Embrace

NON-FICTION, 820 words. One day last fall at Brothers deli, I became acquainted with a charming lady in her seventies. I had plenty of free time and she said she did as well, being recently retired. I sat with her for a few minutes and as we talked, I learned a little something about someone she’d known, who had been one of my high school classmates.

I’d never met this retiree, but she was cheerful and talkative. When I told her I was from the class of 1983 she said she’d been an administrator at that time. She had been in charge of the special needs children at my school.

Back in the day, I’d known one of the children, Shawn. I’d known him by name only. I’m sorry to say I’d been an immature high-schooler and had no regard for Shawn, or the other special needs kids.

My recollections of Shawn’s group are clear but very short, like a once-packed reel of film with thousands of feet edited out by Father Time. This lady’s special needs children would walk together as a group of eight or so. They were always supervised. I’d see them in the hallways, quietly heading to their classroom, or to the cafeteria. As I said, in those days I’d never given these children much allowance or accommodation. In fact I mocked them, a true testament to my being insensitive and callous.

I asked the administrator at the deli if she had known Shawn. For whatever reason, my mind had retained his name, his face, and even his demeanor and gait. Her eyes lit up. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “Shawn was one of the students in my personal charge. In fact, he was my favorite.”

Let me say that I’m not usually eating lunch at this deli. Most days, I’m at the Market Basket near my workplace, picking up a few things for lunch or for what may be needed at home. There’s even a little room at the front of the store where you can sit and eat if you want. I enjoy a break from my day in that store.

Sometimes when I’m shopping I’ll see a small group of special needs adults, walking closely together through the aisles. They are always carefully supervised by a social worker, someone whom I have deemed near saintly. She drives her people to that store mid-day, just about every day. The half-dozen stick together in a line that is understood by them and everyone else to be a cluster of need and trust. The social worker, the only one who handles the shopping carriage, buys a few items and checks out at the register. Behind her—obedient, and completely dependent—her folks keep close.

They are thirty, forty, and fifty years old. I’ve watched them and have seen many things. Mostly though, I see Shawn. I see the type of man I imagine Shawn had become. I see a bald man with a neat haircut, tucked button-down shirt, and a dark brown belt. I see a man who didn’t arrange for any of those things, he didn’t call for the haircut, or pay for it; he didn’t iron his shirt or select his belt based on the palette of the day. If you think I may be assuming a discredit to the man then I invite you to be a patron alongside me. Those dear people are doing the best they can, and are in need of care on a momentary basis.

In the high school hallways, Shawn was the tall one. Like most fifteen-year-old boys, his facial hair was beginning to fill his upper lip. He could be boisterous but controlled himself well, perhaps because he recognized he was the tallest one in his group. Perhaps with the height, he sensed his stature with his peers. Another thing I remember is the concentrative look on his face as he moved about his day.

My elderly deli friend, the one who supervised Shawn, said, “Shawn was my favorite because he was so gentle. He was the sweetest, nicest kid. He made my days at school an absolute delight.”

I asked her if she kept up with him. She told me the sad news that Shawn had passed away. From her tone, and how she said it, my impression was he had died some time ago.

I told her I was sorry. She’d cared for a boy she’d known well. Her affection carried right through to today. She was one special public schools administrator.

Mostly though, I felt hollow. I’d done nothing to contribute to my classmate’s life. I think that even a little kindness would have gone a long way with him. Shawn was described to me as a sweet boy. I hope he filled his parents with that goodness, for the limited time he was with us. It took a while, but he most certainly reached me.

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Ara Hagopian’s latest book is out now: http://www.LeavesOfYouth.com

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Made in America

The Made in America photograph is a blend of two centuries, where a ninety-year-old sidewalk provided an entrance for a beautiful lady—a lady of today—who’s on the go. Both subjects capture our attention with their unique charms. The 1920’s-era Massachusetts walkway evokes an art-deco style, where a forgotten craftsman built a brass and stone scene that linked his day to ours. His gateway marked the United States’ progress in scores of years; his work endured the renovations of a town that transitioned from steam power to girl power. A lasting entrance and a mobile woman: Both are made in America.

