Writer in the Spotlight
IN HIS HONOR
Charles Coté is a psychotherapist from Rochester, NY with impressive publishing credentials: The Cortland Review, Upstreet, Blueline, Free Lunch, Identity Theory, Modern Haiku, Lake Affect, Connecticut River Review, Adagio Verse Quarterly, PoetryMagazine.com, and HazMat Review. However, the story he submitted to Boston Literary Magazine was not a happy one. In October of 2005 his 18 year old son, and his namesake, died of melanoma.
Charles, the poems you sent us really capture what I think must be the worst part of the mourning process, the dreary day after day of not having him around... the little things you didn't pay much attention to until they were gone. This first poem is really painful to read.
SUNDAY MORNING FROST, AND LEAVES
on the lawn, yellow October,
we ride our bikes to church,
hybrid, all-terrain Giants,
the only way we agree
to go, and half way
there a piece of glass
pierces a puncture-resistant tire.
Deflated, we walk our Giants
home, no closer to knowing
how we can talk to God,
each other, ruptured words—
they make no sound
we want to hear,
like air leaking from that tire.
We collapse into silence,
the silence of dishes, and e-mail,
staring at the plasma.
We pretend to listen, fall
asleep on the couch mid-sentence.
It's been two years now,
two years since our boy died.
We keep a stick in the wound
to keep him closer, each other
at a safer distance. We ball up
like dogs on the lounger,
and still no words,
no sounds we want to hear.
Sunday morning frost, and leaves
on the lawn, yellow October.
We keep it inside.
Was it painful to write, or therapeutic, or both?
It's hard to separate what's painful from what's therapeutic in the making of these poems, though I hope this kind of writing has done some good. The day to day ache of missing him is far worse than writing about it. Of course it's cathartic and therapeutic, but I would never call it therapy. Therapy is a whole different animal, a process I think that helps me write better poems among other things. Now catharsis alone doesn't make it art, at least not the kind I want to make. That said, poems like this one have helped me find and shape a container. They've provided a way to bear the grief and function like a psychic crucible. So yes, it has been painful and therapeutic, and yet, being the most recent of a series I'm collecting into a chapbook called Songs of the Dragonfly, this particular poem was not the most painful to write though it has been one of the more difficult given its subject, the impact of a child's death on a marriage. Since I'm right in the middle of that situation, it's often hard to get a clear perspective.
The poem mentions "falling asleep on the couch mid-sentence" which seems like a natural response to that kind of suffering. What keeps you at this kind of work when the material is so difficult?
Recently, Dorianne Laux wrote "Stay Awake" in my copy of her first book (Awake, originally published in 1990 by BOA Editions, LTD). Phillip Levine introduced those poems this way: "No matter what grief they endure, they come back again and again, and their mission is not a resignation merely to suffer…their voice is energized with whatever glory sustains life…[a] life [that] is worth having and worth transforming into poetry." So I hope to follow Doranne's advice and get that sensibility into my own work. The Dragonfly poems have this horrible triggering experience for sure but I hope, as another one of my teachers insists, Tom Lux, that every poem reflect the recognizable human business, one that's alive in us all. I don't think it's only about pain either.
I definitely get a sense of that in your work and want to know more about your poetic sensibility.
There are moments of levity here — bribing ourselves to attend church with a bike ride, a piece of glass piercing a puncture resistant tire, a tire I bought at a premium — that fine line between pleasure and pain. Harvard scientists, Boston's own, discovered in late 2001 that pleasure and pain activate the same part of the brain. Maybe that's why Red Sox fans are so loyal. Given my New England roots, I count myself among that now happy throng. I hope these poems light up the pleasure center of the brain too.
BOA's editor, Thom Ward, a fine poet and one of my best teachers, taught me early on that there are two kinds of writers, those with something to say and those who love the sounds words make. (I'm sure he stole that line, as all the mature poets do. The immature ones simply borrow as T. S. Eliot said). Anyway, the best poetry does both but, for me, it all starts with word play. I hope there's enough linguistic pleasure in my poems to make them bearable. Maybe that's how I deal with my pain. Let's imagine my therapist rolling his eyes right about now.
Couldn't agree more! Ever since one of my favorite musicians, Neil Finn of Crowded House, admitted that lots of his lyrics don't make any sense at all, he just likes the way they sound together, I've had an appreciation of rhythm... I'm guilty of accepting a few poems for publication in BLM because they sounded wonderful when I read them out loud, even though I didn't have the slightest idea what they were about.
I'll have to check out this Crowded House, kind of like the contemporary American poetry scene eh? Two masterful sound poets on the scene right now come to mind — G. C. Waldrep and Dean Young, though I think there's a great deal of sense in their work too, sense of the highest intelligence. That's probably why I don't always grasp their fullest meanings. However, poetry is not only about narrative meaning. There's conveyance of feeling too that bypasses the rational mind. Two major poets I admire in regards to the perfect balance of sound and sense are W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens, poets who married luscious sounds with massive sense, or as Thom Ward says about Stevens, "made a music out of mind." I've tried dabbling with language poems but they usually leave people scratching their heads. My experiments fall more in the realm of "isn't that clever?" rather than "wow, that's deep." Still, I'm glad to have an ear for sound.
