New York poet Frank Messina talks about David Amram, Gil Scott-Heron, and his Spoke n' Roll memories

The prison of the spirit is often self-inflicted. As I say in my poem, Disorderly Conduct, "You have the right to overthrow the king, whose castle's walls your own hands built."

Frank Messina: New York Poetic Hittin

Frank Messina is an American poet, author and performance artist. He received The Woolrich Poetry Fellowship of Columbia University in 1993, also was nominated for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award in 1995 and currently serves as an Artistic Advisor to the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Project of Orlando, Florida.

Messina first gained notoriety as the founder of the underground band, Spoken Motion, whose signature ability to fuse bold, lyrical content with eclectic jazz and experimental rock music helped catapult the fledgling 'Spoken Word' genre of the 1990's to commercial success. He also founded the all-star "Spoke n' Roll" band, OCTOPOET, in 1999. Spanning his career, Messina has recorded over 200 spoken word & music compositions including works from Biting the Tongue (1998), Absorb (1999), Rage (1999), The Long Road to Nowheresville (2004) and Walking Home (2007).

                                                                    Photo © by Christian Hansen / NY Times

Messina has performed worldwide at notable venues such as The London International Poetry and Song Festival, Lollapalooza Festival, Woodstock `94, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, The Knitting Factory, Nuyorican Poets' Cafe, and shared the stage with Buddy Cage, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Leo Kottke, Billy Kreutzmann, Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten (Grateful Dead), Melvin Seals, Leo Nocentelli, Allen Ginsberg, Merle Saunders, Lee Ranaldo, Bernie Worrell, Gil Scott-Heron, Melvin Sparks, The Last Poets, Courtney Love, Ron Whitehead, Sonny Sharrock, and many others.

Among his four published works, Messina is the author of "Full Count: The Book of Mets Poetry", a 2009 work that focused on baseball fanaticism. Messina, a die-hard fan and season ticket holder of the New York Mets, attends games wearing a replica team jersey emblazoned with The Poet on the back. His 2002 book, Disorderly Conduct, focused on reactions to September 11, 2001, and is based on his experience as a volunteer at Ground Zero. He has performed on stage with musicians such as members of Phish, the Spin Doctors and Sun Ra Arkestra and David Amram.  

Messina has appeared in several feature films including Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, The Hurricane, Freedom: A Poem for America, Shampoo Horns and has a starring role in the PBS documentary Jack Kerouac Slept Here. He has also appeared in the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire, directed by Martin Scorsese. Messina is also a prolific painter, known to include shredded poems, pharmaceuticals and poppy seeds in his large, dramatic canvas works. As a burgeoning artist with an illustrious past, his paintings hang in the private collections of jazz musicians, writers, governors and fashion models around the world.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How/where do you get inspiration for your poetry & what characterizes Frank Messina’s poetry?

I am inspired by most everyone I meet, and also the situations that life presents to me. A ballplayer tipping his cap is as equally poem-worthy as war, economic turmoil and political upheaval. There is potential for poetry everywhere, in everything. Life is joy, sorrow, absurdity and pleasure among other things, and a poet doesn't need to wait for some tragic or glorious thing to happen in order to write a good poem. There is something glorious in the mundane. A good poem is like a good photograph. It captures a moment in time, and offers a unique perspective. I hope my work does that for my readers. I also draw inspiration from reading, and from the visual arts. A good short story, a painting, and even a good comedic scene does it for me. What is a poet, really? An observer—a lifelong student of the human condition. What characterizes Frank Messina’s poetry? It’s musical, accessible and almost never rhymes. The late critic, Zoe Artemis, referred to my work as “clearly masculine”. I never thought of it that way, but I guess I agree. My work often captures the follies of men, and the male’s constant struggle in balancing an innate, protective, territorial nature, with that of a civilized human being.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music and poetry?

