Poetry Dispatch No. 273 | March 11, 2009
The Word and World According to
To experience the full impact of Ray Foreman and his world, put yourself in a favorite city diner, circa…hell, anywhere from the 30’s to the 60’s. Or the coffee houses of today. For Ray (and myself) that would be Chicago. Many years ago—though we never knew each there or anywhere, never met to this day, though I was introduced to him and his work through the fine-press printer/publisher (Ox Head Press), librarian, poet, activist, rascal, raconteur, Don Olsen, whose classic book on life, art, the art of printing, A BUTTERFLY SLEEPS ON THE TEMPLE BELL, Cross+Roads Press published in 2003. And so it began the way many of us in the small press world get ‘passed around’ from one reader-writer to another. You know: “You gotta read this guy Ray Foreman sometime,” said Olsen to Blei. And so, the introductory handshake through words. And so…the song continues.
His was/is a voice I knew instantly. The guy (with a book, a notebook, a newspaper, a steaming white cup of strong black coffee, a smoke, a laugh, a joke, story, a penetrating thought, an eye for excitement–the opposite sex…the person you sometimes meet by chance at the next table…soon joining forces at the same table to share a moment, an hour, a good part of the day in conversation that has its own life. Eventually leaving that table with a goodbye-see-you-again, perhaps a pat on the back, and stepping out into the big city of noise and crowds, the heart of the city pounding, feeling a little more alive, a little smarter, happier, a little more convinced that life is good and what the world needs are more moments to meet the likes of a Ray Foreman in one diner or another, anywhere in the country—or the world.
So here you (we) are now…listening to Ray. A story. He’s got a million of them. Most wrapped in Ray Foreman kind of poem. When you know who you are, legitimacy finally claims you. Your poems don’t lie. Your poems are you. And Ray’s are Ray’s. The way it should be. If you haven’t read him before, you’ll know his voice pretty well by the end of this first poem. And by the end of this piece, you’ll know him even better. Like him or not. It’s no skin off his nose.
One more thing before I turn it all over to Ray. One thing I particularly admire about him…something it takes some writers a long time to understand (and some never get it at all)…he’s kind of pioneered that place where the literati and academia don’t particularly know or care if you/your works exists…that place where awards and grants and advances and agents and ‘publishers-of-note’ all hang together…that Last Literary Stop when you finally look at that map of the crowded, cooing writing world and decide: “You know, I don’t really belong or want to go/be there.” And it has nothing to do with hopeless. It’s abut staking out your own territory. Like Ray and his diner. —Norbert Blei
by Ray Foreman
“life is full of strange horses,
some I rode,
some ran by without stopping.”
I was fascinated, I hadn’t heard
that kind of talk from a woman before.
I hadn’t heard it from anyone before.
it was the way Mellisa said it,
so sincere, as we sipped sangria
in a Madrid cafe on a perfect day.
I’d met Mellisa a few days before
at a bar one evening in the old part
of the city. she was alone. I was alone.
“are you an American?” I asked.
she said, “sometimes, do you want to talk?”
it took me a week to find out
what sometimes meant, and more.
it could have been an accident,
but I don’t believe in accidents.
Jung had a word, synchronicity.
I believe in things that are not
in the mode of common think.
the living experience for many
isn’t all that grand.
a touch of magic coming through
the faucet adds taste to tap water.
in the last few years, she said she
rode a strange horse, several horses.
at first, why she was sharing this with me?
at the end of a week with her,
what wasn’t obvious at first,
became obvious and my strange horse
was gentle and galloped sweetly.
“college, position with a prestigious
law firm, money and all the toys.
something was missing.
one day in Golden Gate Park
a man in a white leisure suit spoke.
Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh, a Buddhist.
I was hypnotized by his words,
a philosophy for those ready
to live with purpose.
“he was talking about a journey,
everyone has a journey that is particularly theirs.
most people never bother to discover
what their journey is or if they have one.
I was in a mental state where I needed
something to make sense in my life.
I knew it wasn’t being an attorney
or making money for the rest of my life.
