A Conversation With Charles Orloski

“You never know what’s gonna come through that door,” says the guy on the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”  And it’s like that in the world of poetry and social commentary, too!

I’ve been posting my work for about a decade now… and you never know what kind of response you’ll get.  (As in the world of pawn, one person’s precious heirloom is another person’s junk.)

The best feedback, the best exchange, can lead to friendship—a meeting, and, as often as not, a challenge of minds; and this happened last year when Charles Orloski commented on some poems of mine.  I soon discovered that Orloski was a very credible poet himself, and, besides that, he had posted social and political commentary at the progressive and venerable CounterPunch site.  Notably, his work was not “arm-chair intellectualism”—but was informed by his working-class background and the daily grind that had beaten down many… but had made him stronger.

The divorce of politics and the arts has been a contusion in the American psyche for some 35 years now and has been a major contributor to the banal, violent and rather insane world in which we find ourselves today.  The likes of Patchen, Jeffers, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Levertov, Wakoski and Baraka no longer sound mythical trumpets to awaken the masses to the wounds—and self-inflicted wounds—of the Empire’s imperial wars.  Too many “poets” have nicely ensconced themselves in their academic and foundational sinecures, while kissing the Emperor’s arse!

Fortunately, echoes of resistance—sounded by Ovid, Catullus, Dante, Milton, Blake, Bronte, Caravaggio, Goya, Studs Terkel and many other brave, true souls through the ages, will never fade, can only aggregate in the hearts of those determined to fully occupy their own precious lives.

Recently, when I heard that the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania had cut the salaries of 400 police and firemen to the bare-bones minimum wage of $7.25, my first thought was to contact the poet, Charles Orloski—a “working man” of 60 who lives in a satellite city of Scranton—to get his views.  The following e-mail correspondence is the result.

Gary Corseri:  Chuck, what the hell is happening in Scranton… and why should the rest of us be pissed and scared?

Charles Orloski: Scranton had its heydays back in the early 1900s when it was a railroad coal-mining hub with a lively downtown produce-district known for its electric-trolleys, Chamberlain Ammo Plant, churches, a Jesuit University, great St. Patrick’s Day parades. …

GC: That’s nice, Chuck, but what about Now?

CO: I enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Scranton.  I can’t help getting a bit carried away, a bit nostalgic now. … Cities are like people, I guess.  Scranton’s in serious decline—like so many of our senior citizens are… and for the same reasons—neglect, undeveloped and wasted potentials.  1952-1956, as a tot, I lived in West Scranton, went to St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, watched “Zorro” films at West Side Theater. … Well… that world is dead now, long gone. … The “buzz” around town now is dismay, awe, sorrow—and fear about rising taxes!

My friend, Joe, a retired Scranton cop, visited my home in Taylor Borough yesterday, and his eyes bulged when we discussed Scranton having only $5,000.00 in its bank account, and how politicians are scrambling to get a “Recovery Plan” together by July-end, so that the State, which is cutting all kinds of public school and social service benefits, can loan the City $2 million! If the city gets out of this mess… it’ll be the greatest escape since Harry Houdini!  Joe, who served in Thailand during ‘Nam, thinks he’d be safer and more secure in pacified Thailand today rather than living in Scranton!

GC: So… to be clear… you grew up in Scranton and you’re now living in Taylor Borough, a satellite city of Scranton.  (I checked… and the average salary there is considerably below the state’s as a whole!)  And you work for the city, right?

CO: No, I was never “anointed” with a government job, and I’m proud of that!

GC:  You clean up “spills,” right?  Chemical spills, and so forth.  A truck turns over and you and your crew clean it up.  A factory releases crap they shouldn’t—and you clean it up.  It can be dangerous work… and you’re always on call.

CO: What do I do? Answer is manifold, but I’ll give you a brief portrait of an Old Man as a Response Coordinator. …

The telephone rings. … Might be any time–24/7. Two tractor-trailers have collided on Route 6–vehicles’ hauling diapers…, both are on fire, a driver casualty, diesel fuel and motor oils all over the road, migrating into soil, and flowing into a prized Pennsylvania trout stream!  I listen to conveyed information, get directions to the scene, plan for labor and equipment needs, kiss wife, climb into an E.R.V., and hit the highway.  

GC: In this economic climate, this so-called “Great Recession”—really a depression–Do you feel noose tightening?

CO: My neck has stood in an ever-tightening financial “noose” for quite some time!  “In fire gold gets tested, made stronger”– all that true-probable stuff I elect to either believe or go crazy. Basically, I’m like Hemingway’s Old man at Sea; surplus bad luck with family members’ health–and things can go to shit quite quickly, as I tell all younger co-workers. My job as a project and emergency response manager is designed by OSHA laws to be quite safe, and if things are done properly on chemical and fuel spills, one’s chances of survival are rather good.

GC: What’s your home situation?

CO: My home situation is on one hand Little House on the Prairie, and on the other hand it’s skid-row; classic “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” and I often feel quite bad about silly (petty?) things like not being able to take my teenage sons on a weekend vacation to the Jersey Shore–for the past 10-years now! …I love my wife Carol dearly. Marrying her was the best thing I ever did in my life. She can shop for bargains, fix car engines, plant tomatoes, plug leaking pipes, do marvels with basic foods; she’s an extremely practical and common-sense lady. And now, double doses of rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus have totally reduced her to a life of pain, and she is officially denied collecting any S.S.D. benefits, which is a very sore topic for us. Oh yeah, stressful–week to week!  We do not have a lot of things, but we’re paying rent now with regularity. …

GC: You feel good about your work?

