“The Media, big M, the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, of course FOX News, will never expose McConnell’s crimes. They won’t do it purposefully. Perhaps, just maybe, they might do it inadvertently. The poetry contest is an attempt to bypass the corporate media with Facebook, Twitter and all but also to, possibly, use the corporate media against itself. Perhaps some newspapers, especially in Kentucky, will pick up on it.”


Joe Napora with JFN, Ashland, Kentucky / Wednesday, September 1, 2019

Me and JFN: JFN is my paddling buddy. He’s the one who pushes me to do more, have faith in what I know about whitewater, faith in my ability, enough faith to take that extra step into the unknown. I don’t see him often, so when he met me on the Gauley River to do our annual raft trip, I was thrilled. We paddled. We talked. He had begun to write some poetry. He wanted to know about my Moscow Mitch Poetry Contest. We paddled. We drove back to Ashland. And we talked.

Across the Ohio River and a few short miles into Ohio is Lake Vesuvius, a 143 acre lake where I first learned how to paddle a kayak, roll it, teach my children how to do the same. The lake was formed in 1939 by the Roosevelt Administration’s CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Sometimes when I’m out on the water on my standup paddle board, I’m tempted to ask some of the people I see fishing and kayaking if they know the history, that it was federal government policies giving people jobs to provide future generations, ours, with the lake and 1200 acres of land for hiking and camping. Surely many of those who I see here voted for Trump and his Senate enabler Mitch McConnell. I don’t ask. And today, the first day of September, I don’t ask not because I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable but because I can’t. I don’t know how to speak Russian.

At the lake, I was paddling around on my stand up board. I was trying to move my feet back and forth without falling. When I slowly turned the board, I noticed an elderly woman in a loose sun dress, no life jacket, taking short tentative strokes on a rented paddled board. Along with her were a young boy on another board and three others in kayaks. A three generation family. I paddled over to them, said hello. Nothing. I paddled away and said to myself, “Moscow Mitch”. The interview continued over a couple of beers, me having provided JFN with entertainment by trying and failing, falling, to do a surfer’s turn on my 12 foot board. Lots of laughs, but serious shit. At least to me. So, “Moscow Mitch”.

JFN: What?
Me: There might be something to it.

JFN: Something to what?
Me: That the Russians are coming. The Moscow Mitch name is for real.

JFN: Okay. But what’s this all about, this poetry contest?
Me: The Media, big M, the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, of course FOX News, will never expose McConnell’s crimes. They won’t do it purposefully. Perhaps, just maybe, they might do it inadvertently. The poetry contest is an attempt to bypass the corporate media with Facebook, Twitter and all but also to, possibly, use the corporate media against itself. Perhaps some newspapers, especially in Kentucky, will pick up on it.

JFN: With poetry? You want to bring McConnell down with poetry?
Me: Remember that thing I told you about, before Trump was President, the collection of poets protesting the election. Protesting, I guess, or responding to it.

JFN: That Dispatches. Using poetry to expose the horror of what Trump and McConnell would do, and, have done, before the inauguration?
Me: Resist Much / Obey Little. A book of over 700 pages and hundreds (350) of poets. Yes. It was quite an accomplishment. But to what end? This morning I was reading an essay, 1980 or so, I’ve had the book for almost 40 years. Damn. But it starts out, this essay by Edward Said, with the question : “Who writes?” And then he asks, “For whom is the writing being done?”

JFN: Okay. Your point?
Me: None of those 350 plus poets. None of those 700 plus pages of poems. None will have an impact on Trump and McConnell. There is no poem that will stop the War, any war. So why did the editors of Resist do this? Put in all that time and work? They did an excellent job explaining the importance of poetry in past struggles. Nicaragua. Chile. The anti-war protests in the U.S.

JFN: And how does any of this relate to your poetry contest? That I am going to enter since you include bumper stickers and songs as poetry. And what do I get when I win?
Me: Mitch loses and we all win. Maybe a copy Billy Bragg cd, that one with his song “You fascists are bound to lose”. Woody Guthrie had a sign on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.” I’ll give you my anti-fascist club that I made from a kudzu vine. I’ll publish a book, broadsides, bumper stickers. I don’t know.