I remembered he had said,
‘in some of us pulsates a need to reach
a destination which is not a place,
but a state of peace.’
“I needed to give my life meaning,
at least what was left of it.
travel, people, lovers, share my life
‘with someone who is more than a bed mate.
a soul mate.”
Mellisa was forty when we
shared that bottle of Sangria in Madrid.
“let me put it out front, I’m ill and I carry
a sentence, two years, maybe three.
there’s no fixing it,” she said.
we laugh about it today,
that word, synchronicity.
Mellisa is fifty-two,
more tired lately,
her eyes are a problem.
I’ll be seventy-one this Spring.
A Recent Note from Ray:
Norb, yes, still alive. I won’t talk about age, it might scare us to death. Still at PO Box 1377, Berthoud, CO 80513. Although we live in Loveland, CO about 5 miles away. I don’t change things when they work. I’m attaching an old poem which I know you’ll feel at home with along with a small glass of E&J brandy. The poem is for you personally. I can’t help but shed a few tears, you may too,… man, there were so many things that just aren’t. I’m sure the Diner will touch some good feelings for places and times we both miss.
I’ll send along some poems in the next day or so and you can use whatever you like, if you like.
RAY’S DINER There once was a place . . .
A nervous streetcar motorman clangs his bell
for the high notes while a shivering coal truck driver
pushes a lever delivering a claghorn bass arruughaa!
With a chorus of grinding gears and coughing engines
trying to stay alive, the symphony of Chicago begins.
The wind off Lake Michigan nips at Sid Weinberg’s
freshly shaven face on this November morning in 1927.
He walks huddled, but briskly, up Clark Street,
past Diversey, to the middle of the block.
In the window of a store front hangs a green neon sign
with twelve inch letters that spell out “RAY’S DINER.”
When Aristedes Gianakopolous opened the diner five years ago,
he bought the used sign for twenty dollars and became Ray.
Sid opens the door and the smell of frying bacon and eggs
greets him and has no regrets leaving his father’s kosher house.
Inside, six round tables and a counter with five stools are flanked
by pastel murals of the Greek Isles and the Acropolis
which Ray traded for two months of meals to an unemployed artist.
Only a few chairs are unoccupied at the oilcloth covered tables.
Sid wraps his coat around the back of one of the chairs
and says his good mornings as he pours himself
a cup of coffee from the steel urn behind the counter.
Ray carries on two conversations with customers
while working eggs, bacon and French toast on the grill.
It is the same forty-cent morning menu every day.
“Over easy, no rush, I’m early today,” Sid says.
His morning begins the same as it has for five years.
The Diner vibrates with the noise of the camaraderie
of no strangers that permeates the conversations of politics,
philosophy and the Chicago White Sox.
Ray calls your name when your order is ready
and someone will pass your plate to you.
There are no checks; you place your money
or an IOU on the register when you leave.
Sid leaves the diner and hops a #7 streetcar to his office at
the Herald Examiner where he manages the city desk.
Today, a double funeral for two Capone men.
“I have to get out of this lousy town,” he says to the editor
who hears it ten times a day from ten different people.
No one moves away except to New York.
Ray closes the Diner after lunch for three hours,
unties his apron and reads the papers or naps.
Sometimes he and Alex, the dishwasher, talk about the
old country. Alex, came from Mykonos, the place of Ray’s birth.
At three o’clock the six girls who work the Reinzi Hotel
come in before their evening trade. They take over the Diner
bringing their own groceries from the A&P on Diversey.
The girls like to cook dinner for themselves and tease Alex
who prefers the company of the young men around Division Street.
They always clean up and keep a tab, which they pay on Monday.
If their weekend business is good, there’s always an extra twenty.
Ray drops in on the girls once a week for an on the house.
The sign in the Diner window says, “Hours: 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M.”
Ray draws the heavy drapes and turns off the Ray’s Diner sign,
then walks three blocks to his flat on Commonwealth Avenue,
bathes, and takes a streetcar to Diana’s Grocery, a Greek restaurant,
where he will meet friends and sip ouzo from a coffee cup.