My first real teacher was my father, who taught me much about American history. He was a big Civil War buff, which as you may know, took place from 1861-1865. I grew up with odd memorabilia around the house—old guns, bayonets, civil war documents, signed letters of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and lots of books. And it was in those informal studies after dinner where I discovered poetry, most notably Walt Whitman. I was fascinated by Whitman's desperate search for his brother George, who was injured during the war as a Union soldier. I remember feeling an abundance of emotion, as a very young boy, while learning about Whitman's story. I think some of it had to do with the fact a brother of mine died before I was born—my parents’ first son. And I always imagined what it would be like to know him. In a way, I was always searching for him, in old photographs and things. So, the story of Walt searching for his brother just tore me up at an early age. It changed my life.

I'm also grateful to my 8th grade English Composition teacher, Naomi Jankowski, who was the first school teacher who expressed a sincere interest in me as a human being. Most of my prior school experience was quite hostile. I was constantly getting in trouble for being disruptive. The school wanted to put me on medication but when my parents refused, the administrators sent me to the school psychologist. And when there was a substitute teacher, I was automatically sent to the principal's office. When the principal was too busy, they sent me to the school nurse. Being in that little office, with jars of Band-Aids and peroxide—I would just cry and say to myself, "Why am I in the nurse's office? I must be sick, right?" It was just terrifying and quite embarrassing. I address some of those issues in my book, Full Count: The Book of Mets Poetry. But Mrs. Jankowski was a departure from all the mayhem. She was the first teacher who said, “you’re talented, use it wisely.” And she sent me to high school with a fresh outlook, and I'll always remember her for that.

My high-school creative writing teacher, Woody Rudin, played a pivotal role. He showed me that writing can be fun, and he encouraged me to let my imagination run wild. But just when it got too wild, he'd reign me in— a great teacher to have at such an impressionable age. He shows up to my readings every so often. It really warms my heart to see him there. In all the dark experiences I had in school growing up, Naomi Jankowski and Woody Rudin remain beacons of white light. They saved me, really.

I attended St. Thomas Aquinas College where I met Gerald McCarthy, an award-winning Vietnam-veteran poet. He convinced me to get out of my Communications major and switch to English. But when I took his class, I instantly realized an English major is no joke. I mean, we’d have to read six books a semester, for his class alone. And if someone didn’t read a chapter being discussed in class, he’d kick them out—pretty girls, football players, didn’t matter. “You’re worthless, you didn’t even read the book. Get out!” Then, when there were like only four kids left, he’d put our desks in a circle, light a cigarette, and say, “Now let’s discuss the book.” It was like writer’s boot camp. But he was so right, and so passionate in his teaching. McCarthy taught me that it’s actually cool to read lots and lots of books. He's another one I stayed friends with over the years, and he's a very good poet.

As for  music, I've been fortunate to have had many good teachers. David Amram taught me how to listen, to pay attention. And again it wasn't formal study, it was just being on stage with him for so many years. He's had a profound effect on my life as a performer and a band leader. I also learned a few secrets from the Zen Buddhists, who taught me how to relax, meditate and focus on positive things. Life is filled with so many distractions and energy-sucking elements. I've learned how to determine what is important, and what is a waste of time, and let things go, and move on. And that philosophy has allowed me to focus on enjoying life, celebrating this miracle, and helping others along the way. It has also helped me hear the music, to pay attention and contribute something worthy to my listeners.

Being a spoken word artist is much like being an instrumentalist—a horn player or a pianist. The less you say, the better. I’ve learned the secret of editing on the spot, you know, to tailor your recitation to the demands of the music, to the situation. A good comic does this, a preacher, an orator, a public official. Sometimes what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. There must be room for the audience to pause and reflect. I wish some contemporary spoken word artists and some playwrights understood this. I’ve noticed in the past ten years or so, the art of the dramatic pause has fallen off the program. The last reading I went to, I felt like I was being fired at by a machine gun—the words, bullets. Poets should read the plays of Tennessee Williams, and playwrights should read the poetry of John Ciardi. Learn the secrets from the masters.

