On this Day in 1970 (Or, When We Gave a Damn About Mass Shootings)

(Also posted on Substack)

53 years ago today, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young recorded “Ohio,” Neil Young’s response to the Kent State killings 18 days prior. It seems almost quaint, the idea that a mass shooting would spark this kind of visceral reaction.

We’re told, often, that everyday citizens need AR-15s and the like for self defense and that they’re especially needed in case the government starts doing things we don’t like. We’re told this, often, by the same people who uncritically support every single action the military industrial complex takes at home or abroad. We’re told this, often, by the kind of people who probably thought what happened at Kent State “should have been done long ago.”

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her and
Found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?

I was born ten years after Kent State and graduated high school the year before Columbine. The assault weapons ban passed when I was in eighth grade and expired when I was in my 20s.

I asked Canva Magic Write (basically, a marketing AI) to tell me if mass shootings increased since the ban expired. Here’s the pathetic response:

So I Googled it. Here’s a pretty clear answer from, appropriately, the Ohio Capital Journal. Decide for yourself.

I’m not saying anything close to “let’s repeal the Second Amendment.” But we can’t keep running. 53 years ago, the “soldiers cutting us down” were 28 members of the Ohio National Guard who shot 67 rounds into a crowd of unarmed students in 13 seconds. So too, the massacre’s apologists. Today, the people cutting us down are deranged lunatics with easy access to the weapons of war. So too, lobbyists; so too politicians. So too anyone who bemoans (the very real) mental health crisis in this country and then shoots down any attempts at comprehensive healthcare reform, slashes budgets to earn gold star ratings from think thanks, claims falsely that creating a continuum of real care is more costly than letting these things trickle down in the streets, at workplaces, at schools.

What if you knew her and
Found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?

Some Thoughts on “Alone” by Heart

Selected tracks from my Wicked Game playlist, which is basically the songs I fell asleep listening to on adult contemporary radio circa 1989 – 1991.  Some songs are older than that, but were still in rotation when I was 9, 10, 11.  

Alone – Heart: They were perfect in the 70s. They were perfect in the 80s and 90s.  They are perfect now.  The way Ann delivers “Till now…” gives me chills.  I know the Wilsons didn’t write this song, but Ann perfectly interprets and embodies it. Great, measured production ensures that the opening musical phrase actually evokes the lyric:

“I hear the ticking of the clock

I’m lying here the room’s pitch dark 

I wonder where you are tonight

No answer on the telephone”

And then the deft crawl:

“And the night goes by so very slow

Oh I hope that it won’t end though..”


And then Ann Wilson destroys you.

Some Thoughts About “With or Without You”

Selected tracks from my Wicked Game playlist, which is basically the songs I fell asleep listening to on adult contemporary radio circa 1989 – 1991.  Some songs are older than that, but were still in rotation when I was 9, 10, 11.  

With or Without You – U2:  I knew of U2 before The Joshua Tree in whatever way a seven-year-old knew about such things in the 80s, but I don’t think I consciously knew any of their music before “With or Without You.”  Everything about this song is beautifully and earnestly straightforward, almost deceptively so.  Here’s what Edge has to say about his approach to the guitar parts: 

“Notes actually do mean something. They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around. I find the ones that do the best job and that’s what I use. I suppose I’m a minimalist instinctively. I don’t like to be inefficient if I can get away with it. Like on the end of ‘With or Without You’. My instinct was to go with something very simple […]. I still think it’s sort of brave, because the end of “With or Without You” could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back.”  (Flanagan (1996), p. 43, via Wikipedia).

The same could be said for Adam Clayton’s baseline, which, while driving in time with Larry Mullen’s kick drum, is beautifully simple.  Taken together, the bass and guitar parts imply the D–A–Bm–G progression, and remind me very much of the D-A-G progression from “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  “With Or Without You” sounds nothing like “I Think We’re Alone Now” in any other way, but I like this little bit of consanguinity.  I don’t have the technical vocabulary to say much more about other parts of the composition: what Brian Eno is doing on synth, how Edge arpeggiates and sustains (how Edge is Edge), what Lanois is up to on other points of production. What matters is what we’re left with: each of these men being exactly who they are.  Bono’s vocals are reserved and retreating (matching the sparse but well-constructed arrangement) until they soar (while Edge trusts his gut and holds back).  The vocal melody matches the lyric (the longing, the turn from tentative to certain), the rhythm section carries us forward in much the same way,  the guitar ebbs and flows perfectly, instinctively. 

I love what Edge says about notes meaning something and costing something.  A perfect summation of his signature sound, perfectly evident here.