Model: Kerry. Location: Rada Boutique, 395 Main Street Wakefield MA

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Ara Hagopian’s latest book is out now: http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

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A Sunny Day on West Street

FICTION- 1,800 WORDS.

At a used bookstore’s open-air lot in Boston, the vertical lines were trying their best. Hundreds of book spines leaned left and right, but stood with their crowd. A simple wooden shelf, its back panel splattered with sealing foam, held the softcovers as upright as it could. The building’s streetside wall looked crumbled at its edge, but was strong. The wall’s bricks, uniform only in concept, were stuck one on top of the other, like a family of old origins. A nearby streetlamp tried in vain to stand up straight–she was working on her third century.

As we said, these vertical lines were trying their best. All sorts of them, on tiny, tightly-packed West Street.

The books were fluid. Thick and thin, soft and hard, they sat clustered together where they’d been shoved. Look at them: They would never be in this order again, their arrangement unique to this very second, and no one cared to ponder that thought. The books were perused by a range of people, the devote bookies, the mildly curious, and by the thoughtless, too. Every open day, every open hour, the old books were pulled out, and pushed back in again.

The thoughtless. Leaving their coffee cups on the shelving. Flipping through ancient pages without regard for the condition of the spine. Urinating in the back of the lot, not caring who’d see it, or smell it.

The devoted. Aware of the value of the paper book, seeking to buy more while never making enough time to read what they own.

The mildly curious. Waiting for a friend to hop off the Red Line commuter rail, thinking maybe to buy said friend a book, but would Redliner really want to carry it around, and what if she already had it or wasn’t interested?

All-the-while the books wondered: Which new owner will discover me? Or will the seller give up on any paltry income he might gain from my five-dollar sale? There was a three-tier price system in this space. The most expensive books cost five dollars. Others, stacked on carts in this same lot, cost three. There was a small section for a dollar each.

The price structure had an expiration period, and the books knew it. Five-dollar books that went unsold for so many months became three-dollar offerings. As such, they were moved off the high visibility wall and loaded onto carts. Every tag had a date on it, too, discreetly telling the world how long the book had been on the premises.

A few of the veteran books thought: New ones are coming in, we have to move out!

We are old ideas, with a price tag. In a new, free information age.

Who’s going to want us?

One said to another, “What happened to my owner? I was being read. And then I was slated to be read by a friend, with a common interest. Now I’m here, these aren’t my stacks, aren’t my genre. A box, a truck and then this. I don’t understand—we had plans.”

The other book replied: “I once graced a night table, a long time ago.”

“A night table?” several books said in admiration. The night table remained the books’ ultimate dream.

“Yes. And it had been agreed: I’d opened my ideas to my owner, who was willing to be open, too. We’d sit with some soft light. The lighting was perfect, y’know? To our right, slightly behind us.”

“Ooh, behind you.”

“Yes. Glowing on the page. A pretty table lamp, with a string chain. Gentle. Easy. None of this overhead light stuff. Not harsh at all. A lap cat conformed to my edges and my pages were devoured, one paragraph at a time.”

“Reading glasses?” one asked.

“Yes, the lady who owned me wore reading glasses.”

“Did she have music? Soft music?”

“Sometimes. But she liked it quiet. And she would sometimes read, and re-read, passages over again. She was a sigher. A thinker.”

“Were there any other books?” the crowd wanted to know.

“She had a revolving cadre.”

“Oh,” they admired. “Revolving.”

A thin maroon hardcover, published in the UK, said, “Lucky you. I was put away and forgotten. Forgotten. I sat for decades, forty years, unmoved from my space. My owner would walk past me all the time, in the basement, at the bookcase, in the spare room. Not even aware. I wanted to cry out, ‘Hello mate, you’d be interested to know. Look what’s right here in front of you! Pages of insight, with no visibility to your peers. There’s never a reason for you to be bored with me likes around.’

“I wanted to say, ‘It’s okay chap, I’m not one for a night table. You don’t need to brew any tea. Sod it! Just carry me, bring me with you, let me fill up a free moment and entertain you!’”

The books had a point. Between their covers were old thoughts that could be applied to today’s situations. Photographs which could never be created today, and weren’t on the web. A book was a means to house a delightful peace.

But here in this small city lot. On shelves that were locked up every night. Or covered with tarps when it rained. Sat the unsold used books.

