ARCHIVE: Contemplating the Reading Room


Poet and ship’s engineer John Petrolino of Middletown, gravitating once more to the water, inaugurates a new series of monthly spoken word reading events at Frank Talk in Red Bank.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 9, 2009)

When we met up with author and professional Merchant Marine engineering officer John Petrolino for coffee a couple of months back, the Middletown resident left us with some fascinating stories of life as a “Death Star contractor” — as well as a copy of Congo Lights, his second book of poetry (published by the Piscataway House imprint) and a highly personal look at what it means to be American these days, as filtered through the prism of one man’s experiences in a part of the world where that Mochaccino is unavailable at any price.

The 27 year old Petrolino, a second assistant engineering officer (who also holds a first assistant’s license) working oil company exploration vessels off the West African coast, had been maintaining a schedule of “five weeks on, five weeks off” for some time — spending his time back home in New Jersey furthering his writing ambitions, making connections with other creative types, organizing small-scale reading events, before shipping out again into a situation that he describes as “being stuck talking to the same 20 people day in, day out.”

Before parting ways that afternoon, we left Petrolino with a couple of needful things by way of reciprocation — a tip that he should talk to Gilda Rogers of Red Bank’s Frank Talk Art Bistro and Books, and a recommendation that he check out Minutemen/Stooges bassist Mike Watt’s nautical-guy concept album Contemplating the Engine Room. Not sure if he took us up on the latter, but we were pleased to receive a followup email not long after that, announcing that “The Frank Talk Reading Series, hosted by John Petrolino, will be regularly scheduled on the second Sunday of the month, every month, bringing writers of all disciplines to the area.”

This Sunday, July 12, marks the second Sunday of the month — and the first of the new Sunday series at the intimate little gem of a literary salon on the borough’s Left Bank. Petrolino has hit the ground running here, with scheduled appearances by award winning poets Adele Kenny and Frank Messina (lauded by Playboy as “one of the most widely recognized young poets living in America today”). The event commences at 2pm, with the featured author readings followed by a signing session and an open-mic segment. There’s a $5 door charge to cover the cost of refreshments.

The budding verse impresario has more in store in the months to come at Frank Talk — and some interesting background on how he came to discover the writer in himself. Read on.

johnpetrolinob-493x326In a press release, Petrolino allowed that after several discussions with The Idiom Magazine editor Mark Brunetti and Word Riot web publisher Jackie Corley(profiled here in oRBit last year), the three “came to the conclusion that Red Bank needed a literary scene,” with Petrolino bemoaning the fact that the borough “is a cultural epicenter…and it has no place for writers. I’m not only interested in having a series, but in establishing a community of writers.”

It was Brunetti, by the way, who penned the foreword to Congo Lights — picking up from Beat Generation-era jazz composer David Amram, who contributed the intro to Petrolino’s first book Galleria after meeting the young writer at the 2003Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts.

As the veteran seaman tells it, he “started writing nine years ago, at first as a way of helping me cope with the world,” and quickly found the long downtimes of the seafaring life ideal for getting work done — even aboard a vessel on which his purview encompasses “eight onboard diesel engines, running full bore, 24-7 — there’s a romance to it; it involves both sides of my brain.”

According to Petrolino, rejoining the crew on those African voyages involves flying some eight hours from Newark to Frankfurt, then another eight hours to Angola, whereupon he boards a bus to a designated safe house.

Safe house?

“This isn’t the Africa of The Lion King,” he explains. “More like something out of Blood Diamond.”

Once on board the vessel, the assistant engineer’s duties center around keeping those big engines humming, as crews of South African divers (or diving robots) do the exploratory work on behalf of whatever multinational oil company has chartered the ship.

“The big oil companies are evil, but they pay me to where I can do the cool stuff that I do,” says the writer whose own literary explorations have led him to the seafaring inspirations of past masters like Joseph ConradEugene O’NeillJack London andHerman Melville.

Which leads us once more to that Death Star reference; a familiar one to fans of Kevin Smith, in that the characters in Clerks get into a spirited discussion of the assumed innocence of all those hardworking contractors who get blown to smithereens by the rebel alliance when the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon is destroyed while under construction (somewhere in there is a deep debate on moral relativism).

“What we do for a living doesn’t have to dictate what we do for fun.”