Rejection Letters and Inside Baseball

A short read parsing rejection letters, remembering Bart Giamatti, and learning from the Phillie Phanatic. Also on Substack.

Hello and Happy Monday! Feels like a good moment to link to a piece from last week about how Italian Americans owe ourselves more than Columbus.


I got this from Jon Winokur’s twitter feed. It’s a lot like what Benjamin Taylor and Robert Antoni taught me at The New School:

“The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” – James Baldwin

Leave it to James Baldwin to define this whole ordeal so briefly, so clearly, so truly.

The Not-So Secret Hierarchy of Rejection Letters

If you’ve been submitting stories or poems to journals for more than a day or two, you’ve probably seen something like this:

Dear Writer,

Unfortunately, the work you submitted was not the right fit for us. Best luck placing it elsewhere.

Best Wishes,

The Editors

It’s impersonal, not exactly brusk, but certainly right to the point. The good thing about these kinds of responses is that you know right away that the good folks at that prestige mag aren’t writing about your major award.

Every now and then, the writing community on twitter has a good laugh about this kind of thing (that is, when we’re not busy discoursing. I’m not sure when any of us actually write). I remember a pretty gross move a few years ago when one journal (don’t remember which) sent a round of rejection emails that started with the word “Congratulations.” I think the rest of the email said something like “this piece wasn’t for us, but congratulations on being invited to submit to our next contest” or something.  A few weeks ago, a journal I’ve submitted to (and been rejected from) exactly twice in a dozen years sent me an email inviting me to their “class for beginners.”  I passed, and I’m not losing sleep wondering if their month-long workshop imparted some secret I missed during my two-year MFA.

If you’re new to all of this, I give you the Not So Secret Hierarchy of Rejection Letters.

1: The standard form letter like the one seen above.  Not very gratifying, but don’t take it personally.  You’re busy, they’re busy, and that’s just how it goes.

2: The form letter with your name and the title of your piece.  Pretty standard practice.  I think I get more rejections with this level of personalization than without. I don’t know if there’s a script that automates this in submission management systems or not.

3.  The encouraging form rejection.  Exactly what it sounds like. Maybe the most vexing. “This story was great, we really enjoyed it, there’s so much to like, it’s not you, it’s us.”

4: The personalized rejection letter with a personal note telling you how much they liked your story, even though it’s not for them, and encouraging you to send them more. The fact that we celebrate this kind of rejection almost as much as an acceptance is a sad insight into how arbitrary and underfunded this whole process is. We share these near-wins gleefully. That’s probably not healthy. That said, when you’re at this point with a specific piece or a specific market, you know that the editors really looked at your piece, thought about it, and saw enough promise (or whatever they look for) to personally encourage you as a writer.  No one owes you that, so when you get it, it’s a good thing.  Follow up with a thank you.

The most important thing to remember?  We’re talking about subjective responses to art.  The thing is persistence (and very often, revision).

Also, there’s this:  Rejection Wiki. It’s “a wiki for recording literary rejections to help in determining whether you have a standard, tiered or personalized rejection.”  I found it by googling a rejection that felt like a 3.  (It was).

Something else to remember: Some journals (well-known ones) reject everything in their queue without reading once they’ve filled a certain issue, theme, or whatever matrix they use. So, that sucks. 

Sometimes it feels like we’re working for crumbs, especially since many markets don’t pay (come to think of it, I’m not sure why we still call non-paying venues markets). I suppose the excavation happens anyway, and so we carry on.  

Speaking of: Rejection Letters is also the name of a great online journal. They published a piece of mine back in 2020. Anyway, here’s Wonderall.

Inside Baseball

I lived in New Haven for three years in the early 2000s. Many things from that time have stuck with me. One vivid memory is Randall Balmer paraphrasing Bart Giamatti’s insight about baseball and the immigrant experience both being quests for home.

In this piece from 2011, Lia Petridis Maiello talks to Lawrence Baldassaro about his book on the concept.

I remember collecting this card put out by Donruss when Giamatti passed in 1990, and of his great “Green Fields of the Mind.” I knew the brilliant actor, Paul, was his son, but I never really realized how young Bart was when he died. I was 10 in 1990, which means I’m 42 now. 51 probably seemed ancient to me not that long ago. 

In honor of Bart (even though he loved the Red Sox) and in honor of the Phillies making the playoffs for the first time in forever, here’s: Everything I Know About Postmodernism I Learned from the Phillies, a piece of mine at Hobart.

white and red baseball ball

Photo by Tyler Hilton on Unsplash

My Fellow (Italian) Americans: We Owe Ourselves More Than Columbus

This piece is also free on Substack.

