Podcast – The Peace Poet

#NJPoet on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories Show: Charles Bivona – The Peace Poet

“I think people are experiencing a lot of things in America that they just don’t have the words for. If I’m going to run around and wave this POET flag, then my job is to jump into the difficult situations and try to put them into words.”

Charles Bivona‘s business card reads, “Poet, Writer, Professor,” but he’s a lot more than that. Over the course of an hour, we talked about what it means to be known as NJPoet, his theory on the transmissibility of PTSD (based on the first-hand evidence of his father’s Vietnam War trauma being visited on his family), the value of building a massive Twitter network, the lessons of growing up poor, how Walt Whitman saved him on one of the worst days of his life, the virtues of a gift economy, and why getting bumped out of academia for blogging may have been the best thing for him.

“I think the core of my project is asking you, ‘What do you think your children think about what you’re doing right now?'”

We also discuss the role of poetry in America today and the poets who saved him in his youth, why he doesn’t publish poetry online, whether Twitter is more like The Matrix or The Watchmen, how his responses to Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy elevated his online presence, and why it’s important not to put yourself in an ideological cocoon.

“If you relax your ego, and say, ‘I’m here as a student and a teacher,’ you’ll get a lot out of social media.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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Luz & NJ Poet

About our Guest

Charles Bivona (pictured above with his wife, Luz Costa), has the following on his About page:

Charles Bivona would tell you that he’s just trying to help his creative friends figure out ways to reach their goals, to help them in any way he can—writing letters, Twitter endorsements, all-out social media campaigns, word-of-mouth networking. Whatever helps. Otherwise, he’s reading, tweeting, listening to alternative news media, producing blog posts, and writing the first of hopefully several Kindle books and paperback poetry collections.

If you push him to be more philosophical, to talk more specifically about the social media strategy that built his audience, he frames his work as a Zen Buddhist approach to engagement based on mindfulness and honesty. With this in mind, he’s gathered an artistic social network that simmers with creativity, compassion, and humor. The writing itself, the poetic prose on his website, is also clearly informed by a Buddhist literary theory, rooted in practical teaching, mindfulness, and a vivid social reporting.

“It’s more of a life philosophy and a daily practice than a marketing plan,” Charles often says. “I’m using the web to make an attempt at Buddhist Right Livelihood, to try to make a living as a working poet in the United States.”

Credits: This episode’s music is Ladder of Success by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at Charles’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Charles Bivona and me by Luz Costa. Photo of Charles and Luz Costa by me.

What It Is: 1/11/10

What I’m reading: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (look! there’s proof!). Since I haven’t gotten back to my Man Out of Time decade-trospective on books, I thought I’d check out one novel that’s regarded as a Tops Of The Decade. Also, Emerson’s Divinity School Address for a St. John’s Alumni seminar on Tuesday in NYC.

What I’m listening to: Some of my old Mad Mix playlists, and Telepopmusik.

What I’m watching: NFL playoffs, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Visitor, and not much else.

What I’m drinking: Old Raj & Q-Tonic, for my pre-birthday present.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Oh, you know the drill: Rufus using Otis as a pillow, Otis lounging on my fainting couch, etc. Sadly, we discovered this weekend that Otis is a crypto-Muslim:


Where I’m going: I have that St. John’s event on Tuesday, but that’s about the extent of my travel plans. Amy took me out to Marea on Saturday night for my pre-birthday dinner, so it looks like my EZ-Pass tag will get a little workout.

What I’m happy about: Making my first non-emergency visit to a dentist since 1988 (cleaning and checkup), finding a navy pinstripe suit in my size/cut at a Macy’s sale, helping Amy with a bunch of housecleaning, honoring my pal Sang’s memory by making a joke about Asian drivers in the parking lot outside his wake/funeral. And I turn 39 today! Yay, me!

What I’m sad about: Sang & I are never going to have our follow-up conversation about Chandni Chowk to China. Also, my 120gb iPod has only party survived my emergency surgery to replace its battery.

What I’m worried about: When I’m going to see all the friends I haven’t made time to see, and the ones who’ve let our friendship drift.

What I’m pondering: Reconstituting my old Smart Guys Salon for occasional weekend brunches in NYC with friends.

About Sang

On Monday, my friend Sang was found dead in his apartment. He had suffered a heart attack at some point last weekend, at the age of 43. We were introduced in 1999; my friend Vince Czyz met him and Chuck Bivona at a writer’s group in Montclair, NJ. Sang became the unpaid graphic designer for our micropress, Voyant Publishing.

Less than an hour before I got the news about his death, in an e-mail from Vince, I was looking at the cover he designed for our 2000 release, a collection of letters by Samuel R. Delany. I said to myself, “Man, did he nail that cover!”

I’ve been failing to write about Sang since then. We hadn’t seen much of each other in recent years, and all I have left are these fragments. The thing is, our conversations were intelligent but low-key. We were casually insightful, and thus the flavor of our friendship lingers, even though I can’t write anything of great importance about him.

If you want to get a better idea than I can muster of who he was, then go check out his blog and make sure to spend some time reading Chuck’s. I lost a good pal, but Chuck lost his best friend.

