Inside the amazing brains of Charles Coe,
Paul Beckman, & Christopher Reilley
Charles Coe is author of three books of poetry: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents, Picnic on the Moon, and Memento Mori, all published by Leapfrog Press. He is also author of Spin Cycles, a novella published by Gemma Media. He is adjunct professor of English at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, and at Bay Path University, in Longmeadow, MA, where he teaches in both MFA programs. He serves on the Board of Directors of Revolutionary Spaces, Inc. (an organization devoted to promoting the history of Boston), The Advisory Board of The New England Poetry Club, and Unitarian Universalist Magazine Editorial Board. Charles is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Boston Chapter of The National Writers Union, a labor union for free-lance writers and editors.
BLM: You have become known for your brief slice-of-life narratives… is it fun to constantly be appraising so many of your activities and encounters with an eye to writing about them, or is it exhausting?
CC: I don't find writing slice-of-life narratives at all exhausting. That would suggest that I see doing them as some kind of burden or obligation. I'm a habitual people watcher and a shameless eavesdropper. People are always doing and saying the most amazing things. And sometimes the things I see or hear the conversations I have maybe aren't that "interesting" on the surface but bring to mind some larger issue or remind readers of some connection to their own lives. So I guess the bottom line is that I'm always looking for those connections. Plus, taking a little time to capture those moments in ways I hope are meaningful or entertaining, and done with a bit of craft, has become something like my writer's yoga.
BLM: Someone once compared me to Mary Tyler Moore and I loved it because she "could turn the world on with a smile.” What character in a book or movie or TV show would you most like to be compared to?
CC: I'm a big fan of the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mystery novels. Wolfe is the corpulent, curmudgeonly, private detective who never leaves his New York brownstone. I could fantasize being Archie Goodwin, his wise-cracking, man of action who prods Nero into taking cases when the latter would rather just spend his time conferring with his cook Fritz and tending to his thousands of orchids. Archie is resourceful, brave, has a wicked sense of humor and is a little world weary but never cynical. Those are all qualities I'd like to imagine I possess.
BLM: What do you feel is your best or most successful poem, and why?
CC: Asking a poet which is their favorite poem is like asking a parent who loves all their kids which one is their favorite. But there's one in particular that I think sums up something about my attitude toward life. It's in my next book of poetry, my fourth, titled Purgatory Road.
A woman in the park stands talking to a friend while a little girl sitting behind her on a bench feeds an ice cream cone to the family dog. Dogs are noted opportunists where food is concerned, and this one’s no exception, making short work of the job at hand (or rather, the job at tongue) while the woman’s attention is elsewhere. Funny how our idea of what’s important changes with time. When I am older and grayer looking back on this day, I won’t remember the headlines, the daily litany of atrocities and disasters. I won’t remember the comings and goings of some flavor-of-the month celebrity. I’ll remember the way the wind tossed dry leaves on a sunny autumn afternoon. I’ll remember a dog’s tongue, resolute and efficient, and a little girl’s conspiratorial smile.
Paul Beckman’ new flash collection is Kiss Kiss, He had a micro story selected for the 2018 Norton Anthology New Micro Exceptionally Short Fiction, he was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions, and his story “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. He’s widely published in the following magazines among others: Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Matter Press, Pure Slush, Thrice Fiction, and Literary Orphans. Paul had a story nominated for the 2019 Best Small Fictions and a micro accepted for the 2022 Besr of Microfictions, He hosts the monthly FBomb flash fiction reading series and he’s judged writing contests for Cahoodaloodaling, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and the State of New Jersey.
BLM: Where do you find inspiration for your writing: stories in the news, your own life, out of the blue, or somewhere else?
PB: Family was my first inspiration and while the family has diminished they still find their way into my stories on a regular basis. If I were to describe my family besides what I write I would say: 1) You could rope them off and sell tickets. 2) To a person, they all hold grudges from the year one. 3) (A) At family funerals the look more angry than sad because they never got that apology from 50 or 60 years ago (B) They are positive the deceased died to spite them.
Restaurants: I love eavesdropping and even if I can’t hear what people are saying I can write a story from their: 1) Body language, 2) Facial Expressions, 3) Watching them play with their phones and ignore each other, 4) Keeping an eye on what their drinking and how much, 5) Watching a group of diners playing footsy or handsy with the person (not a spouse) sitting next to them.
