A poem for the Little Criminals
For a very long time, maybe a couple of decades, I've belonged to a list-serv dedicated to the great singer-songwriter Randy Newman. This guy:
Randy Newman is one of my Top 5 favourite songwriters, along with Nick Lowe and Bob Dylan and Aimee Mann and David Ackles. (Sometimes Van Dyke Parks is on that list, sometimes Kristin Hersh, but Randy is always on the list.) We on the list-serv call ourselves the Little Criminals, named after the Newman album of the same name. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to meet half a dozen or so Little Criminals, and what amazing people they are. There are many more I haven't met but who I consider friends.
On November 28, 2002, I wrote a poem called "Poem for Randy Newman's Birthday." It appears in my 2003 collection, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected (ECW Press). The same book also contains the poem "Sonnet (Storm & Cat)," a poem about Toluca, a cat that lived with a Little Criminal named Joan, down in California. The Little Criminals are all over the world. Some are poets, some are musicians, others are impresarios, airline employees, students, nurses. They have been great supports at difficult times. They are intelligent, funny, interesting people. I mean, they must be if they love Randy Newman, right? And they have made it possible for me to meet my hero a few times in Toronto and once in Rochester.
In my new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak & Wynn), Randy makes a very significant appearance in a poem I wrote last year, "And Oscar Williams Walked In." It's about the time the poetry anthologist Oscar Williams, who probably edited just about every American poetry collection up until the early 1960s, visited me at my home on Pannahill, about a decade after his death. Oscar Williams is this guy:
Anyways, Oscar Williams came to visit. So I went to the park and I took some paper along, and that's where I made this poem, posted here as a gift to my dear friends the Little Criminals:
AND OSCAR WILLIAMS WALKS INI’m sitting in my bedroom listeningto Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheeland then Leo Sayer’s Just a Boyand after that Randy Newman’s Sail Awayfor which I read the lyrics on the record sleevewhile it plays, every word, even thoughI’ve listened to it about a hundred times beforeand my mother’s in the kitchen burning steaksand making mashed potatoes and she yells up,“Stuart! Your friend is here!” and Oscar Williams(as I later find out his name is) walks inwearing a bow tie and John Lennon glasses andsays, “I see you like reading,” and it’s not becauseI’m reading the lyrics to “Simon Smithand the Amazing Dancing Bear” at thatmoment but because—I follow his eyes—one wall of my room is covered in bookshelves.I find him pretty creepy even thoughI have lots of friends who are older than memostly because of this poetry workshopled by a guy named George MillerI go to every Saturday with Mark Labawhere everyone is older than us.“Have you ever read this?” asks OscarWilliams and he holds out a mouldy copy ofImmortal Poems of the English Language.“I saw you have a mother down there. My motherwas named Chana Rappoport and my fatherwas named Mouzya Kaplan. I am Williamsin the same way you are Ross. Have you everread this?” Oscar Williams asks and he holdsout a dog-earred copy of The New PocketAnthology of American Verse from ColonialDays to the Present. “They’re pretty good,you know, they have poems by people likeEzra Pound and Robert Frost and Edna St.Vincent Millay and William Carlos Williamsand Oscar Williams of course. Do you want to gohang out at the cigar store?” The album cover forSail Away has a big picture of Randy Newman’sface and I hold it up over my own face so itlooks like I am actually Randy Newman.“Pardon me,” says Oscar Williams, “I thoughtyou were Stuart Ross, teenage author of suchimmortal poems as ‘jesus tobacco’ and ‘Ritualof the Concrete Penguins.’ I died in 1964so I sometimes get confused.” And then he is gone.Like it was a dream. I go downstairs wheremy mother is opening a can of peas and say,“Why did you let that guy in, Mom?” and she says,“What guy? All that rock music you play is givingme a headache and you hallucinations. Go washyour hands, we’re having dinner soon.”It is 1974. In forty-two years I will include thispoem in a book called A Sparrow Came DownResplendent. Barry and Owen sit down at the table,and me and my mom and dad. We take turnstrying to pronounce Worchestershire.