***

Also present in this lot were three walls, which enclosed the books. The uneven bricks had stood for as long as anyone alive could remember. While the books came and went, the bricks could only be moved if the surrounding buildings were damaged. Most of these tiny red stones had stood in their position for over one-hundred years.

They had no worries.

Unlike the books, the bricks were very similar to each other. They were formed together, fired together, loaded and transported as a lot, too. They were set by masons on hot summer days, in an era when a work break was deemed a favor.

There was no entertainment value with the bricks. While each of the bookstore’s paper offerings hoped to travel, and enlighten, and survive, the bricks took a pass on the traveling, and enlightening. Their destiny was a long, sedentary, thoughtless life. And that was just fine for them. They were, after all, bricks. And they had one up on the poor books. They were already home.

***

About fifty feet up the street, stood a Victorian-era streetlamp. She took pride at being gawked at but didn’t like being thought of as an artifact. Like the books and bricks, she too was part of a group. Her kin were separated, posted block after block, often out of sight from one another, hidden around the corners of Boston’s tight interior.

Artifacts weren’t known for their utility. And damn it, she was useful.

This tall, black beauty provided a service—she lit the way for walkers and drivers—and had nearly seen it all. If she could talk (and, presumably, move) she’d be in municipal court every day, describing runaways, pointing out drug dealers, and identifying pickpockets.

Her sightline was straight down what used to be called the Combat Zone, in the 1970’s. In that era, sex and drugs were dealt openly. What she’d seen fogged her light at night, and bleached her patina in the sunshine.

She was, after all, old fashioned.

A few of her sister poles had been struck by cars and knocked right to the curb, their intricate acorn decorations broken and hurled to the gutter. Repaired and raised, or simply raised in broken form, the lamps were set to function again. Per city order, they must provide light, and from a good height.

Our particular pole, the one in charge of the block near the books and the rough-edged wall, was a somewhat bent streetlight, but she wasn’t bent for the obvious reason. She hadn’t been struck by a vehicle. Upon overhearing a pedestrian’s comment one day—she was a witness, after all—she found herself hung with the weight of sorrow.

Someone, in despair, had paused next her and thought: There’s no way to know there’s nothing.

And then he’d trudged on.

He’d moved, but the post didn’t. She couldn’t. How dare he leave her with that! She was stuck with his idea, couldn’t run from it, couldn’t replace it. And, she couldn’t deny the man’s reasoning, either. So she stooped a little. Matter of fact, the man’s thoughts nearly decimated her.

Why didn’t she fall? It would be easy to go down with that man’s words. Her weight hurt, his weight hurt, and her age didn’t help, either.

What kept her from completely collapsing were other thoughts. Remember, she’d seen much in her life. And so, she became aware that over the years many people had stopped by her pole and given pause. Given their thoughts.

And some of those people happened to be clutching old books.

The cast-iron pole knew that while what the sad man passed on to her was true—if the afterlife was indeed “nothing” then for sure we’d never know—there were other people whose perspectives ranged down a different path. And while their values could not straighten her thick trunk of metal, they could redefine her base.

On the day the pole realized she wouldn’t topple, she found she was not held up by a simple, small footprint. Her support was the thought that while there may be nothing in the great universe, there were at least an equal number of people who thought there was something, instead. Not as an alternative, or a counterpoint, but as a matter of course.

Our streetlamp had seen and heard a lot of people in her years.

It was a sunny day on West Street. A young woman bought two books on a whim, and upon glancing at the pages, changed her weekend plans and decided to stay home. She headed down the sidewalk toward Downtown Crossing, her nose in a passage. It was an account of Pacific islanders who had rebuilt their homes, villages and schools, twenty-four years after the war.

Right under this gal’s nose were words and pictures from 1969. Stories of how simple people with limited means dealt with starting anew, after terrible destruction. She had hundreds of pages before her. The woman would find no modern account that so captured the Islanders’ faces, and voices, at their particular moment in time. Hundreds of islands had to recover and each village had different degrees of ruin hurled at them, with no fault of their own.

Twenty-fours years in, here were their accounts!

The woman’s brief reading got her emotions into gear. How did these people survive and grow? What were their stories? All of this information was preserved quite well on the paper pages.