BLM: What philosopher or scientist inspired you in some way when you were a kid?
PB: Philosopher: My Great Uncle Irving. He never made it to high school but he could bullshit with the best of them. Somehow he learned to read and when his garbage pickup shift was over he would spend hours in the library reading newspapers and magazines until the head librarian took him aside and asked him to bathe before coming back to the library. He found it easier to change libraries than to go home and clean up which he only did when he ran out of libraries.
Scientist: That again would be my Great Uncle Irving. He knew the periodic table, all of the planets, the galaxies, what an archipelago was and could name them all, and he claimed to be in a regular poker game with Einstein, Salk, Freud, Pavlov, Marconi, Fermi, Bukowski, and Houdini.
BLM: What do you think is your favorite or most successful story and why?
PB: I’ve had over 750 stories published and depending on the day of the week, the weather, and various other factors I change which is my favorite. But, truth be told, I love all my children equally. Except for today. Today my favorite is “May It Be Written May It Be Done”, a hand-made chap book put out by Garbanzo Literary Journal in 2014.
May It Be Written May It Be Done
I am the third son of the fourth daughter. For years no one spoke of this pairing—it was always the seventh son of the seventh son. How Orthodox—how sexist—how far-fetched, but none-the-less that’s what was palavered about. Until now, that is. I was tired of my family members not talking with each other at different times for reasons both remembered and forgotten, so I took it upon myself to resolve it for once and for all and let them disagree and still talk—even though it goes against our DNA. In a recently released but much earlier translated footnote in the Dead Sea Scrolls that only I had been privy to (since I created it), the third son of the fourth daughter is the be-all and end-all in the family and in the community. Being that one, I was entitled to a life of leisure, multiple wives (if I chose), fresh baked goods galore, the decider of all disputes and a fresh young ox on my plate whenever the urge struck me. To break the news, I called for a family picnic which is the only way to get my entire family to show up anywhere. Everyone comes—even if they are not speaking to others. I’m known for my picnic spreads. A word of explanation: in my family any gathering where food is served is called a picnic whether it be Thanksgiving or Passover. Don’t ask. Okay—tradition—that’s the best I can do. I broke the news over the serving of the brisket which meant that only a fraction of the family heard me. My brisket is to die for. Word made it around the table after a bit and soon each person had their own interpretation. “How about the 1st daughter of the third son?” “The only child of an only child?” “The second cousin of a second cousin twice removed?” As I had expected none got the true gist of the Dead Sea Scroll footnote.
So over desert; Babka, apple strudel, rugelach, and decaf coffee with Sweet and Lo I explained that nothing was going to change except that I was now titular head of the family. I wanted no ox, young or otherwise, no more wives and I planned to keep on working. My role was basically to settle in-family disputes. Period. I was to act as a mediator and my word was the word. I was to be the Supreme Court, the Ralph Bunche, and the Gandhi of the Mirsky clan. That’s all I told them—no big thing—no tributes—no major changes except that we will no longer have family members not talking to other family members for long forgotten or petty reasons such as we have today and have had so often in the past.
As the picnic wore down, I stood packaging the leftovers for anyone who wanted whatever there was and by the time everything, including all of my Tupperware, was all gone so was my family, never to be heard from again; but who bonded as never before, only this time with a common enemy to scorn and talk about at their family picnics.
Two-time Pushcart nominee Christopher Reilley is the former poet laureate of Dedham, MA and founder of the Dedham Poet Society as well as a contributing editor of Acoustic Ink. He is the author of Grief Tattoos, Breathing for Clouds, and One Night Stanza, and his work has appeared in a wide variety of places, like Frog Croon, Word Salad, and Chaos Writers, and in such anthologies as Sanctuary, Silent Consciousness, and Hot Summer Nights. He is also the host of the Leicester version of 100 Thousand Poets for Change event in late September.
BLM: What do you think is the number one thing a poet needs to master in order to make a poem succeed?
CR: Poets have the unique ability to say ANYTHING. Any point of view, any scream of protest, or any declaration of love. The problem with this, of course, is trying to temper your words in order to "catch the market." Poets often tend to water down their meaning in order to make sales, to not offend, or to reach a wider audience. This is a serious mistake. Poets ought not to write in order to sell poems, or books, or curry applause from an audience. This lessens poetry in general.