Poetry and music can confront the “prison” of the spirit? What is the relation between music and poetry?

The prison of the spirit is often self-inflicted. As I say in my poem, Disorderly Conduct, "You have the right to overthrow the king, whose castle's walls your own hands built." People often build their own hell. When some ridiculous dilemma presents itself, one must ask themselves: is this really important? Yes or no? People fall into the trap of fighting a battle they can never win, and that is the battle with time. You can spend your life opposing things, or you can simply propose. You see the difference? I personally choose to create, to write, paint, play music, make films, exercise, move around. It keeps me out of trouble, and keeps my spirit out of prison.

"I personally choose to create, to write, paint, play music, make films, exercise, move around. It keeps me out of trouble, and keeps my spirit out of prison."       Photo © by Jeremy Hogan

Some music styles can be fads but the “Spoken Word” is always with us. Why do you think that is?

The oral tradition has been around since the dawn of mankind. It was the first method of intelligent communication. As languages developed, story-telling became the primary method of teaching history. The human brain is designed for learning. We crave knowledge. And via the spoken word, we learn new things. We immediately find out what's on the minds of people everywhere. And, in addition to being informed, we are entertained. It makes for a great combination that dazzles and excites the senses.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? What experiences in your life make Frank Messina a good poet?

My entire life has been thus far very interesting, I suppose. I noticed a cycle in my life. Maybe everyone has this experience. I noticed a cycle every three years, a sort of ebb and flow of good and bad, incredible luck and fortune to incredible heartbreak and dismay.

I used to think the most interesting period in my life was when I started performing regularly in the early 1990's. But looking back, I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just having a ball, touring, writing. However, in a post-9/11 world, things became complex. That was a very interesting time for me, both as a writer and a human being. My political philosophy was defined—you know, the sense of community and personal responsibility in caring for those in danger, and needing help. Being there in Jersey City, across from the World Trade Center, volunteering with the locals on the ferry boats back-and-forth to Ground Zero, I literally felt my life change, my entire psyche shifted off its axis. And it had a profound affect on my writing. But that doesn’t make me a good poet. What makes good poetry is taking those profound experiences and putting them to paper in a way which leads a reader to see a particular event with a fresh set of eyes. As for my 9/11 related poems, they have been widely circulated and studied, particularly Bicycle. The National Memorial & Museum requested my original, handwritten notebook of 9/11 poems be included in their permanent collection. Does that make me a good poet? I’m not sure. Does it grant those poems a degree of historical relevance? Sure.

Another interesting time for me was from 2005 to 2009. My father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in June of 2005. At the same time, my girlfriend was pressuring me to get married, gave me a deadline. A terrible time. Each day was greeted with another anxiety attack. But in those final weeks, dad and I became very close, we became friends. I learned a great deal from the difficult time. On what would be his last Father’s Day, I wrote him a thank-you letter. It was a simple note, thanking him for his guidance, kindness and protection over the years. He wrote me back: “Your letter is the greatest gift I have ever received. Thank you.” He died two months later. It was an enormous learning experience. I encourage all sons, all daughters to take the initiative to settle scores with their parents before they die. Because, when they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

After my father passed away in August, I broke up with my girlfriend and began painting. I made some twenty or thirty paintings, large canvas works, in about six months time. It was a massive release of energy, of grief, and it freed up my heart, mind and soul, and it allowed me to heal. Since then, painting has taken on another life form in my creative arsenal. I’m lucky to have a few buyers of my work and professional representation in New York. I never planned to be a painter, just like I never planned on being a professional actor, it just happened. But it was all born from the poetry, my first love.                         (Frank "The Mets Poet" 27  Photo © SNY-TV)