By nine o’clock Clark Street is deserted except for the few souls
who haven’t landed in one of the blind pigs on the street.
Now the Diner comes to life through the back door
with the conversations of writers, reporters, politicians,
lawyers and struggling actors. Darrow comes in once a week
as does Sandburg, and the alderman accompanied
by the captain of the 21st precinct who never pays.
Big Bill Thompson, the mayor, occasionally drops by.
Alex handles the evening trade by himself for one third
the five dollars charged for a half pint of Canadian and a clean cup.
In 1932, business slowed and eggs and coffee at home,
or a free baloney sandwich with a nickel beer for lunch,
was the menu of the day for many around Clark Street.
Repeal disappeared the evening back door trade.
In 1934 a Thompson’s Cafeteria opened a block away.
Open 24 hours, it was a haven for people out of work
who preferred anonymity and an abandoned newspaper.
IOUs piled up in the register and rather than embarrass
anyone, Ray closed the diner to take a job as a counterman.
In 1942 he enlisted in the Merchant Marine as a ship’s cook.
epilogue to the epilogue
In 1952 Ray returned to the place of his birth, Mykonos
and bought a small café with his old friend, Alex.
After he got out of the army, Sid Weinberg moved to New York City
and married a nice Jewish girl for whom he gave up bacon.
He wrote two war novels before becoming an editor at Esquire.
epilogue to the epilogue to the epilogue
In 1957 Ray moved back to the states and bought a McDonald’s
franchise in Peoria. In 1962 Ray was bored with the faceless people
who ordered hamburgers and French fries and never spoke to him.
He sold the franchise and drifted for a few years before opening
a coffeehouse in San Francisco near the City Lights Book Store.
It was open only evenings from eight to midnight.
There were six round tables with six chairs at each.
The walls were profusely decorated with murals of the Greek Isles.
A green neon sign in the window read, “Ray’s Diner.”
People coming in the first time were surprised; the menu
was strong coffee and Greek pastries sugared with conversations
rolling continuously between people with long hair
and beards who said “peace” as they walked in or out the door.
Most nights there were never enough seats and people sat
cross-legged on the floor. Everyone spoke to Ray and to each other.
Sid Weinberg came into the diner in 1975 when he read
about it in the San Francisco People’s Press.
When the two saw each other they cried openly and
went through three bottles of Roditis talking about Clark Street
and people they knew, some still alive, most, memories.
Sid came to see Ray every year until 1980 when Ray received
a call from Sid’s wife saying he had died.
Ray flew to New York and attended Sid’s funeral.
In 1981 Ray passed on; there was standing room only
in the chapel, mostly regulars who came to the Diner.
The Diner never reopened and the store was rented
three months later to a man who sold gyros and hot dogs.
There once was a place . . .
Ray Fires Off Another Note:
Norbert, Norbert, good to hear from you, it’s been much too long. I often think of you, can’t help it. I have a stack of news printouts laying on top of my tall bookcase and a copy of Chi Town lays on them to keep the cats from messing them up. Sadly, the cats don’t read much, only the labels on the cat food cans. Very selective, you know.
With me, same old stuff. Clark Street Review hasn’t missed a bimonthly issue in 13 years. Energizer Bunny. Started another magazine 4 years ago, Backstreet. Different format, works for poets who enjoy reading because the pages are removable. As you remember, I like small mags where the chances of having all the poems read are better. Hey, how many times do you pick up a book of poetry, read a half dozen, put the book down, and forget about it. That makes publishing a magazine every month possible, alive. You may not agree, but I never take new subscribers unless I have accepted something of theirs for publication. Unfortunately I receive tons of new submissions and accept a minute 2 or 3%. I remember talking to Steve Kowit years ago and him telling me when he and another poet started a new magazine that the submissions were so poor that they had to write much of the work using psuedo names. Norb, let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the older writers, we’d have Jello.