Which is evident in "On the Car Radio..." this one really nails that sense of missing him... not only do you miss what he did, you're sad about all the new experiences you have that don't include him.
ON THE CAR RADIO
Every song a melody
you didn't write,
played by those
I didn't lose.
Take this moment
wherever I go,
you aren't here either.
That's one of the more painful aspects of his death: all that music he would have made that we'll never get to hear. While I believe the music he gave us will endure and continues to inspire, there's this gaping silence. He left a great legacy, teaching his younger brother to play drums, leaving him a recording studio, his Make-A-Wish grant, for a brother who now composes and excels in music theory too. He was the lead singer and songwriter for a popular rock band in Rochester called Fivestar Riot. He helped me record a tribute song a month before he died, playing keyboards on that recording. He donated $4,000 of his own savings to seed an annual music award at his high school to encourage young composers, a fund that now has over $20,000. 2,000 plus came to his memorial concert at the high school, an event he helped envision a week or two before his death when he said, "instead of a funeral, have a concert where all the people I ever played music with perform." That was a magical night. He left journals filled with unfinished lyrics and poems.
If you've got any of his written material that you'd be willing to share, we'd love to see it.
In addition to his recordings, he left journals filled with unfinished lyrics and poems. Here are some entries that showed us all what an old soul he was:
But let's face it, we're all dying
a little bit everyday 'till we end up
back where we belong.
Let's all dance
into our graves.
He wrote that one year before his diagnosis, a bit eerie every time I read it, but profound. This next one makes me smile because it's something I've always believed, but never put so well. I like to use it with my clients.
Certainty is the cage that keeps us
safe from curiosity. I've been released
from the cage. I am the songbird
and I am flying for the window.
I know it's closed but I plan on
Here's one that rings true for me:
I'm still waiting for the answers
to come falling at my feet.
I'll pick them up
and look them over
but all I'm going to see
is that no one knows the answers.
This is really powerful stuff!
You can imagine how surprised we were when we read these journals. What a gift! He was so wise about relationships too, especially for someone so young:
September 16, 2004 —
I want to be the passenger.
Let someone else drive
because I've got enough to do.
So girlfriend's got her wings.
There are better things than
falling in love,
like being loved
and loving someone.
There are better things
than having control:
living out your soul,
find that someone.
And had he found that someone?
That someone would be his girlfriend Whitney who stayed by him when most others would have run. She's a remarkable young woman who plans to become an oncologist as a result of her experience with Charlie. She will always be a daughter to me and her family members are the dearest friends.
How was his cancer discovered?
It began as a mole on his scalp, first noticed when he was 14 by the guitarist in his band. Two years later, he had a lump behind his left ear, a lymph node with cancerous cells. We were on vacation in Boston visiting the Berklee College of Music when we first heard the terrible news. There's a wonderful picture of him French kissing a lobster that always makes me laugh, but it has this sad subtext.
He wrote about the short distance from his mole to the swollen node:
March 3, 2004 —
Relying on uncertainties,
ignoring statistics. Using
just my fingertips
to measure all the distance
between now and when it's over.
Death Cab for Cutie inspired the title of that poem and was one of his favorite bands, a big influence on his own music. He died about a year and a half after that journal entry.
I really enjoyed the CD you gave me of his band, especially that enigmatic first song. What's the story behind those lyrics?
The first stanza of this next poem he wrote became the lyrics of that first song on his band's last CD, the title track, recorded a year and a half before his death, a project called Unfamiliar Sky. What I find most intriguing is the insight about how his illness affected those around him. He pictured himself in the eye of the storm and everyone around him swirling in the chaos.
April 2, 2004—
Look up, it just might surprise you.
I think we've found your cure.
Don't know where we're going-
why do we need to be so sure?
Where we're going- it's a better place,
but I can't say for sure.
Either way, don't we know it's
for the better? And there's no need
to feel so insecure.
The cure is the disease
that brings everyone around you
caring for what they don't understand,
helping with the load that's just too heavy
to carry alone.
It's like a coffin,
we're all on a handle.
The second it drops is the one
we all fall down.
He seems to have inherited your literary skills.
Maybe I inherited his. We both shared a love for music and language though he'd never let me touch his lyrics. I did get to play a small guitar lick on his band's first CD, my one moment as a rock star, my very small and anonymous moment. My contribution to his band mostly involved schlepping and financial support. I guess I'm considered a cool dad in the local music scene but the real reason I had to be so involved was my younger son Alex, the drummer in Charlie's band. He was only 10 when he first played out in the local venues. Those were the days and I miss being a band groupie.
One of my greatest joys was the relationships he formed with others, like his high school English teacher, Chris Kantz, who invites me regularly into his classroom to talk about poetry. He gets a lot of credit for bringing out Charlie's love for words. Two other people come to mind. Brian Moore, a terrific musician, artist and lyricist was a big influence, and Chris Holdridge, his youth pastor, an excellent writer in his own right. All three gave eulogies at Charlie's memorial concert. His counselor Randall Pettit helped immensely too. Charlie considered his brother Alex an inspiration too and called him the better musician, a high honor given Charlie's talents and influence. And of course, the two most important women in his life, perhaps the biggest influences: his mom who was his biggest fan and his girlfriend Whitney who inspired his best lyrics. There were so many more.