JFN: Bumper stickers again. I’ll take those. Are bumper stickers poetry?
Me: They are, can be. I don’t know why anyone writes anything. But that question is important, now, for us in the US, it’s very important. The time, effort, money that those guys, I know them, Mike Boughn and Kent Johnson, put into this, aware as they were that their time, effort, and money would have at best minimal effect on readers. Minimal because, well you just don’t know, do you? They helped create a community of support. That’s important. Writing is a self-imposed solitary act. Such community is necessary. But there has to be more.

JFN: More what? More poems?
Me: Maybe. Maybe poems that directly address, as much as possible, the question of who the writing is done for. The poems in Resist were, as is almost all poetry these days, done for other poets. And if it’s not done for other poets, then it is not serious, not real poetry.

JFN: You mean like a bumper sticker.
Me: Yeah. That too, but more than that. All writing is for an audience. For poets the audience seems to be the poet, or other poets who are like or who like the poet. A bumper sticker is public. It’s addressed to that most elusive audience, the general reader. And it’s within a political context that is inherently conflictual. I doubt that anyone can write a bumper sticker poem that works as a poem as well as being propaganda or advertisement.

JFN: Have you tried?
Me: Yeah. I did a few, posted them on Facebook and put them up on my website as models, suggestions.

JFN: Remember any?
Me: I think the best one is “Moscow Mitch / How’d you get so Rich?”

JFN: That’s good. It’s not a poem though. Is it?
Me: No. I don’t know. But it does have rhyme and meter. And a good line. Attention getting.

JFN: Another one?
Me: One of my paddling buddies sent this one: “Did Moscow Mitch get an erection /
When Russia hacked the election?” Gotta like that one. But less of a poem than the other. But probably a better bumper sticker.

JFN: You said “a good line”. What’s with that, the Bubble Line you talked about? I mean for poetry.
Me: Oh that. I remember telling you about that poetry gathering up in Buffalo a few years ago, a couple a years after our Grand Canyon trip. I did use that Bubble Line then.

JFN: Why? What’s the connection?
Me: You were there, not Buffalo, I mean the Grand. I had flipped and missed my roll at the Roaring Twenties, the last one I think. I paddled more but spent a lot of time helping Randy row the supply boat. But Lava, I knew I had to do that one. We scouted it, and I tried to figure out the line. Everyone agreed, the right side, the V wave, then paddle left away from the rocks etc. But out on the water, it’s a different story.

JFN: Yeah, even Ho had a hard time when he rafted it.
Me: That time. He had once done it ten times, taking rafts through it when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Never flipped. He knows his shit. On the way back to our boats, I asked him if he thought I could do it. He said, “Sure. I’ll show you the line.”

JFN: The Bubble Line.
Me: Yeah. Above the rapid you drift with the up and down swell of the water feeling the power, pulsing power of the water. Ho pointed not at the upcoming whitewater but down to the water right ahead of our kayaks. Small bubbles, a line of small bubbles. He said, “That’s your line. Follow it. “ It would take me just right of the Ledge Hole and line me up for the V.” I managed to get through the V Wave, got turned around as you know, facing upstream, then peeled out and made it through the holes and waves. And so did Rob. That time. He hiked back up and paddled his raft, getting flipped in the same spot where he had gotten through in his kayak.

JFN: We had some fun with that. I must have showed the pics of that flip a hundred times. But what about the Line?
Me: So this thing at Buffalo wasn’t a poetry reading; it was a gathering basically to honor Jack Clarke, teacher, Blake scholar, one of the most important poets of these times. I did read a couple poems, but I started by explaining the Bubble Line. How this seemingly insignificant water feature, often overlooked because of the magnificence of the rapids on the horizon, this “line” is the line to take through the chaos of that awaits. Jack wrote sonnets. Not traditional sonnets, but the line that Jack used extended his work back centuries, giving his work a context that brings along the reader into the present. I see it as similar to boating, using the collective experience of thousands of boaters to manage ways through the rapids, like Lava Falls.

