Kathleen Kramer: Everything Matters

I’d like to offer a book suggestion that would be a good read anytime but seems ideal for a pandemic—during an unprecedented time in human history when we are all contemplating our existence on this planet.

The book is a collection of poems inspired by a series of photographs captured by the author, Kathleen Kramer. I must state at the outset that I am biased; Kathleen is a friend and we have supported each other over the years through many writing projects.

The author with her husband, Jack.

I also wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the book, which is entitled Everything Matters (Yesteryear Publishing, 2020). But that’s not why I’m recommending this collection. I’m recommending it because of the quality of the writing, its universal message and the transcendent feeling the book delivers to the reader.

Everything Matters by Kathleen Kramer.

To better explain the book, I turn it over to Kathleen, who has agreed to answer some questions about the work. I highlighted some phrases that caught my attention.

Can you give a brief description of the book? What do you hope people will take away from it?

The book, Everything Matters, is a collection of poems and the photographs which inspired them. (So, I guess if I could be bold enough to call my simple photos art, this is a collection of ekphrastic poetry.) I’ve found that if I pay attention, there is often something about an object or a scene I may see that “catches” me. I’m guessing many others have found this, as well. Maybe as we mail a letter and are struck by the pattern of shadows on the steps of the Post Office. Or, at the bookstore, we catch sight of a book we used to read to our children 50 years ago. Or we see a little boy contemplating his first big snowfall. There’s something that has connected on a level deeper than the simply visual. So these photos and these poems were not planned nor conceived together, but arose later, paired, and out of a place within and, perhaps, a place “beyond” myself.

“Small Things” by Kathleen Kramer.

It’s my belief that creativity, whatever form it may take, is a gift from something greater than ourselves. We are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest. And I think our hope is that those who read or see or hear our work will be enlarged, too, and feel a personal connection that is important to them.

My observation: I love Kathleen’s statement that “we are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest.” It’s the sense that art is a shared connection between the creator and the reader or audience, and both sides are required for a satisfying experience.

Can you describe how your work celebrates or gives heightened meaning to the ordinary moments of existence?

 Almost 30 years ago, when I first began writing seriously—both plays and poetry—it was the “ordinary” life or the “ordinary” event that called to me. There always seemed, to me, to be something bigger that lived in that life or event. For lack of a better way to explain it, I believe there is a holiness at the heart of most ordinary things. Or, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Lines by Kathleen Kramer.

So I guess what I wish for is that by calling attention to the seemingly-simple—a moth on the window or a chocolate sprinkle fallen from an ice cream cone—the reader or listener to these poems will be led to see a holiness in their own lives and the lives of those around them.

What was the most challenging part of the process for you—writing the poems, taking the photographs or piecing the words and images together?

 Truthfully, in most cases, the process seemed organic. Something in me responded to something I saw. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just took the photo. Then I waited for whatever “spoke” to me in that image to come to the surface. Sometimes it came within minutes, but usually it was hours, or even days or weeks, or months. Again, it seemed organic in that it happened in its own time, maybe like a baby robin hatching or a peony opening from its tight bud. So to answer your question, neither part—taking the photos or writing the poems—was particularly difficult—except for getting myself out of the way enough for the authentic to come forth.

Not So Long Ago by Kathleen Kramer.

Then, of course, there’s the re-writing, when it’s not always easy to let go of a phrase or a line that takes away from the integrity of the poem, regardless of how much I loved that particular phrase or line.

My observation: Her responses, “I didn’t stop to think about it” and “getting myself out of the way,” inspire me. The goal is simple—just create and don’t worry about the result. Trust the process and have faith that it will yield results.

How can reading poetry help people during a pandemic?

Perhaps the greatest benefits to reading poetry at this very challenging time is that poetry can take us out of ourselves into a larger consciousness while, at the same time, leading us deeper into that part of ourselves that is tender and receptive, hopefully affirming a wholeness that exists, regardless of the conditions around us.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, no matter what genre they are writing?

 I think writers come to write for many reasons. Some have to. By that, I mean that they don’t feel complete unless they write to explore life and to articulate, first for themselves, and then, hopefully, to share what they’ve written as a way to affirm their lives and to connect with the lives of others.

I guess there are some who write in the hope of recognition or fame. This isn’t an easy motive for me to relate to. Mostly because we all know how unlikely it is that many writers will achieve it. But also because to write with “the market” in mind, feels shallow, contrived, and unrewarding to the writer. But that’s me speaking from a place where this motivation never held much importance.

