Fred Whitehead - You're not originally from the area. Where were you raised?
Gene Grabiner - The Bronx and Yonkers.
F.W. - What brought you to Buffalo?
G.G. - I was hired at UB in the Graduate School of Education to teach the Sociology of Education.
F.W. - When was the first time you tried your hand at writing?
G.G. - Wrote some pretty sophomoric and teenage angst poems in high school.
F.W. - You were a professor at Erie Community College for quite a while. When did you start there?
G.G. - Despite having written many scholarly articles, and after seven years there, I was denied tenure at U.B. because it was said that my work was "not published in recognized, refereed journals in the field.” Of course, the relevant questions are: whose recognition counts?, who are the referees? Academic freedom is a sometime thing. Fortunately, I got hired at ECC, where I taught for 30 years.
F.W. - Have you taught elsewhere?
G.G. - UB, Everett Junior High, San Francisco Berkeley High School.
F.W. - You attended Berkeley, I believe. What was it like when you were there?
G.G. - The university was terrific. My professors were excellent and very supportive. Along the way to getting my PhD, I did a Master’s in criminology—not in a mainstream cop program, but in a program that asked the basic questions about crime, theories of crime causation, and how to reform the criminal justice system. I worked in two student-founded journals, was in a building occupation and, along with a few thousand other students protesting the Vietnam War, was tear-gassed from the air by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.
F.W. - Is that when you started to think about politics and the effect they have on people?
G.G. - Actually, I started thinking seriously about politics in college. But even before that, I was opposed to nuclear weapons and to war.
F.W. - I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but where on the spectrum do you fall politically?
G.G. - These are questions you are asking of poets?
F.W. – Ha! I've been known to.
G.G. - I am a socialist.
F.W. – I lean a bit that way myself. I feel we are entering a very unstable period in our history. How important is poetry in getting the word out in respect to making people aware of the wrongs in society and how we can get back on the proper heading?
G.G. - I don’t think that poetry changes anything. It can inform, educate, and illuminate the issues of our times and our lives. Whether on the personal, societal, or global levels, and not always in a conscious or deliberate way, poetry, (and art, music, and dance), becomes part of the broader cultural struggle— which, itself, is an aspect of the underlying political-economic struggle. In a certain way, poetry can become the voice of history.
F.W. - You have written quite a bit for journals and publications. What are a few of them?
G.G. - Among other journals and anthologies, my work has been published in: Comstock Review, Slant, Connecticut River Review, Passager, Jewish Currents, Rosebud, Blue Collar Review, and J Journal.
F.W. – I don't submit much to journals, going a different path for now. Do you submit your poems to many?
G.G. - I do.
F.W. - You just published a book of poems. What is it called and who published it?
G.G. - My chapbook, There Must Be More Than Trigonometry, was just published by Foothills Publishing.
F.W. - Mike Czarnecki does a great job with Foothills. Is this your first collection of poems?
G.G. - Yes.
F.W. - Buffalo has always had a strong poetic community; what do you think of what seems to be a pretty good uptick in activity in the local poetry scene?
G.G. - It’s terrific. And it’s vigorous and flourishing. I will say, however, that there’s plenty of teenage angst floating about. Also, in my opinion, since the Beats are done, I don’t listen much to the neo-Beats. I think that poetry is hard work; so, I wish more poets would work harder at their writing.
I think that rap is very important since it brings us back to poetry’s origins: the metrical, spoken word. I have heard some excellent rap poets. I would like to see their words on the printed page. There seems to be a few divisions in the Buffalo poetry community: academic/extra-academic; white poets/poets of color; older poets/younger poets. But in general, and just because they are poets, there is also a lot of unity.
Still, I would like to see much more multi-racial, multi-ethnic poetry. Inasmuch as we need that sort of unity in society, particularly to confront the issues we face, I would like to see that unity in poetry. That does not mean that different groups and traditions lose their identity. It just means that we have solidarity, and learn from one another’s traditions and voices.
F.W. - Who were some of your early influences. Not just as far as poetry goes.
G.G. - Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Zora Neale Hurston, Leopold Senghor, Anne Sexton, Bertolt Brecht, Randall Jarrell, Gary Snyder, Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Marge Piercy, Robert Bly, Ruth Stone, Herman Melville, Robert Herrick, Christopher Smart, Otto Rene Castillo, Pablo Neruda, Frederico Garcia, Lorca, Henry Roth, and the Chinese mountains and rivers tradition of Ch’an Buddhist poetry. Of course, there are too many more influences to mention.
F.W. - Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing with your free time?
G.G. - I have been working on police reform in Buffalo for the past year and a half with The Partnership for the Public Good, and I remain an active Central Labor Council delegate. I also like to fish with my kids, and spend time with my new grandchildren whenever possible.
