Repost: Interview with Salt alums Scott Sell & Douglas W. Milliken

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[The following is a reposting of an interview Scott Sell and I did with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, the graduate program where we met thirteen years ago. The text has been edited slightly: several of the links have been updated.]

Now and again, we’ll be sharing interviews with alums of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at MECA about new projects and undertakings. Today, we talk to two Salt ‘05 alums, Scott Sell and Douglas W. Milliken, about their collaboration on In the Mines, a linked album of music and book of short fiction. Douglas and Scott also share some reflections on what they’ve been up to since Salt, what they’ve carried with them from the program, and some work of fellow Salt alums that they’ve been excited to see and hear out in the world.

1) Tell us a bit about your new project.

Scott Sell: Doug and I have been collaborating on projects pretty much since we left Salt in 2005. Although we didn’t get the chance to work together outside of our writing class at the time, we began sending each other letters and short stories by mail as a way to keep in touch. When I moved back to Maine a year later and started writing songs, Doug quickly became my producer and de facto band mate. We since have created a short film, recorded a split album, performed several times, and generally been good creative soundboards for each other.

Douglas W. Milliken: It was definitely apparent early on that our stories and characters inhabited similar–perhaps even the same–desperate world. It’s exciting to see, in this new project, these same characters achieving even a measure of saving grace.

SS: The new project, both a full album of music and a book of short fiction, is an intertwined work. Eleven songs. Eleven stories. This first edition of 100 handmade books comes packaged with a CD, digital downloaded included. Artworks by artist Richard Iammarino (my dad-in-law) reproduced throughout counterpose the worlds imagined by these stories and songs. The books have been handmade by top pal and fellow Salt alum Patrick Kiley, who runs Publication Studio Hudson in Troy, NY.

2) How can people follow-up or learn more about your work?

SS: Check out Bandcamp for the digital album at https://scottasell.bandcamp.com/album/in-the-mines, and Publication Studio Hudson for the physical book/album combo: https://publicationstudio.biz/books/in-the-mines/.

There will also be several performances in Maine this summer and fall: a book/album release at the Apohadion Theater in Portland on August 19th, CHURCH in Rockland on August 25th, and Engine in Biddeford on September 14th.

DWM: Many stories can be found at https://douglaswmilliken.com/publishedwork, although within the context of this book, representative stories might be “Fandanguillo” and “Integers.”

3) Give us a taste of what you’ve been up to since Salt.

SS: After Salt (and a bit of time working as a production drone at PBS in New York City), I moved back to Maine to work for the Island Institute as the William Bingham Fellow for Rural Education on the island of Frenchboro (year-round population: 65), teaching in the one-room schoolhouse and working with the town’s selectboard on municipal projects. I also went back to school, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, to add more video production skills to my storytelling toolkit and soon after returned to Maine again to work once more for the Island Institute as their in-house filmmaker. I also got married. I now live in Rockland and work as a producer and editor at Compass Light Productions, a non-fiction documentary film company in Camden and have no intention of leaving Maine again.

DWM: While I grew up in far northern Maine, I didn’t really intend on sticking around. I guess sometime geography lays its claim on you. I worked as a horticultural specialist for the first few years after Salt and have since bumbled gradually into a position where I can spend more time on my writing and less as a seasonal laborer (landscaper, carpenter, LL Bean warehouse ghost, etc.). Now I’m freelance writing and editing full time while taking a “vacation” each fall to work the apple harvest. In that time, I’ve published a novel, a half-dozen chapbooks, and have a new novel and a full-length collection of stories due out in early 2019, all in addition to the regular work of hunting down magazines to print individual stories.

4) What have been your biggest takeaways from your time at Salt?

SS: Listening to people intently is the most important thing, as is learning how to stay neutral when it matters. And although working on something and seeing it through alone can be deeply satisfying, a collaboration with someone or a group of people is a whole hell of a lot of fun and the reason I keep doing what I’m doing.

DWM: Agreed. Our writing instructor, Jen Andrews, told us as our first lesson as storytellers that no matter the subject, no matter the people involved, our primary objective was to tell our stories with integrity and grace. In all the work I’ve written since–whether the characters were flesh-and-blood real or only real in my imagination–I’ve tried to treat them with this same level of compassion.