CO: Well… I’m not Cynthia McKinney bravely sailing the Mediterranean toward the Gaza Strip, but my responding to spills in N.E. Pa/Scranton areas–where people are happy when I show-up on sites… yeah, that part is okay.

GC: Like some of our best artists, I think you use a fair bit of irony to hide pain. … Didn’t you tell me you had to move last year–around Christmas time–from your house to a small apartment above a bar in order to save money?

CO:   Uhhh…, “irony to hide pain?”   You are an artist, Gary, with evident craft and psychological depth… and like Admiral Stockdale, I don’t really understand how I am here talking to you.   At any rate, in five (5) or so poems kindly published on Counterpunch’s Poets Basement, I wrote about my family’s rather unusual financial situation.  I like to think my motive was to help people who are perhaps honestly working and busting-their-balls to achieve basic needs… and failing.    In all cases, I tried to make the poems expressive of suffering, irony, comedy… so they might become interesting to others. …I never forget Solzhenitsyn’s saying, “a man who is warm can never undertsand a man who is cold.”   Well, yes…, this past December, 2012, as a result of our landlord’s divorced daughter’s planned Occupation of our flat, and not actually a personal “money” crisis, my family WAS forced to move-out of the very humble rented double-house two bocks down the road from where we now live in an apartment above Taylor’s  legendary Vic’ Café–where as a profligate younger guy, I used to chug tap-Rolling Rock, shoot shuffleboard, and stumble out steps.   Spiritually, I call this move “the Advent Move”–unlike Palestinians, the landlord’s daughter had “Right of Return,” and voila!–our 4th move since 2007! … Every evening, Orloskis break bread, and enjoy a very scenic view of Down and Out Scranton.  Doubtless, it hurt — we had 18-steps to climb in order to settle above Vic’ Cafe, but “pain”of moving refrigerator and stuff has yet to kill my back!  Had a few good friends’ help which reminded me how Amish live, and I have learned that the American army is not the only entity that needs “A Few Good Men.”

GC: Thanks for your time, Chuck.  I’m going to provide a link to one of my favorite Orloski poems, “Sleeply Hollow’s Brothel Lady, # 9” [scroll down--Ed].

And, I’ll mention in passing that when I first read it, I wondered if someone had slipped L.S.D. into my morning coffee!

I think that’s the idea. … Rimbaud said that poetry was a “dereglement de tous les sens”—a disordering, or dis-arrangement, of all the senses… and I think that’s something your work evinces—in a manner that can be both playful and disturbing.  And, in that way, I think you capture something of the whirl in our topsy-turvy modern world!

I think you’ve enticed us to investigate further—what sort of work politically-conscious and socially-active poets are writing today.  I think that many who don’t usually read poetry will be able to identify with your background, your working situation… and, as Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration. …”  One last question: How do you perceive the role of the artist in America, 2012?

CO:  Soviets had “Socialism in Art,” and U.S. has Demoralization in Art.  I look at the most popular music-recordings my sons are tuning into… and the lyrics are so vulgar, flat, violent, stupid-rhyming, demeaning, and whenever I sit my old ass on a Main Street bench, young people in SUVs stop at traffic lights, and this stuff is booming!… I am concerned about this–our little children, Quo Vadis?

I listened to Dave Mason, the Association, Beatles, the Byrds, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young.   Such music was poetic, uplifting, offered a going-nowhere punk like me something better.  Where does anyone today hear something like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,  Masters of War”?  For me, however, the low point of America’s art scene was when things like Piss Christ were produced.   Welcome all progressive-Pat Buchanan fans out there!   Stuff like this almost got Salman Rushdie whacked!   Yeah – you know what?  I read a Time Magazine several months ago about the guy who made The Lion King film.  He said the popular words “hakuna matata” meant (in the native language)  fuck God!   Seriously, what is it with this blasphemous shit?

The most vital art forms I notice around town are anonymous–murals drawn on walls of closed businesses, Jesus’s words on highway bridge-abutments–messages on Simon and Garfunkel’s “subway walls.”  I am unimpressed with authors like the lady who wrote Harry Potter becoming a multi-millionaire.   Christ!  I disliked the dance of Tom DeLay on Dancing with Stars, Madonna’s Super Bowl Illuminati-jig.  Josef Goebbels would have loved to have all this “talent” available to warp young-minds during Nazis’ 1939 occupation of Poland.  Did you know that the Polish Underground set up special schools for youth?  It was designed to thwart the Fuhrer’s wishes to re-socialize Polanders, and jump-start his pilot-program, No Children Left Behind or Else?

Let me end on a good old American Exceptional “kiss-ass” note?   The best poetry I read nowadays is being presented on Counterpunch’s Poets Basement, courtesy of Montana-based Editor, Mark Beaudin. …

Like the TV show X-Files used to say, the Truth is out there, but man, Americans gotta get curious, wean-off “be-happy/drink Corona-beer” propoganda.

Thank you very much… place seats in upright position, fasten seatbelts, notice oxygen masks upon seat in front of you. …

Gary Corseri's work has appeared at Dissident Voice, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, the New York Times, Village Voice and hundreds of other venues. His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. His books include novels and poetry collections. He can be reached at: gary_corseri@comcast.net. Read other articles by Gary.