Monday, March 29, 2010

Death seemed a little much for Jack Ruby

This year Poetry Scores is scoring Jack Ruby's America by David Clewell - that's Missouri Poet Laureate David Clewell, to you - and I have been enjoying doing a little side reading on the subject, just for fun.

Today I finished reading Dallas Justice: The Real Story of Jack Ruby and His Trial by his original trial attorney, Melvin M. Belli (written with Maurice C. Carroll).

This controversial trial in Dallas - which spanned from December 23, 1963 to March 14, 1964, from bail hearing to guilty verdict - rates all of eight lines in Clewell's poem:
My lawyer Belli tried to sell the jury I’m a victim
of psycho-something epilepsy – all you need to know is blackouts, Jack.
Hell, I wouldn’t buy that myself is Jesus Christ was giving it away
on the courthouse steps. It took the jury less than an hour
to figure of course I’m guilty, and what else could they say.
No one in that courtroom was expecting an order of death, but that’s
what the jury recommended. I could have gone for something lighter
that early in the morning. Death seemed a little much

Specifically, the jury convicted him of murder with malice, and it was the "with malice" that made him good for the death penalty.

"Psycho-something epilepsy" is "psychomotor epilepsy," which Belli tried to prove through expert medical witnesses who put at least two jurors to sleep. This expert testimony did so little to persuade the jurors that remained awake for it that, when deliberating, the jury voted not to read this testimony back to those who had slept through it.

Belli advanced this diagnosis as a species of mental illness. He used his medical experts to argue that the unstable and overtsimulated Ruby had a seizure in the basement of the Dallas Police Department and shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead in an unconscious fugue state.

The jury didn't buy it, Clewell didn't buy it - Clewell's Ruby doesn't even buy it - but there is some evidence to support it (in addition to the medical testimony). Two eyewitnesses saw Ruby convulsively squeezing the pistol after he had shot Oswald and been wrestled to the floor. And one of the first things Ruby said after the shooting was, "What did I do?"

Clewell's Ruby knows well what he did and why he did it. Clewell has Ruby working for organized crime in Dallas and taking orders to do a hit on Oswald, though the poet pedals lightly on the conspiratorial underpinning of his narrative poem. This is a story about an underdog, not a conspiracy.

Belli's memoir of the trial is mostly beside the point of Clewell's poem. It was written after he had lost the trial and been fired by Ruby, but before the guilty verdict and death sentence had been reversed on appeal. Though Ruby had different legal representation in the appellate process, his appeal followed the first line of argument that Belli had pursued - the Ruby could not receive a fair trial in Dallas and merited a change of venue.

In fact, the appellate court ruled that Belli's first motion for change of venue should have been granted, so in a sense it was Belli who won the day for Ruby.

Ruby died of cancer before he could be retried. The cancer had an abrupt onset and rapid - some would say suspiciciously rapid - progress. Ruby thought he had been deliverately injected with the cancer at Parkland Hospital (where President Kennedy and Oswald had died).

For some, this is further evidence of conspiracy - dead men tell no tales, and Ruby was headed for a new trial trial out of town, when he had said he could not talk freely in Dallas. Belli, on the other hand, saw this paranoid claim as further evidence of the mental illness his expert doctors had diagnosed in Ruby and that should have absolved him of the crime.

Crazy or not, murdered or not, Ruby died an innocent man, his guilty verdict overturned. As the poet says:

                                                      I came out of fucking nowhere,
and I’ve been working my way back ever since. But there’s no way
I’m about to die even close to guilty in the eyes of the law.
I’ve been reversed for two months now, and it’s as if what happened
never happened – my part, at least. I’m almost beside the point.
I said it before: I’m history.


Trial photo of Ruby and Belli from LIFE magazine.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poetry Scores portable poetry workstation (2010)

This, in all its glory, is how it all begins, often: one man, with one beer (at a time), typing up a long poem.

Poetry Scores pursues the mission of translating poetry into other media, and to translate the poetry we need to make it portable. We need to be able to get the poetry to musicians, visual artists and fellow travelers who want to follow our journey from poem to poetry score to Art Invitational to silent film.

We focus on long poems, which seldom are available online in their totality (and we score them in their totality, line by line sequentially, though backtracking to repeat lines as a hook is permitted).

I thought to add that we also focus on obscure poets, who are hard to track down, but that is not exactly true.

The poet we are scoring this year, David Clewell, was reasonably obscure when we got ahold of him long ago. Then the state's First Lady chairs a committee to pick a new Missouri Poet Laureate and reinvigorate the position - and dang if they don't pick Clewell.

It reminded me that the first poet we scored, Leo Connellan, was the Poet Laureate of Connecticut when we recorded him, in the basement of his publisher at the time, Curbstone Press. Curbstone was hubbed in Willimantic, Connecticut, and the publishers had done much to help Leo establish himself in his adopted state.

Adopted, for our Connecticut Poet Laureate was a son of Maine who talked like Elmer Fudd, just as our Missouri Poet Laureate is a New Jersey guy who sounds like the neighborhood mobster on his paper route as a kid.

And, get this: the poem I was getting ready to type up last night, when I took this picture, was written by the first Noble Laureate for Literature from the continent of Africa.

That box of wheat spaghetti is propping open the Early Poems collection by Wole Soyinka. The collection is propped open to the poem "Ever-ready bank accounts," from the Poems of bread and earth section of his scathing book of prison reflections, Shuttle in the Crypt.

I did manage to get it typed up last night, while drinking one beer several times in a row, and holding forth with the universe through all these constellated media. The poem is portable! The shuttle is ready to leave the crypt!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An electonic letter, from Istanbul.

This is the sort of thing that makes my days.

An electonic letter, from Istanbul.

Hi Mr. King,

I'm Onur Karagöz from Turkey, Istanbul.
A musician and also teaching in the university.
We have an experimental, ambient and noise band here in Istanbul.
It's not a written music, improvisation.
On the stage I read some texts from Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs,
I put some texts from different writers infront of me and make a collage of
words and sentences freely.
It's an improvisation also...
I want to read some Ece Ayhan poems in english and here in Turkey I heard
that you translated some of them in english.
How can I find them and get them?

Can you help me?

these are the links of the music;

I checked out the music, and would suggest anyone do the same. It's really varied and cool. Lots of songs on both sites.

Right now I am pretty far down on the MySpace tracklist, at "fjord focus", and right through here are keening vocables moaned over drone & ambient music.

Not sure words would express how stoked I am to be the go-to guy in America for Turkish poets and musicians looking to hook up with a like mind on this side of the pond. But it's my distinct pleasure to hear from a character like Onur Karagöz on a regular basis.

I sent him the text of Blind Cat Black by Ece Ayhan, translated not by me, but by my friend Murat Nemet-Nejat, and once published in a nice slim volume by Sun & Moon Press.

I have set this poetry to music with the collective Poetry Scores. Also, my review of the original Sun & Moon edition in The Nation magazine (New York) was translated into Turkish and republished in Istanbul. So my name is all tangled up with this gorgeous, creepy poem in Turkey.

The only Turkish poetry I have had any hand in translating, however, was the complete poetry of the immortal Orhan Veli. Defne Halman and I knocked that out in New York some years ago.

There was always talk of Syracuse University Press putting that out into the print universe, in its Middle East Literature in Translation series, but Defo and I both are lame with the formal and commercial aspects of doing these things.

Her father, modern Turkey's single greatest scholar, Professor Talat S. Halman, better known to we neophyte translators as "God", knows the ropes, but Papa is Ankara (still?) and has his own oceans of fish to fry.

I have at least reached out to Defo for a complete text of our Orhan Veli translations, so I can post it up here and share it with the Onur Karagöz spirits of Planet Earth. And hey, I found it! So here you go:

Some Days Just Loony: The Complete Poetry of Orhan Veli,
Translated by Defne Halman and Chris King
The link leads to a prompt to download a Word document.
All rights reserved to the translation.


Photo of Bicycle Day (the band with Onur Karagöz) from the MySpace.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

David Clewell is the new Poet Laureate of Missouri

This is a kick in the pants! David Clewell - the poet that Poetry Scores is scoring for 2010 - is the new Poet Laureate of Missouri!

The Clewell poem we are scoring this year is Jack Ruby's America, with various public programs to come this year at the Missouri History Museum, The Luminary Center for the Arts, Atomic Cowboy and The Royale.

Here is the press release from the Governor's Office. Huzzah!

Gov. Nixon appoints David Clewell Poet Laureate of Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Gov. Jay Nixon announced today that he has appointed David Clewell, Professor of English at Webster University in St. Louis, as Missouri’s new Poet Laureate. Clewell’s appointment runs for two years, and expires on Jan. 31, 2012.

First Lady Georganne Nixon served as honorary chair of the Poet Laureate advisory committee, and she introduced Clewell today during the statewide Poetry Out Loud competition in Jefferson City.

“You don’t have to spend very long with David Clewell, or his poetry, to know that he has a unique perspective on contemporary American life and the characters and ideas that loom large in our recent history,” Gov. Nixon said.

“David’s wry humor, tart social commentary and accessible style give his poetry a broad appeal. He also brings a passion for teaching literature, and will help expose a new generation of Missourians not only to his fine work, but to the work of great American poets from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to Missouri’s own Mark Twain.”

Clewell teaches poetry workshops, 19th and 20th Century literature and topics-in-poetry seminars at Webster University. He directs the Creative Writing program and coordinates the attendant Visiting Writer Series, which he started in 1986. He received his B.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and his M.F.A. in writing at Washington University in St. Louis.

He has conducted numerous poetry workshops and discussions for K-12 students and teachers in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and gives frequent readings at schools, nursing homes and civic organizations throughout the state. He was an artist in residence in Missouri K-12 schools and has served on the Literature Advisory Panel for the Missouri Arts Council.

He has published seven collections of poems, including Blessings in Disguise (a National Poetry Series winner), Now We're Getting Somewhere (winner of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize) and, most recently, The Low End of Higher Things. He also is the author of two book-length poems [including Jack Ruby's America, which we are scoring] and several chapbooks.

His poetry has appeared in more than 50 journals and magazines, including Harper’s, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, New Letters and River Styx. His poems have been included in numerous anthologies including Best American Poetry 2010 (Scribner, 2010) and Sixty Years of American Poetry (Abrams, 1996). He has been nominated seven times for the national Pushcart Prize for poetry.

Clewell lives in Webster Groves with his wife, Patricia, and 13-year-old son, Ben.

He succeeds Missouri’s first poet laureate, Walter Bargen, of Ashland, whose term has expired.

Several examples of Clewell’s poetry are available online at