It sounds like relationships were important to him.
Yes, and to us all… He was deeply moved by how his illness brought out the best, and worst, in others. Charlie had a large circle of friends of all different ages, so many people we didn't know about until his death. We were surprised and delighted to hear so many stories about how interactions with him left such lasting impressions. I think it says something about his character. This next entry was written less than one month before he died:
JOURNAL ENTRY 9/12/2005—
I think, normally, when someone knows that they're going to die, that the typical thing for everyone else to do is prepare them for death. I think, in my case, and hopefully any other faithful person's, that it's much more appropriate to prepare the others who must deal with the person's death. I'll try to leave you with everything you need. I'll be taken care of when I get where I'm going.
That last line, "I'll try to leave you with everything you need" describes his last few months, when he knew he would not recover from his illness. Despite incredible physical pain and emotional anguish, he consistently expressed concern for those who would be left behind. His experience with illness and the reality of death compressed 70 years of wisdom from the moment he first learned of his illness at age 16 to his death two years later. There are two poems in the chapbook that take fragments from his journal, one a humorous lament for a rubber squeeze toy he tore and the other a meditation on his "precious" disease called "Deposit."
This might be a lame comparison, but Dostoyevsky attributed his talent, in part, to his illness. Do you think that is the case with your son. that it granted him wisdom, or would you say he was always in tune, calm, and prolific?
Not lame at all! Dostoyevsky is my favorite author and The Brothers Karamazov my favorite novel. The quick answer is yes, his illness had a profound impact on his creativity, more as a catalyst to bring out something I think was always there. I wouldn't say he was always calm though. He had his share of anxieties like us all and the intense physical pain was more than anyone should ever have to bear. It took a toll. He was very shy in some ways when he entered school and I credit his elementary school music teacher, Linda Ahlstedt, for nurturing his gift for music. He used to run and hide from her. She was dedicated to a creative teaching approach developed by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, one that combined music and movement. She taught him that music was an active and joyful experience. Really, there are so many others who deserve credit for his development as a musician. John Bagale, his high school music theory teacher was a huge influence as were Jim Doser, his jazz band director, Diane Abrahamian, his vocal teacher and Ike Sturm, his bass teacher and a phenomenal jazz musician. Again, there were so many more.
In "What I Wear" your description of heaven is not exactly conventional, and I loved the follow up line, which with its reference to fire could pass for a description of hell, but which is really about your life here on earth, the hell you lived after he died.
WHAT I WEAR
This world above worlds is a prairie
of clouds and sun glare.
Below, the smoldering hearths
shed smoke like irradiated hair.
Worth less than his breath
on earth, his song plays in my ear.
Still, I listen. I listen again
for clues, the gift of his verse.
I grow tired, await
the terrible fates.
You see me wear
this blue plaid shirt,
the one he gave me last year.
I play his red guitar.
What an interesting reading of that poem! I never consciously thought of that opening image as heaven but love the thought. Thank you. I can't possibly tell you what it really describes. It would be such a let down. So let's just say it's my twisted view of heaven. I like that. There's a line in another poem that imagines the nine months after his death as his "gestation toward heaven or nothing, nothing..."
Was there a spiritual crisis that followed his death?
That started a bit before his illness and is chronicled in another chapbook I've collected called The Doubter's Pew. But yes, in some ways, I've lost my ability to imagine heaven as a result of his death, and this may be my own personal hell. I have so many doubts about faith these days though I don't think I've become a complete cynic, at least not yet.
Trouble talking to God, like you said....
You question everything after this kind of loss, including God. Let's see what survives that crucible a year from now.
Do you continue to write poetry in his honor?
I hope every poem I write, regardless of subject matter, will be touched by my son's life and death. He has become my muse and my life an attempt to honor him.
Do you participate in any fundraising for melanoma research, or are there sites you'd like to direct us to?
My wife and I actively support Melissa's Living Legacy Foundation), an organization that honors the inspiring life journey of Melissa Sengbusch who died June 22, 2000 at age 19, after living with a rare bone marrow cancer for more than two years. The foundation's vision is that all teens with cancer have opportunities for meaningful, life-affirming experiences, beginning at diagnosis, continuing through treatment and remission and, if necessary, when facing death. They provide resources to help teens living with cancer meet their life challenges in productive, creative, and satisfying ways. Melissa's Living Legacy also addresses issues relevant to the families and friends of teens living with cancer, as well as to healthcare professionals who care for them. Lauren Spiker, Melissa's mom and the director of the foundation, has been a tremendous support to us and we plan to give back as much as we can.
Charles, thank you so much for sharing this sacred journey with us. It would seem that your son is still reaching out to people, consoling, offering strength!
You're welcome and thank you Robin. It means so much to be able to share about my son's life.