What I’m getting to, I think, is that an aspiring writer needs to be fearless, in a way, and bold in reaching for the heart of what he or she is moved to write. Be authentic. Strive to write what is true for you. At the same time, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to write bad sentences, bad poems. You can delete them! Or rewrite them! And, as a beloved writing teacher used to say, “Get the censor off your shoulder.” I would add, “trust yourself, trust the process, and trust that something larger than yourself is at work.”

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Thirteen Years Gone

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. He passed away from lung cancer at age 64 on Aug. 6, 2007. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since he left this world. Since then, my sister, Lisa, had a second child, a daughter named Elizabeth. I married in 2013 and my wife, Pamela, gave birth to our son, Colin, in 2016. Francis Sr. would have enjoyed getting to know his other grandchildren, as he did with my sister’s son, Paul, who was born in 2003.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Now that I’m almost 51, I realize how young my father was when he died. And while he still had a lot of life left in him, he was also lucky to even make it into adulthood.

I’ve blogged about my father in the past, and here are some highlights from his life.

He had been born with a hole in his heart, a ventricular septal defect. On June 12, 1959, when my dad was sixteen years old, pioneering cardiac surgeon C. Walton Lillehei performed open-heart surgery on him at the University of Minnesota Hospital, successfully repairing the defect. The heart problem interrupted Dad’s high school years and he faced a long recovery; but he rebounded after the surgery, lifting weights to add strength and put on muscle.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

He graduated high school from St. Aloysius Academy in Rome, New York, went to work at the city’s Sears Roebuck store and eventually grew to a height of about five-feet-five inches tall.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As a kid, I loved visiting him at the Sears store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

From my father I learned about the importance of hard work and about trying to be a decent person. I often observed him saying “hello” to people, holding doors for them and offering help when needed—whether that meant giving someone a car battery jump or pushing cars stuck in the snow. And people would seek him out at the Sears store because he would find a way to give them deals to on washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth waned, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

I recall one of our last conversations while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?”

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

During this time period, I remember listening to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is such a hypnotic piece of music that I often play it continuously on the “repeat” cycle.

My mother died at age 66 (also from lung cancer). Both of my parents had been smokers—which I am not—but in doing the math and being immunocompromised in the era of COVID-19, I feel like I am racing against my own impending expiration date. This gives me an added sense of urgency to create art and finish the projects I had started prior to the pandemic.

Yet in recalling my father’s life and his death, I focus on the merit of being a kind person and living a life of quiet decency and dignity. He passed these values to me and I try to carry them forward.

I wrote a few poems about my father since he died in 2007. And here are four of them, which all appear in my collection Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2019).

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about …
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing …
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

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Message on the Sidewalk

While walking this morning, I found this message spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of Grace Episcopal Church on Madison Street: “Get Kate out the hutchings basement.” The “hutchings” refers to The Hutchings Psychiatric Center, a mental health center in Syracuse operated by New York State.

The missive was signed by a woman (name withheld), and the statement produced a flurry of images and questions in my mind. Who is Kate and what is her condition? I pictured an exhausted woman confined in a straitjacket in the basement of the facility at 620 Madison Street. I felt empathy not only for Kate, but also for the woman who wrote the message. What did she expect to achieve by spray-painting her note on the ground? Was she so desperate that she hoped God would look down from above and intervene on behalf of Kate?

I don’t know the fate of the two women, but the discovery of the message made me more aware of people struggling with mental health issues and how these conditions can affect anyone. And this blog post is an attempt to send some positive thoughts to Kate and her friend.

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Lasting Impact: An Essay

Since the school year is wrapping up, I thought it might be a good time to share a short creative nonfiction story about an influential teacher in my life.

Mr. Lanzi’s sixth-grade class, DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, Rome, New York (1980-81). I’m third from the left in the first row.

Our sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lanzi, was a towering figure with a swarthy complexion and dark, wavy hair teased high and coated with hairspray. Not a strand seemed out place. Imagine, if you will, a taller, thinner, nattier version of Elvis Presley. That’s how I remember Mr. Lanzi.

I think he had previously studied or worked in the theater, and he wore a hint of makeup to class—light powder on his cheeks—as if he might be called upon in the middle of a school day to fill the role of an understudy and he wanted to be prepared to take the stage and claim his big break.

What I remember most about him were his powerful hands; if my best friend, Billy, and I acted up, Mr. Lanzi would casually walk behind us, the scent of his musky cologne wafting near our desks, place his hands on our shoulders, and squeeze our trapezius muscles. We would squirm in our seats and then cease our misbehavior and pay attention to his instruction.

My best friend Billy and I celebrate our sixth-grade graduation.