5) Are there any projects by Salt alums that you’ve been particularly excited to see out in the world?

 

SS: Galen Koch’s audio storytelling initiative, The First Coast. I’ve always loved Maisie Crow’s work, especially her photography. Some of Adam Kampe’s audio stories–another 2005 Salt alum–show up at Third Coast, too.

DWM: Patrick Kiley—who is the publisher of In the Mines as well as several of my other books—has been doing some amazing work with his imprint Pilot Editions, from art books to activistic pamphlets to the first English translations of Walter Benjamin’s sonnets. Samantha Broun has been behind some groundbreaking work with Atlantic Public Media, including her very personal radio essay “A Life Sentence.” JR Sheetz (who first introduced me to Salt and one time joined me in making a keyboard lose its mind) never fails to knock me speechless with his uncanny photography.
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In the Mines: Released

in_the_mines_cover-1-1000x0In their first-ever unified narrative effort, longtime friends and collaborators Scott Sell and Douglas W. Milliken combine their stock of down-and-out and sometimes lucky characters into a coalescent shape. Eleven songs. Eleven stories. One singular world of yearning, fear, and the perdurable ache of loving right and loving wrong and, worse yet, not loving at all no matter the effort, will, and cost. Where eagles mate in mid-air. Where the cows have annexed the living room. Where the farthest ferry runs and all roads at long last mercifully end. This first edition of 100 handmade books comes packaged with a CD, digital downloaded included. Artworks by artist Richard Iammarino reproduced throughout counterpose the worlds imagined by these stories and songs.

Available August 19th, 2018 through Pilot Editions (Publication Studio Hudson).

Stream and/or download the digital album.
Read the excerpted story “Fandanguillo.”
Read the Salt Institute’s interview with Scott Sell and Douglas W. Milliken.

August 2018 Update

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Now that the tumult of moving and settling in has come to a sort of end—allowing me to once more work on new writing and acknowledge the publication of new stories (such as “Small Shiny Fish” in Issue 80 of Broken Pencil) and prepare for the release of a new collaborative project with the inimitable Scott Sell—well, it seems as good a time as any to resume my progressive list of things that might very well be influencing me at present.

1. Aunts

Okay, this is a little more involved than just aunts—nor do my actual aunts have anything to do with this (sorry Kris, sorry Janice, although as you’ll momentarily see, not so sorry)—yet in what I’ve witnessed, aunts take the brunt. Because there’s this thing that comes up in a certain kind of literature, often written by men of a certain age, wherein (a slightly-older female relative who now and then is a cousin but I’m just to go ahead and say) an aunt fucks her teenage nephew. [This is discrete from the cousins-in-love scenario central to my novel To Sleep as Animals as in that instance, the sex occurs between consenting adults, thus creating a very different set of problems.] In the instances of overly-attentive aunts (and I am intentionally not citing the books and authors), both the boy and his aunt consider the encounter somehow instructional: it is never portrayed as an episode of incestuous statutory rape so much as a learning experience among loving members of a family.

Needless to say, this is supremely fucked up. But that’s not the thing I’m interested in.

Conjecturally and sometimes evidently, these same male authors would tell the story differently if the genders were reversed, if an uncle or adult cousin, say, took his teenaged relative off into the woods for some intensive learning. The conclusion, then, would appear to be that it’s okay for aunts to fuck their nephews and for nephews to fuck their aunts, although there’s never any sort of argument presented, just the story told without too many complicating questions asked. So what was going on with the men of our parents’ and/or grandparents’ generation? Were aunts in the first half of the last century problematically generous with their affections? Were boys, for whatever reason, fantasizing overboard about their mothers’ sisters? Or is this another example of men and boys doing whatever they please, then later reconstructing the events to convince themselves and anyone who will listen that it’s what all parties involved wanted, no matter how much anyone protests after the fact? Which leads to a bigger question: how early do boys learn the fine art of gas lighting to ensure they never get punished for taking whatever they want?

IMG_20180718_192423_4862. Fishing

This one is not nearly as nuanced as the aunts thing. It’s simply this: fishing has come up in a lot of the stories I’ve drafted in the past six months or more. Which is fine, as there was once a time when I loved to fish, would in fact seek any excuse or opportunity to engage with some water, even if it meant catching and releasing the same fish over and over again, even if it meant catching nothing but leeches and ticks. But it’s been fifteen years since I took the sport seriously, and honestly, I cannot tell you when I last saw fit to cast a hook into a stream. So what all at once has me fixated on brook trout and swift river water? Why is this the useful device I’m returning to again and again to move these stories forward?