JFN: Did anyone respond to all of that?
Me: Not really. And I didn’t get into the main reason, got pressed for time, wanted to read at least one of my poems critical of another poet, Charles Olson. And that one certainly didn’t go over well. I didn’t talk about fear.

JFN: Fear of paddling Lava?
Me: Grand Canyon boaters have that saying, “You are always above Lava”. Writing a poem should be that way.

JFN: Fear of the water?
Me: Only as an analogy. Fear of writing a poem. Most modern, post-modern, poetry is a head trip. And that makes sense. So many poets are or have been university professors, critics, not activists but avid and almost full-time readers. Even the rebel poets get firmly established into the poetry establishment.

JFN: And that’s because of fear? I understand the fear established with boating. You and I have lost good friends, the best of us, to the water.
Me: Yeah. It’s getting to be a long list. But there are different kinds of fear. And this is one reason for the Moscow Mitch poetry contest. Now even Mitch is fearful. Not of the contest. He doesn’t know about it yet. The other day he bitched that calling him Moscow Mitch is “over the top”. Must have hit a nerve there. On Twitter, Stephen King is all about #MoscowMitch. I’m going to try to get King to contribute and plug the contest.

JFN: Fear.
Me: Yeah, okay. I think poets are afraid of being popular. Allen Ginsberg was popular. Gary Snyder, less so, but certainly popular though in part because Kerouac wrote about him. Japhy Ryder in Dharma Bums. But popularity, in spite of Ginsberg and Snyder, for academic poets equals mediocrity. There are some. Ed Sanders comes to mind. Jack Hirschman.

JFN: Fear?
Me: Fear of failure. I used to tell my students that for a writer, the audience is a ghost. The receivers of the message are not present. If they were, then why not talk instead of write? I call writing a poem a Distant Present. When we talk, like we are doing now, you can ask questions, like you have been doing trying to keep me on track, and I can judge by facial expression, body language etc. your reaction and then make changes as needed.

JFN: Okay. Then Fear!
Me: Fear to go outside of the safety of the known, the fear to write, for instance, a bumper sticker, a limerick, a political haiku, a song or at least a poem that uses song techniques, like rhyme, meter, rhythm, repetition. Poets have abandoned almost all of the techniques that connect with people, with their bodies. No wonder most poets feel safe only writing for other poets.

JFN: That it. Poets are scaredy-cats.
Me: Who think they are “cool cats” though afraid to write what someone might consider DOGgerel. Yeah. No. Does anyone say Cool Cat anymore? Though my grandkids do say Cool, even my three year old.

JFN: Doggerel. Like nursery rhymes?
Me: Here’s one :

Putin Had a Senator

Putin had a Senator
who fleeced us long ago
and everywhere Putin went
Mitch was sure to go

He gave money to his Russian friends
which was against the rules
It made Putin laugh and say
Americans are such big fools

JFN: Mary Had a Little Lamb.
Me: Yeah. There’s more, but I don’t remember all of it.

JFN: I still don’t get the thing about fear. Is it about political poems or songs or limericks?
Me: That’s only part of it. And it’s understandable. Our whole society is built on fear. It is to be expected that poets would write poetry that doesn’t put themselves at risk. I mean, it’s built into the system.

JFN: What system?
Me: The system of grants, prizes, teaching positions, university retirement systems that make poets good capitalists. And there’s more now, more fear and more reasons to be fearful, careful of provoking those in power. Of course Trump is the worst, giving aid to the white nationalists, neo-nazis, Proud Boys and all those losers. I know people who are afraid to put bumper stickers that support Democrats on their car for fear of being shot at or having their car vandalized. Ironically, I guess, since poetry is such a minor art it’s likely that a very direct protest poem is safe to write and publish because basically no one will read it. It’s different, though, with a song. A song will be listened to. Might be noticed. It can move people. Todd Snider writes songs that are much more radical than any political poetry that I’ve read recently. Where is Phil Ochs when we need him? Oh, yeah, he’s dead. But he left us “Love Me I’m a Liberal”. Unlike Bob Dylan, Ochs wrote songs about specific, criminal, politicians. He took risks.

