Finding poetry amid tragedy

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Let other poets ponder, weak and weary. Frank Messina prefers action.

When Sept. 11 transformed Liberty State Park in Jersey City into a vast, makeshift triage center, the Bergen County poet volunteered his services for three days. Out of that experience, and his musing on the Twin Towers catastrophe, came a sizable chunk of his new volume, "Disorderly Conduct":

"Forgive me for being an American,

I hope I'm not offending you

with the flag pinned upon my chest,

you see,

it's a gift from young Latoya, whose small hand I held

beneath the toxic, electrical sunrise of Sept. 12th

as the hopes for her lost Aunt faded

with each empty gurney the ferries brought in ... " ("Forgive Me")

Latoya, about age 10, was one of the many people with whom Messina came into contact in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"Every night she came there with a picture of her aunt," he recalls. "After the third day, she realized she wasn't going to see her again. So she came up to me and said, 'I want to thank you. My family doesn't speak English that well. I know I'll never see my aunt, but I want to thank you for helping me look.' And she gave me the pin. I felt my life change at that moment."

Good times or bad, Messina is not a passive poet, contemplating life from an upstairs window.

He's a bard in the Allen Ginsberg mold: a haunter of clubs and coffeehouses, a veteran of Manhattan's Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a collaborator with musicians (he wrote several lyrics for bluesman James Cotton), and a performer with a large international following and several Web sites devoted to his work. He does "sit in" readings with rock bands, hobnobs with movie stars, makes albums with his sometime band Spoken Motion, and travels abroad on reading tours.

"I do a lot of traveling in the summer and fall," Messina says. "I do festivals. In October, I usually do four weeks in Europe - usually the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Amsterdam. I have a big fan base there. I can sell a lot of product."

For all his bohemian credentials, Messina has also become, post-Sept. 11, a champion of America.

"Look into the eyes

of hard working Latinos in Hackensack,

tell them how bad America is,

I'll be listening as

'No comprendemos!' echoes

along Main Street ...

"Look into the eyes

of three-hundred and forty-three wives,

lying sleepless in the night,

tell them what you know

about wake up calls" ("Look Me in The Eyes")

"I love this country," he says. "I hate what we do sometimes. But I think it's my responsibility as a writer to point out not only the bad things in the country, but the good things as well.

"I believe, instead of opposing, proposing. A lot of people spend a lot of time being anti-this, or anti-that. They should propose something better."

An Englewood native, Messina, 34, won a fellowship from Columbia University, an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and was mentored by beat movement patriarch David Amram. He's performed his "spoke 'n' roll" compositions with musicians from the Spin Doctors, Sun Ra Arkestra, and Phish, and read a birthday ode to Bob Dylan on the occasion of Dylan's 60th birthday (included in "Disorderly Conduct"). Perhaps most significant of all, Messina is one of the rare poets who can make a living - albeit a modest one - at his craft.

"People ask me why I became a poet, and I always say, 'the money,'" Messina quips.

For more information about Messina and to order "Disorderly Conduct," visit

Jim Beckerman's e-mail address is