3. Lungfish’s “Pray for the Living

That’s all, just the song. It’s really good. And it’s a great example of backing vocals—no matter where in the mix they might lay—in fact being the lead (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should listen to “Gimme Shelter” with a little more attention to the ratios of passion between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton). But mostly, it’s a great example of a really good song.

4. Carl Sagan’s Contact

I do not read science-fiction nearly as often as I’d like, partly because too much contemporary sci-fi forgets the cause and origins of the genre (it being a means of exploring contemporary social and political concerns by placing them at the safe remove of the future/space/another dimension, not simply as a means of having aliens blow shit up or to trick men into watching “galactic” soap operas), and partly because the majority of what I’ve read fails to exhibit any sort of literary finesse. So of course Carl Sagan would be my ideal sci-fi author: a brilliant scientist, a compassionate humanist, and a genius at communicating complex ideas in a coherent way. The end result is a novel that’s riveting, easily devourable (I took down the 400+ pages in three days), and oddly…plausible. Add to that the sense (though maybe not the fact) of having learned something about radio telemetry, quantum mechanics, and advanced decryption, and you very likely have the perfect science-fiction novel. Also, incredibly, it’s possibly the most convincing argument for the existence of a capital-G God that I might have ever encountered. Make no mistake: the film is great (he and Ann Druyan originally wrote the film treatment before Sagan expanded the idea into a book). But with more nuance and more room to stretch out and explore, the novel is a distinct and distinctly-deeper pleasure.

Okay, enough shallow meditation on space, incest, and fish. As always, thank you for reading and for sharing and for your daily incentive to get up, get moving, keep working, keep trying. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping the carrot just beyond this homely beast of burden’s reach. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to dangle sweet reward just beyond my prehensile lips by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks as dire as reason dictates, thus rendering any kind of subscription unfit to warrant consideration, perhaps contemplate making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.

You are the subwoofer to my whomping 808.

July 2018 Update

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Arborvitae and Japanese maple stretching to touch across the backyard.

After waking up to a mixed bag of animal behavior, I read the following as part of my first email of the day, from one of the organizing forces behind the anthology A Short Affair, which includes my story “Heart’s Last Pass”:

[We] held our first public ticketed event in support of the anthology last  week at leading contemporary gallery Hauser and Wirth in their Somerset site with a live reading of Heart’s Last Pass by acclaimed British actor, Russell Tovey. The event was held against the backdrop of a landmark exhibition of works by Alexander Calder and the response was really fantastic. We will be publishing a podcast of the reading shortly, which I will be sure to share with you!

Maybe not so surprisingly, the part of this that got me most excited was the idea of my story being shared amidst a bower of Calder’s mobiles slowly turning in the breath of the room. But also: British people hearing and enjoying my work! My grim view of life in America might not be universally pleasing in this particular hemisphere, but at least I can count more and more on an international audience’s appreciation of our particular national brand of prevailing violence and systemic marginalization.

Because our world right now is so blatantly a cartoon hell, I could easily go on ad nauseum off that last riff, but I want to put off the belly-sick of the world for least a few more hours this morning. So here instead is an instant photo of the dim home-space wherein I am working this morning:

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The perpetual shadowscape of the interior.

Between preparing for the ever-encroaching move to our new house and having to evacuate the premises every time our current (final!) landlord wants to show our current (final!) rental home to a prospective buyer, I have been pretty delinquent in sharing most of my recent professional goings on. With that as your warning, prepare for a list of way-too-much, all of which happens to be contained variously in one family.

With so much of my life right now centering around houses and homes, it seems only appropriate that a story about a scattered family and rogue-cows-as-home-invaders should be published now. The kind and too-generous folks at The Forge recently published my story “Mascara,” along with a brief conversation between myself and the magazine’s founding editor, John Haggerty, about how such an unlikely and fragmented story came into existence. This story is also a part of In the Mines, a collaborative project with the musician and documentarian Scott Sell (more about this below).