Mr. Lanzi’s passion for learning was contagious, and he made education a rich, interactive experience for students. He expanded our imaginations with projects and activities that surpassed textbook knowledge.

Our class hosted special events like Italian Day, when we cooked an Italian supper and learned about Italian culture. I remember trays of food spread out on red and white checkered tablecloths, and our menu included spaghetti, breadsticks, cannoli pastries, and even small cups of espresso (which we sweetened with heaping teaspoons of sugar).

Mr. Anthony Lanzi, our sixth-grade teacher.

Mr. Lanzi’s class produced an annual stage play; during my sixth-grade year we performed a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I played the Ghost of Christmas Present, dressing up as Santa Claus for the part. I was disappointed Mr. Lanzi didn’t cast me in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge, but he expressed confidence in me that I could make the Ghost of Christmas Present memorable.

He encouraged me to shout “Ho, ho, ho” when I entered the auditorium through the back doors and then sit on the lap of a strict fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stocknick, who sat in the middle of the audience. His direction led to rousing laughter and applause, and a jolt of energy and excitement rushed through my body as I climbed the steps to the stage.

The lessons Mr. Lanzi imparted have stuck with me to this day. He instilled a love of the arts in me and showed me the importance of taking pride in your work.

Mr. Lanzi never had a “dress down” day; instead he wore clean, dark suits devoid of wrinkles. He never went through the motions or watched the wall clock—wishing the seconds would tick down and the school day end.

And as a firm but compassionate teacher, he served as strong role model, someone for all students to admire and emulate.

But what I respect most about Mr. Lanzi was that he demanded excellence from the students of DeWitt Clinton elementary school, even though the school was situated in a poor section of Rome, New York, and many of the kids came from low-income families. He expected us to succeed. He didn’t accept our excuses and his faith in our abilities gave us confidence that we could achieve high goals.

DeWitt Clinton sixth-grade graduation, 1981.

I remember during one of our last classes, after we held our end-of-the-year picnic and before our graduation ceremony, a girl named Aimee and I were talking about starting junior high school in the fall. Because Aimee and I were both short, we felt nervous about making the jump to seventh grade and feared getting “swallowed up” in the larger school and getting picked on by the bigger kids.

Mr. Lanzi overheard us and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll both be fine.” After we thanked him for his kind words, I think he smiled and said something like, “Remember, we expect great things from you.”

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Backyard Forest

Since the warm weather has come to upstate New York, I wanted to share a poem that seems fitting for a season of humid nights, swaying trees and buzzing insects.

Photo by Luke Palmer

Enchanted Forest

When I was a young boy,
I wanted a forest for a backyard.
I wanted to open the sliding glass door
on the bottom floor of our raised ranch home
and step outside, entering a tract of land
with acres and acres of evergreen and deciduous trees.
No neatly trimmed lawn, no tool shed,
no swimming pool or garden with basil and tomato plants.

I wanted a secret place I could run to and get lost in,
the green canopy shimmering above me
as me feet struck a rocky, brown path
leading deep into the woods.
A place where I could be still and quiet
and make friends with forest companions—
cardinals, blue jays, hawks, owls, deer, elk, moose and fox.

I created this place in my mind so the cacophony
of screeching woodland birds and hissing insects
would muffle the sound of my parents
screaming on the other side of the drywall.
That’s what I wished for at night,
while closing my eyes and trying not to hear
the yelling coming from the next room.

And when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d pull myself up,
part the navy blue, sailboat-adorned curtains
and look outside my bedroom window,
where, to my dismay, I would see nothing
but a plot of green grass in our backyard.

Photo by Lum3n.

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Resplendent Vincent

In taking out the garbage this afternoon, I snapped a picture of a tree in bloom set against the blue sky, and the beauty of nature reminded me of an entry from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Tree in bloom. Not the greatest picture, but it does capture the glory of spring.

I started reading this 500-page-plus book about a year ago, and I still have about 100 pages left to go before I finish it. I skim a few passages at a time, and for me the book is similar to the Bible—in that I can close my eyes, open it up at random, point my finger to a page and start reading. There’s no plot you need to follow, and you don’t have to read Vincent’s letters in sequential order. In the Bible, I discover Christ at random in the action scenes of the New Testament. Vincent’s collection reveals the artist’s creative progress and his struggle to connect with other people.

In this entry to his brother Theo, dated September 17, 1888, Vincent is working in Arles in southern France, where he has set up his Yellow House. He describes being inspired by the scenery.