Mulberry Street, NY, circa 1900. Library of Congress

Someone recently told me they think this newsletter has wide appeal. I appreciate that. Worth noting: this praise was via text, with a key word originally mistyped: “I think your writing has white appeal.” That’s funny, right?

Speaking of:

Updating Mario

People are mad that Chris Pratt’s Mario doesn’t-a-talk-like-a-dis. I, for one, am amazed Nintendo got away with that shit for so long. I haven’t watched the Mario trailer, but it did come a few days after Colin Jost’s joke about whether or not Italians are white. (Colin Jost is the waspiest wasp to ever come out of Staten Island, which is a big part of why the joke worked1). If you don’t understand the context (“wait, Italians are white now?”) there’s no shortage of literature on the subject. Here’s one place to start.

Italian Americans have reached just about every summit of American life. As much as our contributions have enriched and transformed every facet of the larger culture, the stereotypes persist in almost every popular editorial medium: our men are affable buffoons, petty toughs, or mob chieftains; our women are some variation of Strega Nona or Marissa Tomei2 from My Cousin Vinny.

Understanding Michael

When we’re in charge of the tropes, the art’s irrepressible. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, A Bronx Tale, etc. Michael Corleone’s whole quest to become legitimate is, after all, an allegory for becoming “American.”

Consider the exchange between Senator Pat Geary and Michael in Tahoe:

Senator Pat Geary: I can get you a gaming license. The price is $250,000, plus a monthly payment of five percent of the gross of all four hotels. [sneers] Mr. Corl-ee-own-eh.

Michael Corleone: Now, the price of a gaming license is less than $20,000. Is that right?

Senator Pat Geary: That’s right.

Michael Corleone: So why would I ever consider paying more than that?

Senator Pat Geary: Because I intend to squeeze you. I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family.

Michael Corleone: Senator. We’re both part of the same hypocrisy…but never think it applies to my family.

Senator Pat Geary[exasperated] Okay. Some people need to play little games. You play yours. Let’s just say that you’ll pay me because it’s in your interest to pay me. But I want your answer and the money by noon tomorrow. And one more thing. Don’t you contact me again, ever. From now on, you deal with Turnbull.

Michael Corleone: Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.

I don’t personally know any Italian Americans who are proud of the legacy of the Mafia.  But I believe I know plenty of people who see in Michael’s offer to Geary a kind of comeuppance, even a certain kind of justice, long deferred.  An Italian American forced into the Cosa Nostra by circumstance turning the tables on Geary’s wop-shaming WASP, a stand-in, of course, for a century of very real anti-Italian hatred.  As much as we hate the gangster stereotype, we’ve been allowed few other heroes outside of Christopher Columbus.

Of course Michael Corleone courts and marries Kay Adams.3

Tackling Columbus

If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model.  A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence.  Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves.

It’s Italian American Heritage Month, but the idea of Columbus as avatar of Italian American pride is, in 2022, ridiculous. Columbus, the man, is not worthy of that kind of honor for reasons I shouldn’t have to list. I’m not talking about general, anti-colonial tropes (although those are valid). There are specific reasons, and they have everything to do with his own specific, heinous deeds. Italian Americans need to hear this.  But we also need to be heard, and as long as we’re having this discussion, we need everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American sentiments remain widespread and acceptable in everything from political journalism to children’s entertainment.

Italians are white, but we’re not exactly from the Shire.  We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness (and Americanness) has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation of our families’ presences here. In Columbus, we, a despised and displaced people, laid a pre-emptive claim to a pre-emptive America in the face of the WASP power structures that not only controlled economic and social capital, but the literal definitions of “white” and “American.”  That power of that symbol for Italian immigrants, and for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is real.  Ask me how I know.

These days, Italians Americans aren’t marginalized the way people of color or white people from the wrong parts of Europe are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and a-people who talk like-a this.  I’m proud of Mario for consistently saving the Mushroom Kingdom and for his work as a plumber, but I find Nintendo’s later-day characterizations of his patterns of speech wholly offensive.  The same is true for just about-a any-a chef you’ve ever seen on any-a children’s show.

Our ancestors were olive-skinned, non-English-speaking whites, but as everything from popular sentiment to my great-grandmother’s federal immigration papers make clear, we were only white (and in those days, “American”) in relation to darker-skinned people. Columbus Day was meant to cement our claim to Americanness, whiteness, and social respectability, wedding us with and contrasting us to other American whites, Anglo whites, the same whites casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy.  Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies.  As human beings, Italian Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Columbian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do.  We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness.