In an ongoing exploration of the bold absurdity of American innovation, Alexis Iammarino—a long-time friend who I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Chart several years ago and who is, incidentally, Scott’s wife—has recently released an anthology of work originally collected and presented in 2016 for the multi-venue exhibition Hole History: Origins of the American-style Donut. The book of the self-same title includes some staggering work from around the globe, including original (gross) drawings by an illustrator of The Simpsons, an infinite-regression-as-sculptural-donut by my legal fake-wife Genevieve Johnson (pictured below, sans donut), and “The Binding Stitch,” a short story I wrote about the audacity of claiming ownership and, consequently, power. The book is gorgeous and wonderfully strange, and was physically manifest by the giant floating brain at Pilot Editions (who is also responsible for most of my book projects existing in the world.

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The salad harvest of the fake-wife.

And as further evidence of my permanent symbiosis with Pilot Editions: this coming August will see the release of the multi-disciplinary musical/literary project In the Mines, assembled and produced in collaboration with Scott Sell and Patrick Kiley at Pilot Editions. The complete unit will include eleven original songs (written by Scott and recorded/produced in my living room this past January) and eleven short stories, all of which will be woven together by Richard Iammarino’s uncanny silver-pen drawings. With so many individual styles and tastes involved, In the Mine somehow defies expectations and is, in my view,  the most cohesive book project I’ve been yet involved with. I am exceedingly eager to share this with you.

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Japanese maple, extending into nothing.

As I leave you with these too many things to mull over, I would once again like to thank you for reading, for sharing, and for your constant reminder as to why I spend so much of each day struggling to translate my heart and my head into language that resonates and makes sense. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping me accountable to this life I (and now we) have chosen for myself. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to join in the fun of passively whipping this mule into motion by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks as dire as reason dictates, thus rendering any kind of subscription unfit to warrant consideration, perhaps contemplate making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.

You are the mentholated Lidocaine to my unfortunate rash.

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Portrait of the author as a Russian of antiquity.

June 2018 Update (a house among homes)

IMG_0018As much as I’m enjoying this monthly and ever-changing list of influential things (be they global as an inadequate world leader or as proximate as a buddy’s excellent garage band), circumstances dictate that I break from the routine for a month or two. There are multiple reasons for this hiatus, but the one of most pressing and distracting concern has had to do with housing. Barely three weeks ago, my partner, Genevieve, and I found out that we were being soft-evicted so that the current owner of our home could sell it. We responded by making her a more than generous offer on the house, but with dollar signs flashing in her eyes, she turned us down in hopes of a bigger payoff. So our hidden swamp-side haven among pines—complete with trickling asbestos and frogs swimming in the basement mire—will soon be some other dingbat’s problem to solve.

It’s a particularly acute ache to lose your home, especially when it’s due to someone else’s uninspired greed. But that ache has been tempered to no small degree by a rapid change in fortune, as Genevieve and I are under contract to buy a startlingly awesome house. With my infrequent employment and uninterest in possessions, never have I anticipated actual homeownership. Yet all signs indicate that the next phase of my life will be lived in the quiet lawn-sprinkler whack of suburbia. I’ll take it.

As you can imagine, my heart and brain are in a totally justified state of flux: beyond an animal need to shelter myself and my weird little family, what’s driving my day to day actions is a mystery even to me. With that in mind, I am subbing out this month’s list of influential things with a draft from my full-length collection Blue of the World, forthcoming in the relatively-near future with Tailwinds Press. The piece, “Under the Wing,” has never previously been published and acts as the first in a sequence of four stories following Cuth’s grim passion. This might also be the oldest piece in the collection, which translates into a certain specific sense of relief for this long-nurtured orphan having finally found a good home.

Before sending you off into Cuth’s incapable hands, I’d like to thank you for reading, for sharing, and for your constant reminder as to why I do what I do. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for buoying my confidence over these past several months. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to vicariously buy me a recurrent re-esteeming sandwich by becoming a member today. And if your view of the future looks far too thermonuclear for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards (handmade things, small-run booklets, etc.) for one month.

You are the pony to my pasture.

