Ars Hermetica, 2020

I’m going to open with an obvious statement with which we can all: this year did not go as anticipated. So after 52 weeks of the absurd, the painful, and the unforeseen during which time I neglected to respond to any email on time, wasted entire shell-shocked days in isolation listening only to pre-recorded rain storms, and completely abandoned maintaining any pretense of a public social-media presence, it seems only fair that I break my 38-year no-year-end-wrap-ups streak with an absurd, painful, and unforeseen year-end-wrap-up.

The Stories in the World.

In addition to not writing nearly as much as I normally would (and far less than I wanted to), I also published far less (though, oddly, more than I published in 2019). The stories that did make it into print, however, are some of my favorites: a short essay about my mother, “A Fox in Tall Grass,” in the El Chapo Review; a quiet recovery narrative, “Saline,” in Reflex; a diary of domesticity and solitude, “Sister of Dog Fear (Wash & Sleep Journal, ’72-’74)” in the Arkansas International; a testimony of adolescent delinquency, “Thomas,” read on-air by Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum on his program Poems from Here; a meditation on a painting while waiting outside a theater, “Waiting for Tampopo,” in Deep Water; a story of interdependence with an unlikely cohabitant, “Sulfur,” in the London Reader; and a fellowship discovered among survivors of abuse, “Wet Nap & Sensualist,” in Sporklet. Some of these stories have been looking for homes for more than six years. Some were mere months old. I’m psyched that they’ve found they way out into the world, and that most of them can be read for free.

This year also saw the republication of my first book, White Horses, in a special tenth-anniversary edition featuring new artwork and a reflective preface. This marks not only a new life for something that has long been out of print, but also a personal turning point: in making this reprint of White Horses—a book I have harbored many mixed-feelings for since before its original publication—I finally realized that it doesn’t do me any good to reflexively degrade my past self for having been less experienced than my current self (who in turn will soon be damned anyway to being a past self and thus ignorant to what future me knows). Not only does it harm me, it harms the people who loved me then and supported me in my work (if someone tells me they were really moved by something in White Horses and I respond by calling it an amateurish flop, doesn’t that send the message that this person’s taste is likewise unrefined, that they are wrong in their affection for the thing?). Whatever flaws that book (or any of my books, or any of my records, or any of my other artistic forays) may have, it was created from a place of sincerity, embodying a legitimate urge to share the experience—either figuratively or literally—of what it feels like for this unique human to exist. In a year so permeated by such stultifying, paralyzing weight, it was good to recognize that I can (and should) cut myself some slack now and then. White Horses isn’t perfect. None of my stories are perfect. But I love them. I put as much of myself into each of them that I could. If I can’t love them, then what the hell about myself can I love?

Also (not my stories but someone else’s), my digital print “Solo” became the cover image for my dear friend Suzanne Langlois’s debut collection of poems, Bright Glint Gone.

In a different sort of literary accessibility, during the first two months of the pandemic I produced eight episodes of Quarantine Story Time, a live reading series where I shared my own stories alongside the work of Megan Grumbling, Brad Liening, and Meghan Lamb, among others. It was a joy and challenge to produce these shows, and with any luck, I’ll get my shit together and make a few more in the coming year.

The Stories Not Quite So in the World.

There were two literary projects this year that definitely happened but you will be hard pressed to find evidence of. The first was the immersive site-specific performance/installation/thing [STORAGE], whose run was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-written with Christina W. Richardson and Marissa Sophia Schneider and produced/created/orchestrated by the Bare Portland theater collective, [STORAGE] inhabited a wing of a former Catholic girls’ school, bringing together the anxieties of identity, sexuality, and personal history with towers of garbage, pizza-box diatribes, and the longing for the absolute best pair of short-shorts. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience seeing [STORAGE] morph from a chaos of someone else’s belongings into a dizzying circus of vulnerability, and such a massive heartbreak to see it end halfway through its run. I hope that someday it can have another life. I hope that some of you actually got to see it performed.

A different version of the ephemeral was my short-run publication June of 2020: a quarantine journal. Written as a series of formally-identical declarative sentences, June of 2020 was the physical aspect of a fundraising effort to support Black Girl in Maine, founded by writer, educator, and activist Shay Stewart-Bouley whose talent lies in taking the complex abstractions of social justice and explaining them in a way that is not only immediate and concrete, but also grounded in the experiences of both herself and her audience (in other words, she takes the cultural phenomenon at large and makes it directly relevant to you and your life). The project raised close to $700 for Black Girl in Maine, with ten paperback editions and twenty-two hardbound copies being produced for individuals across the US. While these thirty-two books are the sum total of copies ever to be made, Portland Public Library and Herrick Memorial Library both have copies that, sometime in the new year, should be part of their permanent collections. June of 2020 can also be read electronically through the PPL’s Isolating Together.

The Songs in the World.

While composing new stories might have been a near-impossible task, I found that working on music—be it constructing new compositions, fleshing out other people’s songs, or fine-tuning existing recordings—was something I could focus on for hours and days at a time without feeling the crushing burden of the external world. While there are several projects still in the works with various collaborators, several others are easily found and, if not enjoyed, at least heard.

Early in our COVID lockdowns, long-time friend and collaborator Scott Sell and I began working out alternate versions of songs we had been playing on tour together these past few years. The idea was to introduce the pieces to new territories, new moods and sonic environments. In this effort, I believe we were successful. While Endless Tall Boys welds brooding jazz with the emptiest roadhouse barroom, Midwest Mess ranges from post-nap pastoralia to 90s alternative guitar rock. With any luck, more of these digital cassingles will be in Scott’s and my future.

Operating in a more ambient vein, I began writing new work (some as tight compositions, others as loose sketches designed for copious improvisation) for my long-distance chamber group The Plaster Cramp. With a quartet of EPs—Four Roads::Losing Drafts, Perpetual Aftermath, Ganymede, and Dao Yurenat—we synthesized the widow’s-walk dirge with the breathless drones of Colin Stetson, the dizzying spatial labyrinths of early Joan of Arc with the burgeoning senility of an old hound dog.  After decades of writing obtuse art-rock and hammering post-metal, these are likely the most accessible tunes I’ve ever written. I feel no shame in this.

On a more production-oriented note, I also helped in the final mastering of Dean Thornton’s We’re Glad You’re Here, a gorgeous and confounding guitar-rock record exploring longing and loss and the thin line where one dissolves into the abounding landscape (exactly my kind of jam). Dean and I have known each other for nearly twenty years and have collaborated on too many projects to enumerate here, yet it was still a fresh and exhilarating experience helping to usher these songs into their proper sonic space. (I also mastered a related project by The Gentle Gang, a record called Rifle Fire, Darker Land that maybe only a dozen people will ever hear.)

Oh, and I started playing clarinet. That’s not something you’ll likely want to hear just yet, though.

Otherwise…

This was a year defined by deep anxiety and hours of staring out windows at birds enacted dramas in my garden. A year defined by digging holes and cataloging flowers, singing at the cat and wishing my partner were home. A year defined by the depression from without at battle with the depression from within. A year defined by online D&D battles and drinking whiskey with neighbors from a safe and cautious remove. A year defined by grass and leaves and the scent of rotting apples and the scent of my partner’s hair. A year defined by patience.

Thank you for reading.