Both magazines concentrate exclusively on publishing poetry dealing with people and the human condition. If I don’t focus narrowly, there’s no way I could handle a larger quantity. This way I can publish a poet every 3rd issue.
As far as me writing, I continuously write at least one or two decent poems every week. Like Strange Horses, people poems. Some of us who have been around a while, two years ago formed a group of seven, named it The Marquis Cafeteria Round Table. Remember the Marquis, Clark and Division Streets….every week we look at a poem in a Bukowski book, don’t use the poem, instead, look at lines, words, surprisingly, something clicks, mostly fiction, but definitely a people human condition poem. What makes it work is that the seven writers “can write.” I make up a page and send it as an attachment only to the seven. I’ll send you a copy of this week’s latest on Monday.
Anyhow…..like you, the calendar pages are turning much too quickly and keeping our minds active is #1, or else we’re looking at blank walls.
Keep in touch, Ray
BUDDHA OR NO BUDDHA
sitting in Starbucks in the Fort Collins
Barnes & Noble, coffee, thumbing through
a magazine, sitting at the next table
I never expected see him again
in this lifetime, nor in the next.
it had been twenty years
since we’d seen each other,
that was when we were both living in Chicago.
I couldn’t help recognizing him,
both of us changed, but some features stayed put.
we shook hands, hugged, ran the bullshit list,
“good to see you after all these years,”
“what a miraculous coincidence.”
one thing I hate doing is comparing notes
on the so called old days.
anything older than a year in my life
is bye bye.
some old people live in the past,
I don’t, and I’m not old.
I just don’t want to hear about the old days,
my old days or anyone else’s old days.
and I don’t talk about mine.
whatever they were, good or bad,
they aren’t anymore
and if they aren’t, I don’t want to travel
over that road again.
over is over, past is past.
it was good to know you when it was,
but I forgot your name.
let it stay like that.
that’s me, but it wasn’t syzmanski,
he’s going back, all the way back,
he’s going to talk about how he made it,
money, women, how his three ex wives
screwed him out of a fortune,
how his kids don’t talk to him.
I listened to that crap in Chicago,
I didn’t want to hear it again.
syzmanski and I were friends
when we were both young,
not married, trying to make a buck
and scoring ladies on the weekend.
that was until he married his first wife.
then I hardly saw him.
married guys and single guys lose
what they had in common when they were single,
see each other less, finally, hardly at all.
he stayed in Chicago, made it in real estate,
eventually shared his money and properties
with his ex’s by court order .
I moved to Colorado where I taught
creative writing at a small college.
he rambled on, and then, surprise,
asked me about my life.
as far as I was concerned,
he was still the same szymanski
just like he was when I lived in Chicago.
I wasn’t going to tell him anything.
then I noticed he had a book under his newspaper.
as long as I’d known him,
he never cracked a book.
if I mentioned a book I read, he’d say
he’d wait until they made it into a movie.
I couldn’t resist asking him
what he was doing in a bookstore,
saying I remembered he never read books.
I did notice something, his eyes were bright,
and the way he spoke was less forceful
than what I’d remembered.
I asked him what he was reading.
he said he was into Buddhism
since he divorced his last wife.
I wasn’t eager to get involved in his personal life,
but out of curiosity, I asked
what he was doing living in Colorado.
asking a question like that
and expecting a succinct answer
from szymanski wasn’t going to happen.
Through four grande coffees and two trips
to the john I listened as he revealed what
he called, “his realization.”
how he discovered himself through
Buddhism and was finding peace
living in a big house in the mountains.
then he went on about who he was living with
at the moment.
he intimated there was more than one who,
but was sure the present one was going to last.
he said he was starting a Zen retreat,
inviting people up to his place.
people, I assumed, probably meant women.
when you have money, you do what you like,
live where the hell you want to.
some things don’t change,
Buddha or no Buddha driving the bus.