She paused at the corner of West and Washington, and was buoyed by the thought of the hours ahead. Their deeds and efforts were clear. The Islanders, like she, believed in something great in man, and in something greater, too. She swung around the streetlight, her smile breaking out like a child’s.

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ABOUT: Ara Hagopian’s newest book– http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

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Arcaylis, Element of Land, Sea and Sky

Arcaylis, Element of Land, Sea and Sky (drawing completed in 2007). This picture was drawn as a sister piece to 2005’s Enoxx, Season of Four Weathers. I used a wide range of magic markers for Arcaylis, the entire concept and execution coming when I was flat on my back for several days. Each section of Earth (left and right parts of the drawing) as well as the Sky and Sea, were drawn on separate boards, the entire arrangement photographed in pieces and placed together in post production. I didn’t have floor space large enough to lay the pieces as I envisioned them. Also, each piece was shot separately to get the best photo resolution possible.

The idea was to create shapes in absence, what we call negative space, where what’s missing in the drawing is as important as what’s present. Anyone who looks at this picture and sees four egg shapes is viewing negative space.

For my pens, I would travel to New York City once a year, to buy all the best quality pens I could afford. I bought in person because I wanted to hold the pens in my hand and see how the colors “talked to each other,” warm shades reaching across to cooler versions. One sense would say, no, these colors won’t work together, while the actual physical presence of each was the determining factor as to whether the hues would work or not, when applied side-by-side in a picture.

The center of Arcaylis is pure Enoxx, right down to the silver paint pen separating the colors and defining their shapes.

My inspiration for the drawing’s concept was the basic joy of a child playing at the beach. I remember when I was younger than ten, kneeling in the ocean’s shallows, scooping soft dripping sand and heaving it skyward. I didn’t know it then, but with my feet and legs rooted in the sand and my arms moving the water upward, I was engaging three bodies, the water, the earth and the sky. At the center was my body, the facilitator in this chain. Arcaylis is a connection of the natural elements.

Ara Hagopian’s newest book is http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

Arcaylis, Element of Land, Sea and Skyxxx

 

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Utican

Utican (drawn in 2009) represents the outlandish world that lies within the past of an extraordinary person. We don’t typically see this interior; we’re not privy to it; we can’t even imagine it. Heretofore, we’ve just seen what’s on the outside.

One cannot conceive what has occurred which has no record. If you can accept that idea, you are on your way to keying in on the oh-so-rare view that is the Utican drawing.

The top-performers among us can’t translate their experiences to our eye, value system, or range of play. Their wildness eludes us because it’s neither visible nor comprehendible. Certain fantastic instances can only be experienced by an uncommon creature, life’s proverbial “tropical bird”—that exotic personality who’s lived in the stratified air of yesterday’s stardom.

The Utican drawing depicts this concept in a vivid, momentary cross-section.

Real-life examples exist in older Broadway or Hollywood productions. The average moviegoer may be in awe of The Wizard of Oz’s dreamlike quality, but imagine how surreal it must have been for the supporting actors on that expansive, color-saturated set. To have lived their vantage point personifies Utican. The action took place in the past; the actors’ points of view were unique and not recorded; and the movie has become the pinnacle of legend.

Can we even begin to fathom those 1939-era players’ perspectives? Can we comprehend their sightlines on scenery never filmed, fellow characters not documented, the wondrous volumes of fascinating ad-libs, or the spectacle of real-time bombast? The movie’s mystique is essential to the flavor.

An outrageous slice-of-life can be an unimaginable experience, if we allow the possibility that some greatness will always be beyond us. Utican submits this reasoning is true.

Utican provides a glimpse of a royal bird, unveiling a reality outside the bounds of the layman’s comprehension. We can look at its representative drawing, but no knife is sharp enough to cross-section an icon’s glorious, undocumented past.

Ara Hagopian’s latest book: http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

 

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The Wheels of Time Grind Slowly But Fine

The Wheels of Time Grind Slowly But Fine (drawing made in 2009). The drawing’s concept is exemplified by the Harry Morgan character in To Have and Have Not, the novel by Ernest Hemmingway.