*

Under the Wing

After all the ugliness at the office over the politics of haircuts and presentability and how he ultimately loses his job, Cuthbert has to make a few stops—the after-school program where he volunteers, the hardware store—before going home. It strikes him as funny while he navigates his city’s streets, avoiding traffic and dodging pedestrians, that he should be in any sort of hurry. Does he not suddenly have all the free time he could possibly want? Cut loose from the obligations and responsibilities of work, is he not now free to pursue the remains of his life at a rate he enjoys and prefers? He’d even emptied his desk in a rush. Why wait? He resigns in person at the end of his session at the after-school program, then buys a length of rope and drives home.

The house Cuth rents is on the edge of a neighborhood of simple but sturdy houses, timber-frames and stone-foundations. Not so much the suburbs as what the suburbs reached to envelop. The sort of homes one would be more likely find far out in the country, not just a few dozen blocks from town hall and the county courthouse. Beautiful old houses all done up with manicured yards. Tall trees and tire swings. Forsythia hedges ready to bloom. Cuth’s place is at the end of a cul-de-sac: though the road continues on as a gravel scratch through some scrub and pines into a meadow strung up in high-voltage lines—the sort of ephemeral road used by the municipality for maintenance purposes alone—as far as Cuth or anyone else is concerned, this is the end of the line. Parking his car and gathering his rope—breathing in the ripe early-spring air—Cuth stands in the cool stirring of last fall’s leaves and new birds flitting among the bushes, among the trees, small piercing songs lacing through the afternoon’s diminishing blue light. Then he mounts the porch stairs and steps inside.

This is the sort of place where a family is meant to live. Big kitchen. Big den. An upstairs full of bedrooms. An attic to store old toys, old clothes, an extra bed, an extra kid or cousin. If his sister and her daughter ever came down to visit, this would be perfect. They could stay forever and he’d never know. Somehow, they’ve never made the trip. The kitchen has two cast-iron skillets and a single aluminum pot for boiling water, a couple plates and knives and a ticking refrigerator, mostly empty. The den has a chair and an end table next to the chair and on the table: a book. Unread. Upstairs is a room with a typewriter perched on a stool. In another, a guitar leans against a folding metal chair. It has never struck Cuth as odd that he lives alone in such a huge empty space. A cathedral or a tomb. It has never struck him as odd that he’d want to.

In the back half of the house is what Cuth assumes an architect would call the Great Room. Large fireplace gone mostly unused. A bank of windows overlooking the back lawn and, beyond that, a dense stand of maple and birch. A ceiling vaulting high enough to create a sort of balcony or overlook of the second story’s hall. Forming an X above everything, two heavy rough-sawn beams span the air to intersect and where they do, a large glass globe of lamp hangs from a chain. But Cuth’s not interested in the light. It’s those girders he’s got his eyes on.

It takes a few attempts to toss the rope up and over the intersecting beams. Everything else follows with the ease of muscle memory: he’s always been good with knots. He secures the rope to the X above by means of a simple gliding bowline. He drags a chair in from the den and, on tiptoes, installs a classic 13-loop noose. Cuts the extra rope with a kitchen knife. Arranges his neck into the noose. He conducts these tasks with a sort of detached ambivalence. Efficiently, he is getting the work done. He plays with how teetery the chair is: pretty teetery. Then he just stands for a moment and stares out the bank of windows surrounding his cold fireplace. Grass, greening from grey. Bright buds on the tips of branches. The movement of birds. No regret or sorrow, no bitterness fluttering in his heart. Just the vague sense that it’s all a waste. The white and purple splashes of crocuses sown wild throughout the yard. All of it’s wasted on him.

“Not too bad,” he says, and starts to tip over his chair, but in his pocket, his cellphone rings. Vibrates, actually, and chimes an electronic tinkling. He forgot to turn it off.

In this way, he is grateful that he paused long enough to admire the view. Briefly, he imagines swinging by his neck, the world fading, cooling but also somehow warming as if into sleep, while in his pocket something buzzed and sang. Ting-a-ling-ling. Ting-a-ling-ling. Cuth fishes the phone from his pocket to turn it off.

But it’s Lindsay calling. The girl who manages the food co-op. Woman, really. Dark hair always dusted in a fine spray of flour. A baker. Always looking tired but also happy, maybe giddy with the weight of her exhaustion, most likely having been baking bread since long before the sun claimed the sky. He wonders if she’s calling about his volunteer shift. Or perhaps he has a balance on his account. A minor debt unpaid. Pretty Lindsay with flour in her hair. Cuth flips open his phone and says hello.