Then, in 2006, I began following the Mets baseball team around the country. It was an insane thing to do, but I learned great things about the U.S., and about myself. I also wrote a lot of poems. By 2008, I amassed an enormous amount of baseball poems and slowly introduced them into my repertoire. One morning I woke up and the New York Times ran a front page feature on me, dubbing me “The Mets Poet.” A strange way to get famous, I thought. You know being a fan is one thing, but a mascot is another. I got home from a game one night, and the news vans were waiting there—CBS, NBC, the big ones. As if it mattered what “The Mets Poet” had do say about the Mets losing a game. I think they were all waiting for me to jump off a bridge and capture it on tape or something. And then of course the book deal offers. Very strange. Very interesting. I actually had to make a conscious effort in distancing myself from the team that I loved for health reasons. A poet can only take so much stress and heartbreak.

But through all the madness that comes with being “Frank Messina”, my belief is that a healthy artist makes a good artist. That is why I exercise, and I try to eat healthy foods— no junk food, no smoking, no caffeine. I certainly don’t have anything against anyone who chooses to smoke, but for me, I’m just not wired that way—to bang a pack of smokes against my hand, grab a match and light it up, and breath in some toxic smog.

The myth of the unhealthy artist, under a street lamp, smoking a cigarette he bummed off a passerby is long gone. And so is the myth that a regularly intoxicated artist makes a great artist. For example, the idea that Jackson Pollock was drunk while making his groundbreaking paintings is a complete myth. And Jack Kerouac didn’t write when he was drunk either. It’s a myth that has been perpetuated by bad directors, slipshod journalists and corruptors of history who are in positions to create a huge garbage heap of erroneous information that often gets passed off as culture. Amram spends a great deal of his time debunking the “Beat Generation Myth”, which portrays his contemporaries as roaming bongo players, high on drugs and booze, spewing poetry. That’s just not the case. If you listen to someone who was actually there, as David was, you would learn something.        

"When David speaks, you can feel your brain developing folds. You not only learn from David, but you unlearn. Amram tends to wear people out because he's so kinetic."

From a musical point of view, is there any difference between the original Beat spoken word era & nowadays?

When poets like Jack Kerouac and Amiri Baraka took the stage, they deviated from the structures adhered to by such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was a masterful reader but who was clinging to the written form. This was her way of honoring the language, and the poem. When you listen to Kerouac reading in let’s say, 1957, you’ll notice the dynamics in his reading style. He omits, amends, and at times invents words on the spot. It’s purely influenced by music, by rhythm. It’s spontaneous. You see this in the art of the 1950’s as well. The abstract painters of the 40’s and 50’s such as Pollock, Franz Kline, Nicolas Carone, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly and others similarly deviated from the figure, deviated from structure and created something new, which was later called Abstract Expressionism.

I bring this up because today, you see a similar deviation in poetic form and structure, and timing. But unlike the Beats, modern spoken word artists have completely abandoned the book, the physical page in their hand. You rarely see a spoken word artist holding a book or a piece of paper. And it’s become very performance and image-oriented. I think what Kerouac did, and what Amiri Baraka is still doing, is what I like to do. And that is, write a poem that’s worthy for the page. Then, when it’s time for the stage, be ready to spontaneously fashion it into a work unto itself.

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

I would love to speak to Abraham Lincoln. The man has been such a figure in my country, and also my family. We had a picture of him in our home. He looked over us like an old friend, a ghost, an angel. I've read so much about him that I feel I would know him. But, of course that is always wrong. Lincoln was a very complex man and I venture to believe that he would be much different than the ideological version that we all have of him. I’d also like to meet Jesus, John the Baptist, Kahlil Gibran, Federico Garcia Lorca, Walt Whitman and Ghandi. Oh yeah, and Ingrid Bergman circa 1939.

"The human brain is designed for learning. We crave knowledge. And via the spoken word, we learn new things."                                                                   Photo © by Jeremy Hogan

How you would spend a day with Jack Kerouac? 