F.W. - Getting some traveling in?
G.G. - Just returned from giving a reading in Bath, NY. I may be reading soon in NYC as well as out west.
F.W. - And many more around here, I hope. Thanks Gene!
Here are some of Gene’s poems as well as links to a few of his published political essays.
Once, a man wrote a strange book
full of prophecies & thwartings.
It was so odd it might have
wanted to be a book
about white whales & doubloons,
brassy still seas & survivors afloat.
But it was its own
book of desires & losses,
of almosts & nevers, hot skin
on skin for yearnings
Really, a book of women
what they needed & men
who did not know themselves.
Reading it, you would think it
was written yesterday; or maybe would
be written tomorrow.
The narrator was in the book but never
there himself until he left & someone
else told that tale. This strange book was
lost in small towns in early Ohio;
the sadness of its truths
was discovered in the cities.
Conversation with Seamus
He’s got some fused vertebrae, long-haired orange
cat I found under the cabin,
being hit on the road as a farm kitten.
He wheezes like me
maybe from being abandoned in forest-winters,
scrounging in the deep freeze.
We discuss leaving this life. We concur.
That is, I assume his not paying any attention
is concurrence. We both stand
in the same gold field on the balance beam between
getting out of the here and now, or hanging around.
When the slim disease came to Sing-Sing,
the hacks would shove in dinner
on metal trays with brooms:
a quarantine shuffleboard.
He had blotches on his face, or his teeth rotted
or maybe he was queer, with a strange cancer--
worked in the kitchen.
So when other cons
burned his cell, he got administrative segregation,
was sent to the hospital--
out of the narrow alleys
of their lives.
One time, this lifer met with the counselor,
filled out a form,
handed back the pen.
She just sat there,
pen untouched on the table.
When the slim disease
came to Clinton, hacks in the yard
wore goggles, gas masks, gloves.
In the beginning,
AIDS fingered eight thousand
when it came inside.
All Eyes Are Upon Us
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
...then they stomped
as he lay on the sidewalk
hands cuffed behind his back
who was on his way that fall to college
Stop and frisk
Stop and frisk
and used a chokehold to kill
who sold cigarettes one-by-one
on the street in Staten Island
and punched again, again
in the face
as she lay on the ground
then they stood around while
an angry bartender
down the stairs to his death;
maybe helped hide
the security videotape
then it was
in Salt Lake City, and
and Darrien Hunt
in Saratoga Springs, Utah--
how about that grandmother
shot to death in a SWAT team raid
then it was
unarmed, homeless, mentally ill
clubbed to death by three Fullerton cops
left with pulp for a face
in ‘73 in Dallas
was marked by officer Cain
who played Russian Roulette
with the handcuffed 12-year-old
in his cruiser--
till the .357 fired ; Santos’ blood
all over his 13-year-old handcuffed
and those cries of
19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh
in whose crib
the flash-bang grenade exploded
Shelter in place
Shelter in place
or 41 police gunshots at immigrant
in the doorway
of his Bx. apt. Bldg.
and that cop who shot and killed
as she slept
and those Cleveland cops who shot
who had a BB gun
and gave him no first aid--
watched him die
all those police
with gas masks and helmets in
telling the people
don’t be on the streets after sundown
Ferguson— still a sundown town
maybe soon like a town near you
with M-16’s, MRAP’s,
armored personnel carriers--
in this war against the people
Spare a Dime?
Vast urban anacondas of the unemployed
ripple muscular down sidewalks, around corners, under neon,
past decorative awnings, window displays; past
last click of that office door, final
clang of a locker
at the plant after the
abandonment of that woman
on the line since her teens: where she met her boyfriend, married,
kept house with him, raised three children,
pledged the flag,
was a church regular. She is left
with a stack of address labels for
mail that now will never again
leave that neat, small suburban house,
deftly taken by the bank.
In that back corner of the zoo, hyena
remembers & remembers
the savannah, river
flowing golden about her chest.
The call of memory shudders
from deep in that gristled throat.
It rings in all our afternoons of
gray drizzled rain. In this
humid night, her awful jowl drips.
Even in the muffled silence
of deep winter,
she calls & calls for her sisters.
& in the heat of still summer
hyena call bounces off the concrete
zoo enclosure, caroms around
the neighborhood. Howls that
suffuse the air & hunt
in our alleys, behind convenience stores,
snaking around barber shops,
stalking us in darkened theaters.
She’s no laughing matter.
jaws, checkered rough fur--
a checkered past. She longs
for the return; when we were not
the protectors we fancy.
Now, in my sleep-fogged memory,
that primordial throaty voice
floats across thick veldt air: terror
that keeps me close to jungle
when I climb down, stand
take those first tentative
steps away from trees.
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