“Hi Cuthbert. It’s Lindsay.”

“Hello Lindsay.”

“How are you?”

Cuthbert looks down at himself standing atop his chair at the center of the room, strung to the girders, and shrugs. “I’m fine. Yourself?”

They talk for a few minutes. He precarious with the rope around his neck. She probably in her kitchen. Drinking tea. Flour in her hair. When he hangs up, they’ve made plans to meet for dinner in an hour.

It’s hard work loosening the noose. Cuth puts the chair away in the den and goes upstairs to shower. He leaves the rope right where it is.

The restaurant where they meet is a sushi place where the customers all kneel at abbreviated tables, hanging lamps wrapped in brittle painted paper. Cuth is surprised at how comfortable he is on his knees. They eat small pieces of fish and drink hot sake and green tea, and they talk. She’s a good talker. A good listener, too. He had not expected someone who works with her hands in the dark quiet hours of morning to know what a voice is for. He’s glad that she does. It makes it easier to maintain his quiet with her. Later, over small bowls of ginger ice cream, she asks him what the most incredible moment of his day had been—“What gave you pause, made you sit up and take notice of your life?”—and he has to admit, it’s a pretty good question.

“After I was done work today,” he says, looking off vaguely past her, above her head and to the right, “I stopped at the place where I volunteer. It’s a program for grieving children. Kids who’ve lost their parents. Mostly you just act as a friendly adult, you know, very casual, just make them feel safe and comfortable. So I was drawing pictures with this one little girl, and she’s drawing a little horsy in pink and purple crayons, and when she’s done she holds it up to me and says, ‘Look, this is the mommy.’”

“Oh!”

“Then she ripped the picture in half and said, ‘And this is the baby.’”

“Oh.”

“I guess that was pretty good.”

Throughout the restaurant, since before they arrived, there’s been music softly playing. Like mournful birds in the rushes alongside some barely rippling pool. Songs older than sound. After a moment, Lindsay asks, “What were you drawing?”

And his answer: “Carrots.” He scrapes his spoon along the empty bottom of his bowl. “Tons of them.”

But later that night, while lying awake beside Lindsay in her warm bed, in her warm blankets and clean sheets and the clean scent of laundry and hair and girl, it’s not the horsy he thinks of but his view from the noose. Greens and grays and splashes of purple, splashes of white. The tall naked trunks of trees and whatever lies beyond. All of it wasted on him. Hiding just behind his closing eyes. It’s what he will think of every night that he lies beside her, every night for six more months until once again he sleeps alone and has lost what’s left of his hair to time or to incident and has no one to talk to anymore but that great X in the air of his home, unchanging and unrelenting, negating everything beneath its twin wings.

May 2018 Update

 

q-mizdm1q68bn1wiwnlcs_sqomdzaqf19gngwkq2x4chf46q9p0rng2zqwg_tnpjIn her usual denial of the nuts and bolts of reality, the In-House Editor boldly declares herself a cougar (when obviously she’s nothing if not a petite lap panther) while I finally, after over two weeks being crushed beneath the unstoppable spearhead of the Genghis Khan of flu viruses, can take a deep breath and not break down in an aching, coughing spasm. So it is with the (slightest) renewed vigor that I continue my list of things I found interesting and, possibly, motivating.

I’m going to limit this month’s list to only two entries, not because they’re all I’ve got—after all, in my pulmonary fugue, I could do little more than read books and watch movies—but because they’re each, in their own ways, new constellations (in fact, embarrassingly new constellations) in my personal literary cannon.

1. Toni Morrison

I remember some years ago reading Beloved and being absolutely floored, if not by the emotional impact of the novel, then by the certain knowledge that Morrison wrote one of the best (if not the best) American ghost story to date. (Which, if you’ll recall, is kinda how American literature started: folks getting freaked out by the spooky-ass New England woods and the obvious devils who lurked there. The obvious deduction, then, would be to drop the qualifier and call Beloved simply the best America novel.) I also remember the prose being more than a little opaque, something I had to labor through, which if I’d still been in the throes of my James Joyce crush, would have been a great appeal, but with said crush having waned, left me feeling exempt from the novel’s full impact.

Before I go any further, I need to make it clear: I was dead wrong on this last point.