Undoubtedly, we’d go to a Mets baseball game. He died five days after the Mets won the world series in 1969 so I bet he'd appreciate the Mets and their struggles. After the game, we’d go to the Cedar Tavern, and maybe Fanelli’s Cafe. Then have a pizza at Arturo’s Brick Oven on West Houston Street. Jack and I would do scat-poems to the house band.

What would you like to ask Mr. Met and Tom Seaver?

Since Mr. Met is a mascot for the Mets baseball team, he only mimes. So, just to bust his chops, I would ask him to recite a poem. Maybe he knows sign language. As for Tom Seaver, instead of asking a question, I would simply thank him for making my childhood that much happier by having him on the New York Mets. I remember seeing him pitch a one-hitter against the Cubs in April, 1977. And my brother caught a foul ball. We still have it. Priceless memories.

What's been the experience from “studies” with David Amram?

David Amram has been a dear friend and mentor for many years. Since first meeting him in New Orleans in 1994, to our performances in the Netherlands at the Meer dan Voorden Festival, at the London International Poetry and Song Festival, and in so many cities across America, David and I have remained very close. His unique gift of friendship and humor make him a great teacher, even if he's not trying to teach you anything. When David speaks, you can feel your brain developing folds. You not only learn from David, but you unlearn. Amram tends to wear people out because he's so kinetic. And just as Einstein's theory of relativity says energy is never destroyed, Amram spreads his energy to everyone he meets and it continues forever, deep into the night and into the universe. You just can’t out-do the man. You’ll crash and burn. Meanwhile, David will still be out there playing, talking with people, or composing his next symphonic variation. He's also one of the most hilarious people I know who manages to take difficult situations and turn them into a funny learning experience, even if it's at his own expense. David has taught me to listen, to pay attention, and to keep my mind open.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Melvin Seals and Courtney Love?

My most vivid memory of Melvin is being on stage at the Dead Goat club in Salt Lake City, Utah, 2003. I was invited to join the group on stage to do a poem with his band, JGB, an off-shoot of the Jerry Garcia Band, which featured my old friend Johnny Markowski on drums and Ronnie Penque on bass. After the show, he asked if the late Jerry Garcia and I had ever worked together. I told him no, never met him. “Too bad,” Melvin said. “He would’ve really loved your work.” I damn near melted when he said that.

Courtney Love: LollaPalooza 1994, Philadelphia. I was working the spoken word stage. The night before the big concert, the performers met at a bar, JC Dobbs, where musicians performed and participated in all sorts of revelry. Courtney wasn't wearing any panties, and she was lifting up her skirt showing her goodies to everyone. It was quite sad actually. Kurt Cobain had died just a few months earlier. She took the stage and sax man Elliott Levin joined her, and I read a poem. It was a terrible performance, at least on my part. The feedback coming from the stage monitor was horrendous. There was someone hunched over, vomiting into the stage curtain.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and poets thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Young poets and musicians should dedicate themselves to the craft. Have fun, enjoy it. Spend time with positive people, positive artists and, ideally, ones that are more advanced than you. Young poets especially should read everything, go beyond your classroom curriculum and reach deep into the library shelves. Curiosity is the best trait in a young poet, a young artist. You’re young, so you’ll get bored easy. Keep moving, keep reading, keep playing with the best. And keep healthy. A healthy artist makes a great artist.

Are there any memories from Lee Ranaldo and Gil Scott-Heron, which you’d like to share with us?

Lee Ranaldo has been a friend for many years. We met through the poetry scene, probably around 1993 or 1994. I’ve always admired Lee for being dedicated to experimental music and poetry. One particular memory is of Lee at a former club in New York’s old meat-packing district, The Cooler. I remember Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg were there. Ginsberg had to leave because of the smoke. He said he was being asphyxiated by invisible demons. Baraka paced around with a books under his arm. All the while, Lee was reading on stage to the sounds of some ambient trip-out music. Lee has that rare blend of risk-taking and common sense in his music, and his aura. I think John Cage would have enjoyed Lee very much.