So the number one lesson that I believe needs to be absorbed is - NEVER dilute your gift, in word or deed, in order to be "accessible." When you write, figuratively open a vein and bleed out onto the page. Your work will find its own audience. This world does not need more poets who sell, this world needs more poets who are on fire; burning to convey meaning, challenging ideas, saying what needs to be said. Timidity is the death of great poetry.
BLM: I know that you were very close to your mother. In what ways are you like her?
CR: Wow, that is a tough question. She was a remarkable woman, a pioneer, strong as hell. Thinking about it critically, I believe I learned from her the power of empathy. She fought her entire life for children, as a social worker, a DEA agent, a psychologist. I witnessed her touch and improve hundreds of lives. And everything she did, she did simply because it needed to be done, to improve the lives of others, and she could do it. She felt for every kid, mothered them, championed them.
When I was a wild teen, and got in trouble, she often took me with her on house visits. I got to see how others lived, which not only gave me a greater appreciation for the life she had made for us, but imprinted on me that people who are in distress, or poverty, or otherwise at the bottom of our societal ladder - are just people. To this day, I cannot dismiss a homeless person, or a street rat, or some wanna-be thug as anything less than a human being in pain. It certainly flavors my political stance, my actions while out in society, and especially my poetry.
I try, every single day, to be my mother's son. And I think she would be proud and excited to know that I've got a poem going to the moon! Seriously, one of my poems has been selected (along with many others) to be part of an archival capsule of art, literature, and essays sent to the moon as part of the Lunar Codex. In fact, the particular mission that I get to be part of launches in February, the Peregrine Mission. As a kid I watched the lunar landing with fascination, and my biggest regret is that I'm now too old and fat to ever get to outer space, so this is especially poignant and exciting for me. I'll be following this launch on Feb 25 with my nose against the glass, much as I did when I was a kid. Check it out! www.lunarcodex.com
BLM: What do you feel is your best poem, and why?
CR: This question is crazy difficult. It's like asking which is my favorite bone. (I was going to say ulna, but now I'm thinking clavicle.) As you know, I am a lover of poetic forms. I first got into poetry by trying to wrestle words into just the right places in order to fit a form - a sonnet, villanelle, hell, even limericks. It began, at least with me, as mental gymnastics, a literary form of Sudoku or something. I just love the puzzle aspect of it. So, I make no claims to it being my best, but the poem I am proudest of is one called "Foul Vowels." It took me over a month to write. It is a five stanza poem, eleven lines per stanza, and each stanza only uses a single vowel. It was the hardest puzzle challenge I ever set myself, I almost quit several times, and at one point I hated it. But I am extremely proud of having accomplished it.
FOUL VOWELS An Agha Khan, at an ashram that has grand, gala bacchanals calls a vassal at hand and asks that all staff plan a ball. An Arab lass can draw a bath and wash a man's back athwart an altar, as a dwarf flaps a palm branch fanning a fat maharaja. Westerners retell the Greek legends; the resplendent scenes, where, hellbent free men seek revenge. Restless Helen, the empress, weeps when she deserts her fleece bed where the regent sleeps. She feels wretched, left here, her needs never met. Nevertheless, her demented fevers render her cheerless. King finch flits in gliding flight, skimming limpid springs which brim with living things - fish with gilt fins, shrimp, krill. Might I mimic whistling shrill chirps, High pitch chirps inspiring writing gimmicks? Might I find bliss grinning in mirth with misfit whims, implicit in primitivism? Books form cocoons of comfort. Provosts who work for proctors show tombs to hold bookworms. Oxford profs show post-docs how to gloss Wordworth's works, Lolling on dorm-room cots. So look for bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods; how-to books for jocks (how-to box, or how-to jog), old colophons sport two sorts of logos; oblong whorls or rococo scrolls. Surf lulls us. Bucks plus bulls running thru brush, burrs clutch fur tufts. Cubs plus pups hunt skunks, thus, church nuns pluck uncut mums. Such tumult upturns unsunk hulls - gulls churr, ducks cluck. Such scuds hurl up cumulus suds, gusts murmur humdrum susurrus, furls unfurl, curls uncurl. Bulls pull up.