Today is chilly but I’m wearing shorts and keeping my windows open because I have faith in the progression of time. Everything smells like lilacs and convolaria. My cat’s right ear mysteriously has a bald spot. In two days, