Craig Cotter

You ever

get together

with a group 
of fellow poets 

and feel

we’re the biggest group of losers
in town?

My Racism

A friend of 40 years
disappointed I like The Beatles and Stones so much,

ignoring, he says, black artists
like Robert Johnson,

Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.


He told me my dad’s love of Jackie Robinson
was because he was a “safe Negro, a safe black.”

He never met my father.
Didn’t tell him my dad also loved Bill Russell.


I had just turned 3 when The Beatles came to America.
My memories from that time

are of sitting in a highchair
watching my dad drive into the carport

in an aqua and white Ford Fairlane.
Later using that same Ford

to pull stumps from our new backyard
in an all-white suburb called Drayton Plains in 1964.

As The Beatles were on AM radio

and the older neighbor girls, Lori, Denise, Delta and Susan
each loved a separate Beatle, their music seeped into me.

I used to picture one band after another playing live
and wondered how the radio station

could have so many bands lined-up to play
and not get confused.

For years I thought the voice of Paul McCartney
was a black woman.


My friend woke-me-up this morning with 2 texts:

“post Beatles/Stones
  post Beatles/Stones”

I tried to get back to sleep but the damage had been done.

Two-and-a-half hours later
after writing to poets in our workshop
and reading Ron Padgett poems,
getting the coffee going
I texted back:

“post Johnson/Broonzy
  post Johnson/Broonzy”


Last week I sent my friend
(born in Sri Lanka with English and Sri Lankan ancestors,
and I did my DNA for Christmas,
almost all my family from south-western Ireland,
with a touch of Scotland and eastern Europe
and a few genes from the Arctic island Novaya Zemlya,	
my Nenets spirits)							
a video of the Stones playing “Love In Vain” live,
commenting on my love of Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar work.

He wrote back,

”Johnson’s version enters me deeper than the Stones.

For me, it has more dignity, more love, more sadness.”


I was 20 studying for a geology final at Michigan State 
when Lennon was murdered.

Rose called with the news.


The next year, when my grandfather and I were looking at my dad’s dead body 
he said, tears in his voice,

“It just don’t look natural.” 
He knelt, made the Sign-of-the-Cross.

Having already given-up on the Catholic church, 
I knelt with him and did the same.

They asked at the funeral home
if we wanted to see the body one last time,

and my grandfather said, “No, I don’t want to see him covered with make-up. 
I want to remember how he was.”  


Logging into my computer Tuesday
the first story was of Hank Aaron passing.

Tears flowed easily.

I took the ball he signed 
out of its plastic case.  

Five-Star Thespian

Mike Reilly,
teacher, director, Coach

made fancy awards
4 feet by 3 feet

deep red posterboard back, 
heavy white cardstock front with black calligraphy,

shiny gold stars
colorful ribbons

my first year in high school
doing only lights

10th grade
at the Thespian Awards Ceremony

he gave me Five Stars.


I was proud,

some seniors,

with only one star.


I was 15 that spring,
J. Mike 25,

a year out of working Carson’s Tonight Show
in New York.


I had no Fierce Pride.

Many of the straight boys would lisp “thespian,”
which made me queasy.


Mr. Reilly wanted me to act/I always refused.
But he talked me into forensics.

I wrote a speech on Détente,
he helped me with delivery,

tried to get me into hand and arm gestures
as I stood rigid 

and recited my quite well-written 
take on international diplomacy.

We’d practice
in the speech room

and once at our house
in the basement.

Couldn’t use
the TV room

as my sisters were there,
couldn’t use the laundry room

so we used the gun room.

I tried a few gestures
but they made my face red.

I needed a “good shirt and dress slacks,”
both of which I was lacking

so wore brown cotton pants
which were comfortable

but my best shirt, which I hated,
white with a partial zipper from the neck opening and, worse,

at the end of the gold zipper
a quarter-size decorative gold loop.

I was allergic to polyester
and it was polyester.

So there weren’t going to be any
natural hand or arm gestures

and I made it all the way to the state finals
apparently on writing content alone,

losing for style points,
losing for not being a hot teen

like the winning boys
smooth as fashion models,

smooth as Willie Horton at bat,
Bob Lanier with a hook-shot,

Charlie Sanders running down the sidelines.


He kept pressing me to act
and I said, “If we do ‘The Wizard of Oz’

I’ll try-out for the Tin Man.”

(So I could be 
covered in metal and silver make-up

like I was covered with the Tools of Ignorance
as a catcher.

Covered in shame
for wanting the paper boy.


And J. Mike 
was about as flaming as you could get

in south-eastern lower Michigan.

Driving a group of us home from rehearsal one Saturday afternoon
I was last

and he drove me to see Pat Metheny.

I saw the spark.

My first condo—
decorated in a way I was immediately,

for the first time,

Pat was an Adonis.
J. Mike glowed

with energy and confidence,
but he was not physically in Pat’s category.

For the first time I knew there was hope 
I could get anyone.


At 23,

going through my school mementos—
things from grade school through high school—

yellow and black mini inflatable soccer ball
I had friends sign the last day of 6th grade,

Little League trophies,

my Five Star Thespian Award—

Nobody knew me—

It was all fake—

Threw it all away.


Even at 8
when I got the trophy for Most Improved Player

the next year for Sportsmanship
I knew MVP 

and a Title
were the ones that mattered.

Thought I could get MVP,
strong catcher, good arm, field general,

hit for average and with power.


Now I would like to have those trophies, 
the yearbooks with silly, often sexual comments,

talking about my “brain,”
signed by friends who knew me best they could.

And J. Mike’s Five Star Thespian Award,
the only one he’d ever awarded to a tenth grader,

just for lighting.


After he retired
Michael drove the country meeting former students,

spent 3 days with me in LA.

When I reminded him of meeting Pat Metheny,
describing him and his condo clearly,

he was shocked that he’d felt comfortable enough
to introduce me to Pat when I was 15,

did not remember it, but knew it was true from my descriptions.

Said if he’d been out at that time
he would have been fired as a teacher,

and no gay man could drive students home after rehearsal
as gay men were pedophiles.


Said Pat later died of AIDS
and when Mike went to visit,

last days,
Pat’s mother

who always hated Mike
for making him gay

refused the meeting.
Mike never saw Pat again.


And as I cruised into 60
Mike sent word that his cancer had spread,

he’d had his bladder “…and sundry nearby organs…”

Died shortly after 
at 70.


That gaudy Five Star Thespian Award—
expensively engraved, lettered in India ink,

festooned with gold stars—
I’d like that Gay as the Fourth of July firework

on my wall right now.
Have only this poem.

J. Michael Reilly

You told me 
with no sense of tragedy
what good fortune it was
the year before
when you were 23

the old light board
had electrocuted the boy running it.

You’d told the district
it wasn’t safe,
but they’d blown-off the 23-year-old teacher
fresh from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in New York.

That after the boy’s death
you insisted on a professional, theatre-grade light board.
You guilted the school board
into buying the one you wanted,
a system far beyond what any high school in Michigan had—
50,000 1974 dollars—
but we deserved it.
They’d ignored your warnings,
let a teen die,
but not for art.


I was 14,
knew nothing about theatre, acting, lights.
And you methodically
taught me the light board and all the stage lights,
how to place gels for different effects—
a thorough primer.

And then you had me hold forth—
gave directions on affects you wanted—
if I asked for further instruction
you no longer dealt with the technical,
only with art,
what you wanted to see on stage.
You had confidence I could figure-it-out.
“You’ll do it—”
“You’ll get it!”

“No—no!—not that!”
More direction.


You made it clear
that all in the company were equal—
tech equal to actors.

If an actor cut-up
during a technical rehearsal
you’d dress-them-down
from the audience
or walk on stage—


if sets, lighting, costume, make-up,
special effects, acting
were not equal,
our plays wouldn’t deserve an audience,
wouldn’t be worth our time.
We’d become fuck-ups 
just as we were beginning
to take ourselves seriously.

He blasted us into adulthood
with all the silliness and camp of an out gay teen.

“Oh, God, YES!”
he screamed from the dark house 
at one rehearsal
when I got the green lights right
on Dracula.

My 7th attempt.
Previous “failures”
only met with respect—
“You’ll get it—”
“You’ll figure-it-out.”

The Light
of no more technical instruction—
I learned how the plugs in the stage floor worked
for lamps and dry ice machines,
how to light a castle.

I’d dim the auditorium,
try an effect,
walk through the theatre seats,
looking at the stage—
at 14 he trusted me to get it right.
I was 6 seconds from Nothing.

He said none of the cliches and figures-of-speech about art—
he believed in us—

considered us artists.


Cayo syrup blood-making parties.
The prop loft high above the stage
full of couches, chairs, costumes,
teenagers finding their ways.

You paid for extra sugar glass bottles for rehearsals,
the school district only funding them for performances.
Paid for the rights to “Who Do You, Love I Hope?”
not in the original package sold to high schools
of “Annie Get Your Gun—”

because you loved it.

Wanted us to feel it.


After Michael retired
he contacted scores of former students
that had spread-out across North America.

Got in his Cadillac
and spent 2 to 3 days with each of us.

I was covered in grime and sweat
cleaning my LA apartment 

when he arrived.

He sized-up
the situation

“You are expecting me tomorrow, aren’t you?!”
he said with a laugh.

We hugged, I welcomed him in,
put away the cleaning supplies, took a shower.

When I returned he said, 
“I’ve had this on my desk since you gave it to me 32 years ago—”
handed me a typed chapbook of my earliest poems.

An original copy.
Poems I’d lost along the way.

not sure how scholars and artists I was studying with at State

could have encouraged
such lost, slack work.

(After high school I was at Michigan State.
He’d moved from Waterford to Midland.

I’d visit him some weekends, East Lansing so close.

Another gift—
he knew then
when I was 17

I was taking further dips
into art.

I was becoming more serious
and more wild

—he cherished my poem-attempts.


We were closeted in high school,
had to be.

Our fagness a psychiatric illness.
He would not have been hired as a teacher,

I would have been sent to the Eastern Michigan Asylum for the Insane
for shock treatments.

Over sushi one night,
shabu-shabu another,

we covered that ground,
suffering and joy,

and how we could now 
be more completely ourselves.


Then theatre and poetry.
Gay jokes and the struggles
to make art

that took you three years later at 70.


You were the first Artist I met

who wanted to take us

Craig Cotter was born in 1960 in New York and has lived in California since 1986. His poems have appeared in California Quarterly, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Great Lakes Review, Hawai’i Review, & Tampa Review. His fourth book of poems, After Lunch with Frank O’Hara, is currently available on Amazon.
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