Next CH Book Festival subject.

by Hugh Gilmore

Whether they thought it sounded corny or thought it seemed kinky, a number of people asked how the C. H. Book Festival’s “Love for Sale” program went last week. I’ll offer some gentle reflections on the event.

For this, our first festival event of this year, we invited both scheduled (volunteer responders to a Local ad) and spur-of-the-moment persons who wanted to rise and say something – yay or nay – about love. The pop-ups had to pay a dollar for the privilege, though. Hence, our wonderfully clever (or awfully silly) slogan, “Love for Sale.”

The Gilmore family took turns pacing, trying to decide whether to get up to speak/sing/tell a joke, mime or stare longingly at some person of our choice. All day long our son Andrew, who makes his living as a comic entertainer, said, “Bah Humbug. This is torture,” reflecting the angst that the single feel in the presence of couples. I remember those days, so I felt bad for him.

At the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, ten minutes before our 7 o’clock starting time, the room was nearly empty. Greg Welsh came over and said, sotto voce, “Looks like we’re all just going to read to each other.” Oh oh, an event where the committee read love poems to itself seemed incestuous, even for Chestnut Hill.

But, lo: a hip-looking young couple appeared. Young! And a few middle-aged people. And more young Center-City-looking people. Were we actually about to have a cool event tonight? In Chestnut Hill? Amazing. By the time we started, the room was filled with a perfect mixture of age ranges. Love is a many-splendored thing after all.

About seventeen people made a statement, each of them poetic, many of them moving, all of them pleasurable. A handful – maybe six – of them were writers, the rest were everyday people with something to say.

Among the highlights, Kathy Bonanno, director and founder of Musehouse Literary Arts Center here in Chestnut Hill, led off by reading a poem selected by Tommy Walsh, the young man who seems to help every organization in town. The poem was John Berryman’s “Surviving Love.” And Kathy, of course, being our town’s leading poet, read one of her own about a teenage boy’s poignant preparations for the world of love.

And she was followed by Carol Johnston, a local poet who combines no-nonsense poems and thoughts with the nicest southern voice you ever did hear. She’s a very good reader. Among her three poems was a touching one called, “One Last Look.”

Suzanne Sheeder paid a buck and stood at her chair and proudly proclaimed her love for her mother, sitting to her right, and her daughter, to her left. Marie Lachat came to the mike dressed in poet’s black, with a long salmon-colored scarf and declared her love for her rescue dog, a pit bull named Pepper, “the love of my life.”

Marie’s declaration was not the only Valentines Day avowal of affection for one’s dog. Regina Miller, a photographer, spoke of her black lab, Chief Humphrey, who inspired her to read of a passage from John Grogan’s Marley and Me.”

She was followed by a young woman named Natasha, a veterinarian, writer, and proud owner also of a black Lab. She held up one of the fortune cookie-like strips the committee had left on the chairs and read it aloud, “If grass can grow through cement, then love can find you at every time in your life.” That was appropriate, she said, because the poem she’d brought to read was dedicated to “all the people who are in-between right now.” She’d titled it, “Honey for your tea,” and it concluded with the idea that she wanted to be that honey for someone’s tea someday, “but first we must meet, then we shall see.” You hoped some young swain would rush forward after such a charming invitation.

One of the biggest surprises of the evening, came as it so often does, from an older person. Sweet-looking, gray haired, quiet Regina Holmes took the mike and read steamy love poems written to her by her lover. He died, and she shows her love and loyalty by reading his poems whenever she can. I was touched and reminded once again that a lot of those sweet little seniors you meet every day are carrying around some torrid histories, despite the fact that each new generation thinks it invented love.

Speaking of which, about 20 minutes into the program, Lynn Hoffman, the Mt. Airy poet, novelist, chef and beer maven, came through the entrance waving a dollar bill. The money accepted, he read a poem dedicated to “those who are not here with their first love.” It was called, not surprisingly, “You can only have six.” Cleverly the poet said each love takes a year to grow, three years to wear out and three to get over, so mathematically you can’t have more than six. It was quite clever, and shrewdly delivered.

In contrast to Mr. Hoffman’s doubtlessly achieved wisdom, however, Carolyn Merlini, a local writer, read a touching poem about young love called “Lip Gloss.” A few minutes after she read, her husband won one of the door prizes: a bouquet of roses donated by Weaver’s Way. He accepted them and quickly turned to say, “Look hon, I got you flowers.”

I’m still laughing. Lest he be thought a cheapskate, he paid a dollar and told the assembly that he and Carolyn met in junior year of high school and have now been married thirty years and have four children.

At several occasions, Joe Borelli, acoustic guitarist, singer and owner of Chestnut Hill Gallery, sang soft love songs. As he began his second song, a Beatles number called “In my life,” my wife, Janet, had to suddenly get up and leave because the tender words brought to mind her beloved, recently deceased mother. At that moment, she told me later, she realized for the first time that love songs don’t just conjure romance – they can evoke anyone you love, and she suddenly and intensely missed her mother. She returned after the song ended.

Jenny French, poetess and widow of my nearly lifelong friend, Michael Theophano, recently deceased, read two poems. One was about heart-shaped Mylar balloons that had escaped and known freedom for a while. The other was a Valentine, “to my husband, whom I don’t have anymore…”

Lest you think the evening was dominated by gloom, it was not. The most likely words to sum up the emotional tone would have been: appreciation and yearning. And they were leavened by charming episodes such as when a handsome young guy popped up and said, “I’ve actually written a poem.” Then he unwrapped a folded piece of paper, and said, “My Favorite Person.” He dedicated it to teenaged Caitlyn Sheeder who sat flushed and glowing at this public betrothal of her boyfriend’s adoration. It was so youthfully corny and delightful it seemed like it was taking place in a movie about young love.

The evening finished with a flourish when Greg Welsh, owner of the Chestnut Grill (and three other taverns before that) stood and declared his love for his wife, Marlene, by reciting the lyrics of Gene Autry’s “You are my sunshine.”

In the waning minutes of the program he described several authors who have a folkloric reputation in the barrooms of America, not the least of which was Charles Bukowski. In fact, that same Charles Bukowski will be the subject of the C.H. Book Festival’s late spring program: another community participation event, this time dedicated to the life, work, and legend of Charles Bukowski. Consider this your first invitation.

Note: Hugh Gilmore’s “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” is now available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon.com.