It’s conceivable that no-nonsense Harry would say a hard working trawler fisherman who’s lost a thousand pounds of livelihood due to a broken rig would be pretty angry that night and many nights after. But talk to that same man many years after the costly incident, and he might recall the story with a smile. Time is the great leveler, but we have to wait it out.

In The Wheels of Time Grind Slowly But Fine drawing, major traumatic events in our lives are depicted by blue dots with white trim. The largest dot—at the top right—is created at the moment of trauma; it represents a heartbreak, or the death of a loved one, or in Harry’s case, the proverbial broken rig leading to the loss of a fortune. As the Wheels of Time engage, the event is systematically crushed, broken, and worn down to the tiniest of dots, as shown at the lower right.

In the beginning of this progression, the first six dots—ever so large—are the hard days, months, and years when the pain is strongest. The second set of six dots represents pain in transition—acting as their own mobility, and still quite sizeable, the trauma-dots become part of the greater mechanism itself.

The last set of six dots occurs during the span of time where the Wheels’ crushing is replaced by a progressively-smoother serration, leading us to the very last dot, which is nearly microscopic. Unable to be ground further, but quite manageable at this point, that tiny dot represents the kernel of memory we hold in our heart—the hurting is less, but we will never forget. The Wheels of Time have completed their work. The bit that’s left is what we have to live with. We’ve tucked it into our lives.

In 1984, the year my father died, someone wrote me a letter. Among her words was the title to this piece. I didn’t know what to do with such a phrase. I wanted to feel better, now. But I always kept it in my head.

Today, thirty-three years after those hard months of mourning, I’m on the other side of the equation. I understand the globe of pain I felt then, and the speck I hold now. As it sits, the pain is as crushed as it can possibly be; it’s a part of me; that smallest of dots near the tail of the drawing.

But it does still hurt. And yet, it’s not the wild, frightening stranger it once was.

I don’t have a choice to draw. I don’t have a choice to feel. I have chosen to share, and articulate graphically and with words, exactly how a bad circumstance got better.  The wheels of time grind slowly but fine.

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Ara Hagopian’s most recent book is http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

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A Poetry Reading in the Corporate Workplace

It wasn’t going to be a quiet morning. The corporation I work for has an active cafeteria where employees are encouraged to utilize the common-area space at their leisure, and the cafe can get noisy. But it’s good noise, because everyone in the room is there to take a breather from their work routine. Management named the space the Chill Zone, because it was to be a place for more than simply sitting and eating. Workers were encouraged to meet there, and party there, too.

I had a fifteen-minute plan. I’d reserved the Chill Zone’s small alcove for a private poetry reading, and while the world doesn’t stop for poets, poets can and do stop the world.

I’m happy to say I recited my work to a small but enthusiastic group. This event was my first and it went off perfectly.

I wrote and self-published a poetry book last fall. It’s a few hundred pages and spans 1979-2016. With very modest sales and no outlets (hey, it’s poetry and hey, no one knows me) I’ve sold to readers in eleven States and three countries OUS. I believe in the book’s every word and yet, I’d never spoken those words.

Last week, I decided to change that. Why not hold a break-time reading, right here at work? I formulated a few goals and did some preparation. Let me tell you how I planned the event.

The goals for the reading were simple:

  1. Conduct my first poetry recital.
  2. Feature five of my book’s poems, in a fifteen minute span.
  3. The audience would be a small number of hand-picked friends, unfamiliar with my work.

Groups are most effective when they are gathered for a united purpose. I didn’t need five bodies—the listeners had to be the supportive sort. I considered my working relationships, and opted not to involve my direct department, or sister departments. Reason: I didn’t want a “buzz” around me prior to, or after the event. I needed my work space to be normal.

The audience was to be composed of some long-term friends, and some newer ones. I wanted a mix of ages and not all one gender. A range of departments would round out the listener group.

I approached each friend personally—not by email—and I was clear on what was not going to take place. I would not be selling or promoting anything. Also, I explained that my work did not include religion or politics. Lastly, I assured each person that we’d stick to the limited timeframe to conform to a normal break period. I got my five yeses and to be safe invited a sixth person, in case of a no-show. She accepted but later cancelled due to a prior commitment. (She emailed after the reading to ask how it went.)

The readers came from the following departments: Human Resources, Finance, Marketing, Customer Service, and Purchasing.

