Waiting with Vincent

Instagram Poem #7.  This one seems fitting for today, since I have an MRI scheduled later this morning.

Irises (1889) by Vincent van Gogh.

Waiting with Vincent

A scheduled MRI
of the brain shifts
my thoughts toward
all of the
“what if, worst-case scenarios.”
While waiting for my name
to be called,
I see a print of Irises (1889)
hanging on a wall.

From far across the room,
without my glasses,
the slanted vertical
green leaves
look like snakes
writhing in the dirt.
But the longer
I stare at the image,
the calmer I feel.
Placid is the word
that comes to mind.

And I’m thankful Vincent
spends a few
moments with me
prior to my appointment
with the tube machine.

Because when sitting
in a hospital
waiting room,
artwork by Vincent
never fails to lift the spirits.
A van Gogh painting beats
People magazine
or an iPhone screen
every time.

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Pay Phone on the Ground

Instagram Poem #6

Pay Phone on the Ground. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Pay Phone on the Ground

A metal pay phone
splayed on the ground
near my apartment
building dumpster,
a relic from the
pre-digital age—
anthropological
evidence of
20th-century
American life.
Model discontinued
and no iOS update
to install.

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Church Park

Instagram Poem #5

Church Park

While walking to work,
I pass a little park
located next to
Grace Episcopal Church.
It reminds me of the scenery
from the movie The Quiet Man.

And in the early morning stillness,
I half expect
John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara
to come striding toward me
along the path.

It’s yet another example
of how I have to live vicariously
through cinema,
since I am confident
my feet will never touch
Irish soil.

The Quiet Man movie image.

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Sunday Morning Poem

Instagram Poem #4

Slippers found near a park bench in downtown Syracuse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Mystery Slippers

Sunday morning:
a pair of white slippers
left near a park bench
in downtown Syracuse.

Questions abound:
Who owns the shoes
and where did the person
sleep last night?

No answers to be found,
so instead cue Johnny Cash’s
big, beautiful voice singing
“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

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Lonely Tricycle

Another example of an Instagram poem.

Discarded tricycle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Lonely Tricycle

A tricycle
left near
a dumpster,
discarded.
Now in need
of little feet
to power
the machine,
spurring movement
on the sidewalk
and evoking
hollers of joy,
while parents
follow close behind.
Or at least
that’s what I see
in my mind.

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Instagram Poems

I am doing a final edit on my next poetry manuscript, entitled Outward Arrangements, as I prepare for self-publishing. It’s a full-length collection of narrative, philosophical and observational poems written in free-verse style.

Several poems in one section of the book originated as the text in Instagram posts. All of them are short, and the images, scenes and words came to me as I walked in my city of Syracuse prior to the pandemic.

During the month of December, I thought it would be fun to share some of the poems and the photographs that inspired them. The first image points to a mystery I encountered while jogging one day.

Baby Stroller on Sidewalk. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Baby Stroller on the Sidewalk

A stroller parked
on the sidewalk.

No parent present.
No wailing heard.

Just a question
Without an answer:
Where did the baby go?

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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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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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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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