You’ve likely heard of Sacco and Vanzetti. You likely don’t know about the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891, or how both tragedies were driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Italian hatred.  Italian Americans are right to want to celebrate our historical struggles in and contributions to the United States and the Americas more generally.  How ought we tell our stories without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves?  Rather than cling to Columbus, shouldn’t we be ready and able to find alternative icons for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what America can be regardless of what it sometimes is?

Remembering Mazzei

If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model.  A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence.  Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves.  Seems like a good place to start.

We can remember Columbus’ place in history without idealizing Columbus the man.  We can and should continue to teach, learn, and understand the unvarnished history of 1492 and all that came after.  We can and should do all of these things without feeling the need to honor Columbus as the prototypical Italian American.  He wasn’t. Our ancestors were.  That’s enough.

Reading Ferlinghetti

I’ll finish this post with a poem. There’s a pedantic debate among some Italian American writers and scholars as to whether Lawrence Ferlinghetti counts as an Italian American. I would never say that’s the only way to think of him, but I don’t understand the need some have to excise him from the tradition. I understand it rhetorically, but I fail to see what it accomplishes. Here’s what I know: the night he died, I dreamt about my late grandfather, zizis, great uncle. We were trying to put names to the ancestors buried in Campania. This poem, to me, is one of his best:

The Old Italians Dying

For years the old Italians have been dying
all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats
have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes
the old men in their old felt fedoras
                        with stained hatbands
have been dying and dying
                       day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco
the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Paul
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls
in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out
funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon
slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other
the old men sit there in their hats
and watch the coming & going
You have seen them
the ones who feed the pigeons
                        cutting the stale bread                       
 with their thumbs & penknives
the ones with old  pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
                        and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants       
                       with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn
the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani
                        smelling of garlic & pepperoni
the ones who loved Mussolini
the old fascists
the ones who loved Garibaldi
the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova
the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti
They are almost all gone now
They are sitting and waiting their turn
and sunning themselves in front of the church
over the doors of which is inscribed
a phrase which would seem to be unfinished
from Dante’s Paradiso
about the glory of the One
                        who moves everything…
The old men are waiting
for it to be finished
for their glorious sentence on earth
                        to be finished
the slow bell tolls & tolls
the pigeons strut about
not even thinking of flying
the air too heavy with heavy tolling
The black hired hearses draw up
the black limousines with black windowshades
shielding the widows
the widows with the black long veils
who will outlive them all
You have seen them
madre de terra, madre di mare
The widows climb out of the limousines
The family mourners step out in stiff suits
The widows walk so slowly
up the steps of  the cathedral
fishnet veils drawn down
leaning hard on darkcloth arms
Their faces do not fall apart
They are merely drawn apart
They are still the matriarchs
outliving everyone
in Little Italys all over America
the old dead dagos
hauled out in the morning sun
that does not mourn for anyone
One by one Year by year
they are carried out
The bell
never stops tolling
The old Italians with lapstrake faces
are hauled out of the hearses
by the paid pallbearer
in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses
The old dead men are hauled out
in their black coffins like small skiffs
They enter the true church
for the first time in many years
in these carved black boats
The priests scurry about
                        as if to cast off the lines
The other old men
                        still alive on the benches
watch it all with their hats on
You have seen them sitting there
waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling
waiting for the bell
for the slow bell
                              to be finished tolling
telling the unfinished Paradiso story
as seen in an unfinished phrase
            on the face of a church
in a black boat without sails
making his final haul


Poetry at the End of the World

New on Substack (subscriptions are free).

Sometimes I wonder what the hell any of us are doing. Every other day I’m fairly convinced that if we’re not in World War III already, it’s just a matter of time and semantics. I’m not a pessimist, but I *have* been doom-scrolling. I don’t believe global catastrophe is inevitable, but I also know that most people around the world live in catastrophic settings all the time. Sometimes it feels very odd to be going on and on about literature and poetry and art and books at what feels like the end of the world. But I think we need to.

Read more here: https://chriscocca.substack.com/p/poetry-at-the-end-of-the-world

The long and the short of it: send me your previously published stuff if it’s uplifting and peace-making and you’d like me to boost its signal (even a little).

Highways and Hunger on Substack

A new piece up on Substack. Check it out here.

An excerpt:

Built in 1955 to augment the nation’s first true superhighway, the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike runs from Plymouth Meeting to Clarks Summit, connecting the east-west route from the Philly Metro through the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos, and into Lackawanna County. 

Before and after the Lehigh Tunnel, bored by Army engineers in the 50s, there are stunning views of expansive green…

…Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is, for far too many people, more like a middle finger. Whether or not you contribute to food banks, you likely have accepted them as a para-capitalist solution to a problem capitalism itself was supposed to solve…