The Yellow House (The Street), Vincent van Gogh, September 1888 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

“You see, I have never had such luck before, nature here is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has rays of a pale sulphur, and it is as soft and delightful as the combination of heavenly blues and yellows in Vermeer of Delft. I cannot paint as beautifully, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without giving thought to a single rule.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Passage from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

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Inspired by Signs of Spring

While taking a walk this morning, I saw a field of flowers in a small plot of land adjacent to the Syracuse Center of Excellence. Their appearance inspired a poem. And it’s yet another example of why I always carry a pocket notebook with me and a few ballpoint pens buried in my coat pockets. Fortunately, today there was enough ink in the old pen to write these words.

Yellow flowers.

Seasons

 
Hearing the sound
of my footsteps
on the sidewalk
of a deserted street
in Syracuse.

No one else around
except two teenagers
kicking a yellow
soccer ball
in a parking lot.
But I won’t report them
for not wearing masks
and failing to maintain
a six-foot distance.

Sunshine, cool air,
puffy white clouds,
budding trees and
bulbous flowers blooming
in canary yellow color.

There’s no denying
spring has arrived—
even here in
upstate New York.
But this year,
with coronavirus,
the chill of winter remains,
and April hasn’t
chased away
the shut-in feeling
of mid-February.

And I wonder,
will we be able
to celebrate spring
when summer gets here?
Or will coronavirus
postpone our fun
until autumn?

Yellow flowers, close-up.

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Laughing While Peeing

Laughing While Peeing

While taking the last leak
before going to sleep,
I can’t help but laugh
when my four-year-old son Colin
switches off the bedroom light
and slams the bedroom door behind me.

Here in this small, one-bedroom apartment,
with our three-person family
locked in coronavirus quarantine,
laughter cannot be kept away.
It bubbles to the surface despite
the seriousness of the moment.

My toddler son doesn’t know
the world faces an existential crisis,
doesn’t understand that a pandemic
grips humanity in peril, upheaving our lives.
He’s just a boy who sees the door and thinks,
“Hey, let me slam this and see what Daddy says.”

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More Coronavirus Poems

It seems like nothing but coronavirus occupies my mind these days. And so here are a few poems I’ve fiddled with in recent days.

Coronavirus Plan

If I fall victim
to COVID-19,
if it appears
I will not
survive the
coronavirus
pandemic,
I will:
Submit.
Resign.
Accept.
Relent.
And try to die
without infecting
anyone else.

Getting On

You get one more day.
One more day is all you get.
So take a deep breath,
Count your blessings
And get on it with.
Make an attempt to
Live today like
There is no tomorrow.
Because with coronavirus
On the prowl, there may not be.

Coronavirus Kid

The child may not
see tomorrow.
Yet he lives today.
So let him be a child,
full of laughter and play.

Harrison Street, Syracuse, New York.

A Coronavirus Poem With No Ending

The reality of a pandemic
heightens our fear of death.
Today it’s you.
Tomorrow it could be me.

But I can’t grasp the figures,
can’t imagine 100,000 people dying.
I wonder how far the victims’ bodies
would stretch across America.
Would the line of corpses reach both coasts?

And with the world in crisis,
everything nonessential drifts away.
Nothing matters now but survival
because we can no longer picture
life untouched by coronavirus.

We’re in the midst of this crisis
and my reflections prove
frivolous and inconsequential.
I offer no gleaming insights,
and my words flounder on the page
as I try to wrap up this poem.

I’m unable to extract the perfect line
to deliver a tidy ending.
The fact is, I don’t know
what coronavirus will bring tomorrow,
and so I won’t pretend that I do.

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Coronavirus Musings

Life is altered now as we follow the instructions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the fear of the end—once far removed from daily conversation—now bristles to the surface. We are aware of our potential demise, and being immunocompromised, I resign myself to the likelihood of death if I contract the virus. It seems odd to think coronavirus would take me out, instead of a car accident, heart disease, cancer or a fall at home.

And the seriousness of the situation instigates other thoughts. We are fighting so hard to survive now that coronavirus is rampant. I wonder, why didn’t we live this way before? Why did we need a pandemic for us to treat life as sacred? Why did we allow frivolous things to preoccupy our time and attention? It’s because we thought we had plenty of time. Coronavirus has forced us to acknowledge that we don’t.

But there is something else, an offbeat thought that brings me a little comfort. I think: maybe death is not so different from life; maybe when we die, we don’t know we’re dead, and death is not an end, but rather, a continuation. Maybe we exist in some other form.

My son comes into my bedroom as I write these words on a scrap of legal pad paper; he switches off the light and begins jumping on the bed. And so my writing is done. I hope to put more words down tomorrow.

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