As for Gil Scott-Heron, I have so many memories. Most are good. Others not so good. I became very close with his band members Larry McDonald, the late Ed Brady, perhaps one of the best guitarists in the world, and Robbie Gordon, in the 1990's, and later, Brian Jackson, his longtime co-writer. My first spoken word band, Spoken Motion, featured Larry on percussion. At the time, Larry was Gil’s right-hand man. So, Gil was always somewhere close by, either literally or figuratively speaking. One time, I was invited to Gil’s private recording session. It was just he and I and the engineer, Malcolm Cecil. In the years that I got to know Gil the man, “Gil the myth” vanished—you know, the angry, black militant activist. He was not angry, he was not militant. In fact, if you really read his poems, I mean really read his books like I have, none of his poems are militant, not in the sense like the early works of Amiri Baraka. He was greatly misunderstood, in part, because of the image that was created around him—not by him, but by certain groups that fashioned him into their own mold, their own agenda. I remember I was once on the bill with him at a club, maybe 1995. A journalist who was there said he was doing a story on racism and was hoping Gil had something “volatile” to say for the article. “Oh!” Gil said. “Don’t quit it before you hit it.” Everyone just kind of laughed and the journalist walked away sort of dumbfounded. Gil had a terrific sense of humor and an immense brilliance. I do miss him very much.

(Photo: Frank with Larry McDonald on Shea Stadium lawn, rehearsing for show. ©  SNY-TV)

Which memory from Rick Danko and Billy Kreutzmann makes you smile?

Just mentioning the name Rick Danko brings a great smile to my face. Back in the mid 1980’s, Rick played a lot of small clubs, and bars. But I was underage. One time he played a series of gigs at this little place in Rockland County, New York. There was this deli across the street that sold beer, fifty-cents a can, and the guy never checked your ID. I would run back across the street, sit outside on the front porch of the venue, sip my beer, and marvel at the scene. The next night, Rick saw me out there and brought me in, telling the doorman, “he’s with me”, like I was his nephew or something. You know, you just can’t forget something like that. A few years later,  Rick introduced me to Paul Butterfield when they played together at the old Lone Star Roadhouse in New York City. It was amazing. I’m a teenager and hanging out with these blues and rock legends. That night, Rick gave me the hand-written set list. I still have it to this day. That was Paul’s last time playing in New York. He died a few days later. But yeah, Rick was just such a generous, beautiful spirit. And no one played bass like he did.

I grew up listening to a lot of Grateful Dead, and seeing their shows. So, meeting drummer Billy Kreutzmann backstage at a concert in 1986 when I was 18-years old was very special. But fast-forward 25 years, and suddenly I’m on stage with him, doing a poem, in Costa Rica. That’ll make me smile any day of the week. I was first introduced to Billy by my friend Scott Murawski, guitarist for the New England band, Max Creek. I’ve been sitting in with Max Creek for years, doing my spoken word segments during their improvised jams. I’ve sat in with so many bands over the years, but Max Creek are among the best players and the best listeners in live music. They’re also very good friends of mine. We have a sort of telepathy on stage now, as far as timing and dynamics are concerned. Between Scott on guitar, bassist John Rider, and keyboardist Mark Mercier, you have like 125 years of live stage performance experience. So, it’s no wonder guys like Kreutzmann like to play with them.

In my most recent visit to Costa Rica last month, I attended the Jungle Jam music festival near Jaco Beach. I was overjoyed just being there. But when Scott and the band asked me to sit in with them, along with Billy Kreutzmann on drums, it sure brought a smile to my face. And my reading wasn’t too bad either. Felt real good. The next night, Scott, Billy and Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge did a set together. Again, they invited me on stage to do a poem. When I walked up, Billy called me over and asked, “You want a shuffle or a straight funk beat?” How many poets get that experience?

Frank Messina - Official website

                                   Frank at New York University Theatre. 1994. Photo © by Teri Bloom

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