But it was this wrong assumption (“Morrison’s prose is opaque”) that kept me from reading more of her work. Which means I deprived myself—both as a reader, a developing writer, and a human—some of the best work written in the English language for, what…over ten years! What a childish asshole! I could go off on this point ad nauseum, how so many of my favorite artists (and, for that matter, people) I’d originally dismissed and disparaged via some snarky wrongheadedness, but that’s not interesting. And it also is not Toni Morrison.

There’s a specific literary mastery you only now and then find, when the prose reads so effortlessly, so naturally, that you readily come to the false conclusion “this seems so easy.” Easy to read. Easy to write. No fancy tricks. No pedantic allusions. Just the spring-water clarity of words on paper. (Right. Because clarity is easy.) This is the sense I got while sinking into Morrison’s work through my sickness. Sula. Song of Solomon. The Bluest Eye. A Mercy. Home. Each of these novels unfolds in what would appear to be an unhurried, intuitive rate and rhythm that never once shake your trust in the author’s intent. Or I should say: I never lost trust. Again and again in these novels, it’d strike me that I had no idea where the story was going, where it was leading me, and instead of being pissed about it—feeling that jerked-around sense of aimless clever that too often permeates post-modern and post-grad fiction—I felt pleased, felt able to relax into the story, able to put aside being a writer and instead just be a reader basking in the awe of a master at her best.

Here’s another way of looking at it: in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, there is one scene where, in a single uncut shot, the actor Toshiro Mifune  (playing a ronin samurai) chases down and blades nine attacking (then fleeing) men in ten seconds. In the film, it is a cool act of ass kicking that quite clearly demonstrates the balance of power early in the storyline. But as a feat enacted in our second-by-second reality, it is a breathtaking spectacle of a moving, human body at its finest.

What Mifune can do in ten seconds, Morrison does again and again through nearly fifty years of novel writing. Toni Morrison is a samurai.

2. Louise Erdrich

Since college, I have enjoyed Erdrich’s short fiction whenever I’ve chanced upon it in a magazine or anthology or textbook. But it was only in the past month that I finally began reading her novels. And as with Morrison, I’ve been reluctant to stop. (I have, in fact, been intentionally alternating between the two, wedging in some other author—Don DeLillo, Daniel Handler, Alice Walker—to avoid total immersion as well as prolong the affair). Reading Future Home of the Living God in just a few marathon sittings left me thoroughly rattled: for days afterward, I kept mixing up details of the novel—wherein pregnancy becomes a government industry leaving no woman with sovereignty over her body—with the reality of our world. The sad and subtle difference between the two being “this horror is happening” versus “this horror isn’t happening yet.” Victim to such successful reshaping of reality, how could I not continue reading through her back catalog?

Lucky for me, Erdrich has an impressive list of novels under her belt. And while none of them has again so far destroyed the membrane between my perceived notions of reality and the imaginary, neither has any attempted to do so. Instead, in much the same way that Morrison explores the dimensions of black life in the United States (primarily in the South), Erdrich explores the lives of—both historical and contemporary—Native Americans, specifically the Ojibwe of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Which, in both instances, could rightly be a playlist of one brutality after another (and without doubt, with both Morrison and Erdrich, that brutality is present and accounted for). But such single-minded storytelling would preclude every other aspect of human experience: boredom, jealousy, the twin wonder and absurdity of the naked body, being hungry then being full, winning an argument or a leg race or a pointless bet, braiding hair, puzzling over the face in the mirror. The stories are of a culture and geography very different from my own. But never does it feel unfamiliar. Never does it feel beyond my capacity to comprehend. Which is to say: these details are not my details. But they are part of the infinitely expanding, infinitely rich definition of what it means to be a human.

And again, with such natural, associative storytelling, Erdrich’s novels have allowed me to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being a reader. Relaxing into a story. Letting it wash over and through me. Yet still, now and then, a line or phrase will rise above the others to stop me in my tracks, read again, take out my notebook and scratch it down. Such as this one from Four Souls:

Pain took our minds off the greater pain that was the mistake that we still existed.

Or this one, from The Plague of Doves:

The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.