With five days to prepare, I needed to make my poem selections. A few of the book’s works were available as PDFs online, and a few others appeared on the book’s Facebook page. Although the listeners had probably not been exposed to those writings, I confined three of my selections to unknown “deep cuts” from the book, and picked two that had appeared online. The poems ranged in word count, subject, and mood.

Here’s what I’d learned during preparation.

Rehearse, alone. A stopwatch and notebook were used to record each poem’s recital length. Five poems consistently got me twelve minutes’ read time. I was a new reader, and learned that the spoken word was not the same as simply slowed and clear conversational mode. I also mastered the art of gracefully turning pages. The recital would be a performance, and I was to entertain.

Don’t assume to know the line. I’ve read and edited these poems for years. During rehearsals, I had a tendency to skip words, or hesitate and thus break rhythm. I learned to actually Read-Each-Word. I couldn’t let my voice rush away from where my eyes were on the page. With poetry, words are specifically chosen, like precisely laid stones in a patio. Don’t ruin the mason’s careful work with a slipshod read.

Each line sounded best when I’d found its natural bounce. There was a flow to the speed (or a speed to the flow) of each line and, when practiced aloud, I learned where the tricky passages were hidden in each poem.

Find the story-serving method to deliver the rhyme points. Rhyming words don’t activate on their own, they need a tonal buildup where the speaker’s voice helps the listeners accept the phrasing. A buildup can best be managed when we choose the endpoint—the “boom” of a second rhyme. Rhyming words should come to a natural conclusion within the poem’s context. As odd as it may seem, this involves thinking like a chess player and being aware of what’s coming next, while maintaining concentration on the current point in time. This is why rehearsal is crucial.

Here are the poems I selected:

  1. Share
  2. I would choose to be with you
  3. Carry
  4. Stuck in Farving, Illinois
  5. In and out of sight

The recital morning arrived and I planned my wardrobe. Casual Friday would not apply to me that day, as I wore a suit coat over my newest work clothes. I wanted to look my best, with my appearance hopefully matching the quality of work I was to present.

At 10:30 everyone was present in the alcove. I noticed the reservation board listed an 11:00 event as a Cinco de Mayo celebration. I told you this wasn’t going to be a quiet morning!

The listeners gathered on a comfortable couch. I pulled up a chair for myself. I wanted to take a few moments and smooth the atmosphere, so I told them if this had been an art exhibition, I’d have some food and light music arranged for them. They laughed and settled in. They knew the group was complete, and what was coming. It was time for me to break the ice.

I opened my book to the first selection and began reading. I delivered the first two poems, which went smoothly and quickly.

The listeners were deathly quiet. Their silence insulated me, protected me, and provided an incredible sense of validation. Two or three seemed to be moved by the words. I’d hoped to break the ice but perhaps I’d torn up their lawn. They seemed okay with that—despite the teary eyes. They nodded for me to continue with poem three.

I took them back several decades to the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers MA, and related the bittersweet sight I’d seen one day. There was a lesson in that poem and we all learned it, them for the first time and me all over again. With the third poem completed, we were set for the recital’s centerpiece, which took place in the late Twentieth-Century Midwest. We were into 6-page, 4-minutes long territory, the recital’s epic piece, and I brought the listeners to a motel parking lot just out of Illinois.

Everyone was as quiet as they’d been at the start. It seemed to me they damn well cared what happened in that parking lot. This is why I said poets can stop the world. We were all stopped at the protagonist’s dramatic pivot. What was he going to do?

The poem had a tricky ending, with two voices, but it went perfectly.

The reading concluded with a selection that didn’t rhyme but had a deep commitment to family, friends, and love. This poem had proven popular since its writing, and it delivered five smiles at the reading—just as I’d hoped.

The recital was over. We had a moment to chat as a group, and my friends understood what I meant about desiring time to discuss what specific pieces meant to each of us. I received some warm feedback as we spilled into the hallway, and via some nice emails afterwards, too.

I feel much closer to these friends now. I enjoyed every aspect of the recital and am beyond happy I had such a good group to count on for help. Poems take on a bigger dimension when they come alive in spoken voice, and it was a privilege to have an opportunity to present the work this way.

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www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

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