JFN: He committed suicide too. What about song? Don’t most poets really want to be rock stars? I’ve been to those poetry readings. They want to stay on stage as long as possible.
Me: Yeah. A flesh and blood audience instead of ghosts. That’s appealing.

JFN: So you haven’t gotten many responses to your contest?
Me: A few. I haven’t advertised except posting on Facebook. Here’s a song I wrote, well I don’t know the whole thing. We, I mean most poets, unless we fight against it, are handicapped by technology. First it was writing, now it’s the smart phones. Our memory is shit now. But here’s my take on “Sixteen Tons”. My grandfathers were coal miners. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s cover of Merle Travis’ song was real popular with us kids, cousins. Only later did I discover Bo Diddley’s version. Diddley makes the song a real worker protest song. Here’s how my version starts, and it’s called Moscoal Mitch :

Ronald Reagan said Man is made out of greed
A rich man’s made out of money and need
For the poor man’s skin and the worker’s bones
For people to think that they’re all alone

The chorus:
He blocks 16 bills and what does he get
Corporate money and a private jet
Saint Peter don’t you call him ‘cause he can’t go
He sold his soul for the company’s dough

That’s all I can do without reading it. Like I said, I’m handicapped.

JFN: You got more songs? You got anybody to sing play and sing them?
Me: On my website : abullhead.com . This is my latest. I can almost say it from memory. You know, some of my grandkids know many, many more poems than I do, from memory. The oral roots of poetry are still alive within them. I’m just learning, or re-learning.

JFN: Okay. Let it rip.
Me: First. Kudzu. I have to tell you a little about kudzu.

JFN: You don’t have to tell me anything. l live in Kentucky. We have kudzu growing over everything.
Me: And in my back woodlot. I cut it out once before, about a half acre of it. It’s back. I’ve been cutting it around the trees to at least keep it from covering and killing them. Going out in the morning to beat the heat, got my saw, clippers, knife, and I cut away for an hour or two. And the deer are always there too. They pay me no mind. I enjoy it. Kudzu is a wonder, pure Darwinian. It can’t be eradicated, but with effort, it can be controlled.

JFN: Let it rip. Been waiting.
Me: This one is not called Moscow Mitch (but that reminds me, the Russians are coming to Ashland apparently, and that lends some credence to Moscow Mitch being an accurate name. But that’s for another time.) Here it is.

I Walked Out

I walked out in to the woodlot
to see what I could see

The kudzu was dying
I’d like to believe
that my country
is still a democracy

Mitch has been a Senator
for 34 years
the source it seems
of all of my fears

The kudzu can’t be killed
by any ordinary means

There is no Common
Wealth in Kentucky you see
Mitch makes cash
from his schemes
to take all the wealth
from you and from me

I walk out in the woods
to stop the vine
that covers the South
to cut it, kill it,
stomp it out
like these politicians
“who advertise us out”
who love Russia now
What’s that all about?!

I walk out in the morning
with my saw and knife
and thoughts in my head
that are just not right
about this traitor Mitch
McConnell, son of a bitch!,
who sells out the country
to make himself rich

The kudzu vine has
big purple flowers
leaves that cover
the trees all over
that smother
the trees
and all opposition
to its insatiable need
to keep its position
like the president’s henchman
the corporate bag man
the quick cash delivery man

the rag and bone
my Old Kentucky Home man
who will do what he can man
who takes from the poor man
and gives to the rich man

It’s all according to plan
Man it’s not going to be easy
to kill this vine
that has covered the South
that spread for into the North
but for what it is worth
it can, it must, be done

with a saw and a knife
or your weapon of choice
it’s your duty to take the life
of this foreign
invasive plant
whose name I can’t
say any longer
Resist Stay Strong
Resist Stay Stronger