Here are some of those fragments. I’m sorry that they feel like trivia notes, but somehow they add up to my experience of a man’s life:

  • Our happiest shared experience was the end of the final game of the first round of the 2001-02 NBA playoffs, when the Nets beat the Pacers in double-overtime.
  • Our saddest shared experience was either 9/11 or the end of regulation of that Nets-Pacers game, when Reggie Miller bombed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. Reggie’s dunk at the end of the first OT also ranks.
  • Sang, Chuck, Vince and I, along with Samuel R. Delany, became the core members of an occasional get-together I called Smart Guys Salon. We would meet at the WWF restaurant in Times Square, have lunch and shoot the breeze.
  • His first cover illustration for The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests was terrible. The second one was perfection.
  • Raised in Korea sans dairy, he had no interest in pizza. This forced me to rethink my models of how guys hang out.
  • We agreed that No Reply At All had one of the greatest bridges in pop history. His ringtone on my iPhone was the opening bars of Keep It Dark, from the same Genesis record. When I played it for him last month, he giggled.
  • He’d started blogging a few months before his death, and did it pretty well. I only read a little of his fiction in 2003, so I don’t know how good that aspect of his writing became. I know that he was focused on getting published and was targeting Asian-American-specific literary magazines.
  • I still have his DVD of Black Hawk Down. He still has my DVD of Another Woman (since replaced). I think he still has (had) a few of my comics. He loved Miller’s Crossing almost as much as I did.
  • He gave my old girlfriend a copy of Buddha, by Karen Armstrong, for her birthday back in 2001 (or so). I spoke to her for the first time in 7+ years to tell her that Sang had died. She told me her cat Charlie (b. 1994) is still alive. Sang would’ve been floored by that.
  • I gave Sang a copy of George, Being George last month, because I enjoyed it and because he made an off-hand comment about wanting to get published in The Paris Review. I’m glad I didn’t get him a subscription to the magazine.
  • In 2007, I sent him a copy of Michael Bierut’s 79 Short Essays On Design. I don’t know if he ever read anything I sent him. He was always so busy.
  • In 2003, we took Chip Delany up to Readercon, outside of Boston. Chip had a 7:30 panel at the con, but we hit a ton of traffic during the drive. At one point, Chip told us not to worry about missing the panel. I told him, “Uh-uh, Chip. You are going to make that panel.” Sang went into Cannonball Run mode. I joked that we skidded into the hotel parking lot with two tires in the air. We dumped Chip in the lobby 3 minutes before his panel began.
  • There’s a photo from that weekend of Sang, me and Paul Di Filippo. He designed the covers for two of Paul Di Filippo’s books: Babylon Sisters and Little Doors. That photo’s somewhere in my house, but I can’t find it. I’m hoping Paul still has a copy. (UPDATE: Found! See below!)
  • Sang once Photoshopped our faces into a New Jersey Nets game-photo. I’m spotted up behind the three point line. He’s throwing down a one-handed monster-dunk. I can’t find that one, either.
  • Nets PF Kenyon Martin had a pectoral tattoo that read, “Badass Yellow Boy.” As you’d expect, this became my nickname for Sang.
  • On his Sega DreamCast, he created a Super-Nets team for NBA 2K2. He and I were the starting backcourt. The frontcourt consisted of Dr. J and souped-up versions of Buck Williams and Sam Bowie. We had as much fun playing that game as two guys in their early 30s can have without being stoned.
  • When I told him I had a business trip to Paris in 2002, he told me to make sure I check out “the vegetable people” at the Louvre. I now have a set of Arcimboldo drink coasters.
  • During summertime, when my Friday office hours were 8am-1pm, I’d sometimes drop in on Sang at his workplace. His partners lived in New Mexico, so he worked solo in those days. We’d shoot the breeze for hours.
  • He was a fan of John Byrne’s run of Superman in the mid-1980’s, and a big X-Men geek from Byrne’s earlier run on that comic.
  • He got back into role-playing games with a college pal of mine who attended our Smart Guys Salon. They launched a gaming company at one point. He touched that community, too.
  • I told him how one of our mutual friends would manage to take his shirt off every single time he was around my old girlfriend. Without fail. Sang didn’t believe this. I’ve never seen a person try so hard to keep from laughing the day it was proved true. Sang literally slid off his leather sofa and onto the floor, clutching his sides and covering his face.
  • He was mad that he hadn’t been invited to the party in 2004 where I met Frank Miller. He admitted that he would’ve spent the evening just walking behind Miller and bowing, so it was for the best.
  • I helped him write his online dating profile.
  • When I assured him I was never going to watch the rest of The Sopranos (after season 1), he revealed a funny joke between Christopher and Adriana. I ordered the complete series from Amazon set last week; it showed up yesterday.
  • The last time we were together, a month before his death, we talked about the merits of “Really?” vs. “Seriously?” I’d recently moved to the former’s camp, but he was sticking with the latter.
  • We had a good time that afternoon — even though the occasion of our get-together was to clean up (a small portion of) Chip Delany’s apartment (see picture above, taken by Vince Czyz) — and it makes me even sadder that he’s gone. He was in good spirits, and if you told me that one of the four of us — Vince, Sang, me and Chip — would be dead one month later, my money would’ve been on Chip, then maybe Vince.
  • He smoked all the goddamned time.

I’m not sure why we drifted apart. I certainly had less hang-out time once I’d settled down with Amy (we met at the beginning of 2004), but even before that, we’d stopped getting together so often. I think the gaming company consumed a lot of his time, but maybe it was something else. Life has its mysteries, and death tends to leave them unrevealed.

Left to right: Me, Sang Lee and Paul Di Filippo

From Readercon 2003: Sang flanked by me and Paul Di Filippo. Photo by Deb Newton.

On Hold

One my pals, Sang Lee, was found dead in his apartment yesterday, apparently victim of a heart attack. I’m pretty grief-stricken right now, so my final Man Out of Time post is on hold for the moment.

Rest in peace, friend.