I’m not entirely sure what these novels are doing to me. But I like it. Even in this most passive form of reading, I’m aware that a key is turning somewhere inside this fevered and over-sized skull. I just hope I’m paying enough attention to make good on this quiet kind of lesson. Which leads me back to Toni Morrison and her first novel, The Bluest Eye:

There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

As always, thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for understanding that my reticence right now to hug or shake hands or even stand within your arm’s reach has nothing to do with you and everything to do with my traitorous, viral lungs. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for all these pretty blue gel caps that are helping save me from a gurgling death. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to save me from myself. And if your view of the future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.

You are the peach to my pit.

April 2018 Update (archived)

I’m going to continue with this monthly list of things I found influencing or interesting or weird enough to comment on, although it’d appear that April has only one entry. Which isn’t to say there weren’t more moments and objects and turns of language that knocked me flat or got my mind burning. But this entry feels worthy of a long exploration. If only because this examination of a poem and a period can stand-in for an explanation as to why I do so much of what I do.

1. “Louise,” by Raymond Carver

This poem—about a little girl living in a perpetual wince beneath her mother’s derisive tongue and hand—has already once helped shape a portion of a story (specifically, a scene in “A Means of Forgetting,” which certain Patreon subscribers have been getting delivered piecemeal in their mailboxes each month). And if we’re going to be honest, we can probably trace one or another thumbprint of Carver’s to almost everything I’ve written since 2012. But rereading the poem recently, I took the time to think about, not just what specific images and actions resounded to my core, but why those details mattered to me, why I should care about this poem and this character more than any other. So forgive me while I slowly dissolve back into the 1980s.

The world in which I was raised—the personal, experienced, subjective world—is so different from the world I live in now that it often feels like two completely separate lives. I’m not just talking about geography or culture or economy: I’m talking about the life lived. In many ways, I do not recognize or even identify with the person I was up through my teens. Yet those memories and experiences are indelibly imprinted on me. I might not resemble—physically or otherwise—the little boy digging in the fertile earth of Northern Maine, spiteful and alone with a stick and a dog, but his experiences are unique to me. Like it or not, they’re mine. And they shape who I am, what I do. Even when I’m not paying enough attention to notice.

What’s this have to do with Carver’s much abused Louise? The immediate assumption would be that I experienced something similar to the girl in the poem, the constant needling and shouting, the oblique lack of love. And to a degree, yes, I can identify with these experiences, with specific regard to my stepfather and the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity that defined social life at school. But that’s not why the poem is so striking to me: it’s not about me. It’s about that world I lived in. Where children were just baggage or an animal always underfoot. Where love had little to do with having a family. Where most examples of human touch were a slap or a punch or a shove.

I am in no way saying that this is the universal truth of life in Northern Maine. It’s not. But it is what I witnessed when I was young and poor and my mother was raising my brother and me by herself. Most of the people we knew then were in similar dire straits as us, and often hooked on one drug or another. Their homes were dirty and old and in need of repairs that would never occur, the scents of cheap beer and cigarettes, pot smoke and dog shit riding underneath everything. And hanging out in those homes, it seemed so much like the kids only got attention when they failed to be invisible. Which meant they either got good at being invisible for fear of the repercussions, or boldly became lions who didn’t care how often they were cuffed or slapped or thrown against a wall.

These were things I witnessed, and I remember, I felt lucky. Because I had at least one parent who gave a shit about me (problematic as her idea of parenting might sometimes have been). Because I didn’t fear when my mother put her hands on me and pulled me close. Because I didn’t (immediately) shrink beneath the threat of any kind of human touch.

All of which sounds like a pretty shitty childhood. But like I said: this isn’t about me. It’s about those other kids, biding their time until they were grown enough to escape, learning only the lessons immediate to survival. It’s about those parents, whose hurts coursed too deep or too disguised to be handled in any but the most destructive ways. It’s about the culture wherein all of this was normal. It’s about having witnessed that world—having been immersed in that world—and knowing that thirty years later, it still exists. People hurting people because they’re too lazy or warped to be kind.

So now that I’ve dumped that steaming heap of discomfort in your lap, allow me to thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for always being kinda okay with me exploring the least comfort aspects of being a vulnerable creature among vulnerable creatures. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for supporting the perpetual wedgie these stories continue to inflict upon your heart/head/spirit/etc. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to join our parade of vulnerability. And if your view of the  future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.

All this goofy shit I do: I do it for you.