Ray Responds to a Few of My Questions…
I started writing poetry and short stories seriously in 1976 but never sent anything out until early 1982 and for three years had a number accepted for publication, Even got paid for some. Had some published in Spain when I lived there and received a few meals in payment; gave a few readings to the English speaking expats in Mallorca. You have to know that a some of the kids who grew up on Division Street had some brains in their head besides in those their ass. Hugh Hefner, Shecky Green, Fat Jackie Leonard.
After receiving a few dozen acceptances I noticed two things, there were no checks in the envelopes the acceptances came in, and I also noticed there were no contracts and checks for me to appear on Broadway. Strokes to my ego I didn’t need and the bullshit of sending out mailings every week to get a letter from some editor saying they accepted my poems or short story, come on, Norb, that was running around in a circle. The fact was that I loved writing, period, and I knew I could do it, and I kept on doing it, and then in 1990, I started Coffeehouse Poet’s Quarterly….which was fun for me because I can do things like publishing a magazine.
Anyhow, how many poems have I written? There’s a stack in the bookcase in my office of those I’ve kept, the better ones, that’s over 7 reams high, over 3500. I threw out a stack of political stuff a while back, meaningless now, plus probably another 1000 which were babble.
I’m going to attach a poem here from a true experience I had in writing back in the 70s when I lived in San Francisco. Back then I was pretty involved in New Age and psychic work….which I gave up because sticking my nose in other people’s lives “ain’t nice” especially telling them how to live their lives. Living your own is more than enough.
Back in the early nineties I published chap books for our subscribers, 100 copies for $40. Gave them a chance to get their work out, at least to friends and relatives. I printed up a few of my own which only my cats know where they are.
The only thing that counts for some of our poets is writing and what we’re writing today, this week. Norb, how I wish we had those coffeehouse days back….
Some Final Notes from Ray:
Our round table tells me that there are writers who like to write just for the sake of writing…that it works in non-competitive small groups that are active on a pushed weekly basis. The material we write about needs only a spark, it’s there like a kitchen pantry waiting for the cook to reach in and randomly grab some ingredients and cook up something edible, more often than not, deliciously appetizing.
What’s happened to American poetry? How many ‘camps” are there, in your estimation, and what the hell are they saying?
There are three camps, if that’s what you want to call them. One is the academy that endeavors to keep poetry formal in order to have a paycheck. They say little other than saying it nicely and convincing some students they can make a living at teaching it if they follow the formal rules. If they don’t convince them that this is what poetry is, it’s the unemployment line.
What I see from poets I deal with are there are wannabe writers, have something to say, connect to the viscera of people and life, and are able to put their thoughts and ideas into the literary short hand of poetry. Their only payoff is getting published in the small magazines. If they live in the right town, getting up at an open mike in front of a savvy audience followed by a few face to face compliments from people/poets who relate to the poem, are a bonus. A third camp is the focused poetry camp which today is the Slams. This occurs in African American and Hispanic enclaves. Some is theatrically good and has been performed on Broadway. For other audiences it soon becomes same old same old.
Any other camps are composed by poets/people who have been impressed by mediocre poetry and feel they can emulate it on paper. They keep the post office in business with their submissions.
Are poetry readings good for us?
Local readings are definitely good — for those who attend them. They are social mostly events. Nothing more need be said except that the best serve wine and cucumber sandwiches. If you are familiar with the poet’s work and like it, then the event is worthwhile for you. If the readers are mostly those who show up every month and read the same style of meaningless poems, be nice, a duck may be somebody’s mother.
What the hell, really, does the poet want–especially in America?
The poet in America, anywhere, who is not in academia, wants to stand out with his poetry and hopes for some modicum of recognition which comes mainly from being published in the small magazines. Today, recognition is payless bragging. A list of fifty pub credits is meaningless to me, the poem in front of my eyes is the poet. It could be a different in a country with a population of under 25 million, but 300 million, an ear of corn in a cornfield.
Like many poets my satisfaction comes from writing what I consider a good poem. 99.9% of my poems are never published. I prefer publishing other poets and when I do, they know they have been close to the mountain top.
An epitaph for Ray Foreman:
I do what I do, do it sweet, then drive up the road and never look back