bits of that lifestyle in his work. It didn’t disappoint.

I thought about giving you an entire poem, but I want to just give you some quotes, tell you about Phillips’ style and voice, and whet your appetite so you can grab his book from Village Lights yourself before they’re all sold.

“Swimming in the lifeblood / Of Van Gogh’s long lost ear…” springs off the page from “Scenarios and Stereos” while his poem “Tears and Poetry (Through Peggy’s Eyes”) had me biting back tears of my own as he recounted his mother-in-law’s death: “A vision of a graceful red-tail hawk…/When our mother’s dying soul took flight…”

As usual, my brain groups things I find/see/do. I’m constant shuffling and re-pairing/re-purposing things I encounter. In this case, it was a pretty natural combination of thoughts.

Thought #1: The poem about his mother-in-law returned me to thoughts of my own mother’s death and the two years of illness leading up to it. Frustration had mounted in the Hallmark stores as “the very best” was never good enough or authentic enough to send on the most dire or uncomfortable occasions.

Thought #2: I had been going to the Madison farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and met a lovely artist who paints blank notecards. Each card has a removable bookmark in the front, also painted.

Thought #3: As I listened to Phillips’ poetry, especially “Drowning in Clichés,” “Golden,” “Remembering a Son,” “Hank and Johnny,” “A Song for Silas,” “Untitled” Christmas poem, and “MOM” I understood why Hallmark had it right, at least for a little while, in coming out with Maya Angelou greeting cards. [I believe they have since, foolishly, discontinued that line.]

Poets get to the heart of a situation, without the need to gloss over the painful truth. A dying loved one is both beautiful and tragic. A child’s birth is more than just congratulations. There is meat and marrow in Phillips’ language which is accessible to a layperson while catching the universal truth, apropos of the literary “scene.”

These three thoughts had me imagining a line of Jeffrey Phillips greeting cards (words for working class people) on subjects the mainstream card stores avoid. I imagined a single quote from each poem on the detachable bookmark. I guess maybe I do sometimes think “craftsy waftsy” a bit – not to the extent I’d ever create those cards myself, but at least to imagine it enough to pass along the idea to you, my readers.

I urge you to read Phillips for yourself. If you think you aren’t a “poetry person” just ask my husband. He found Phillips to be “finally a poet I can relate to: working class writing that doesn’t bury itself in highbrow words. Good rhyme. Relatable stories.” Read for yourself by ordering one from Village Lights. Email them, with “The Beauty of Imperfection” in your subject line. If you remember, also tell them Marla sent you: info@VillageLightsBooks.com

Before the reading, Village Lights brought in renowned jazz pianist Jimmy Storms. Not just any pianist can play the 115-year-old Steinway in the Twain Room. Nathan and Anne took incredible care of this 1897 grand piano, bringing in both an “action man” and “belly man” for the careful rebuild of this gorgeous antique. The piano itself deserves a poem, is a poem.

Owner Nathan brought up the original peg block for me to view. It’s hard not to appreciate the artistry of both the original interior and exterior, as well as the rebuilt guts. And the building itself celebrates the slightest tickling of the ivories. As Nathan describes,”Between the tin ceiling and the hardwood floors, we have to use the short stick when opening the top, because the acoustics would just blow the sound right out the front windows.”

1897 Steinway showing off its original pegboard after a full rebuild.

I could appreciate this statement as I listened to Jimmy Storms’ jazz concert for the bookstore patrons seated in comfy armchairs around the Twain Room. The steady fingers of this 88-year-old man were honed while playing with the Red Skelton Orchestra. His legend extends to playing back-up for Pat Boone and Fred Astaire.

I talked with him a little before he started, making him shudder at the story of my father creating indelible ink marks on the keys of our own 1892 upright Bush & Gerts, to teach me how to play by ear, marking chords in red, green and blue.

There are some things he doesn’t play, Storms tells me. It’s clear his affinity and preference is for jazz. He doesn’t have time for the whumping of bluegrass chords, of pounding hammer-to-string in time with the accompanying banjos and mandolins.

Jimmy and Dad wouldn’t have been swapping piano stories, but I can appreciate and enjoy both qualities. And for me it’s also a difference of instrument. There is a quality in the sound of an upright that reverberates just so, tends toward twang just so, holding its music in the tall back carriage in a way that seems to lend itself toward a saloon, or the pick-up bluegrass in the houses of my father’s family.

This Steinway, along with other grands and baby grands, are meant for the cool, for the mellow, for the soft beauty in music. This is  more like the music of my mother’s family, despite their choice of upright piano. This is what Jimmy Storms does best. His jazz flows through us as we browse the shelves or have Phillips sign our books. His demeanor is as gentlemanly as his attire and his music. I find myself wanting to adopt him as a surrogate grandfather. I imagine him, like my own maternal grandfather, waking me on Sunday mornings to classical or jazz.

Wanting to adopt Jimmy Storms as my own, take him home and wake up to Sunday morning piano as I did with my own grandfather.

When the music is finished, open mic readers are sandwiched between Phillips, who opens and closes the readings. Jill Kelly Koren emcees, and reads a poem or two of her own. I recognize her immediately. My first day at Village Lights bookstore a few months earlier, I discovered her her book of poetry, While the Water Rises Around Us. I was sold the moment I read “Watching Grandpa on Christmas Day” and she overwhelmed me with it again when she read it for open mic. Koren has a gift for taking me resonantly into her life and that of her loved ones. I was eager to meet her when the event was finished.

Jill Kelly Koren reading her poem, “Watching Grandpa on Christmas Day”

I was also eager to meet Jack Ramey. He was the first to sign up for open mic, deftly following Phillips. He was engaging and literary, and I suspected his pedigree immediately in the undertones of his work. When I finally met him and heard his name, it sounded familiar. I realized I had also found his work at Village Lights. I recommend lovers of poetry look toward his Death Sings in the Choir of Light and The Future Past. Both are now out of print but a few might be obtained through Village Lights.

I didn’t shy away from the open mic myself, reading a couple 100-word pieces from Việt Nam, as well as one longer humorous piece from Los Angeles. Another open mic fellow I didn’t meet since he left early read a piece titled “Lao Tzu” but in combining my first impression with my decreased hearing, I thought he said “Loud Sue” and I was confused for the first several lines until the poem itself corrected me. Still, even my error inspired a poem of its own which I’m now editing and hoping to submit in a few weeks.

None of the open mic readers were weak, and I was happily surprised and inspired by the literary arts of Madison. While Kurt makes a planter out of one of his iron pieces, and a “Hoosier-ma’callit” out of another, I have turned our junkyard day into more poetry. There is a piece about the sparrows nesting in the lifted car, about a man and his “junk” and of course, my 100-word inspiration from the oxidized flakes of his purchases and the trumpet, lovely trumpet, growing in the branches of the junkyard tree.

At home, my pen will combine the tree trumpet with Jimmy Storms’ jazz, the junkyard birds with Phillips’ organic vegetable garden and all of it with my growing love for Madison. I hope to share it with you one day. I won’t publish it here until it’s been in print elsewhere. In the meantime, Junkyard-for-Poetry was a fair trade indeed. I can’t wait until our next day of compromise.

Love, Marla

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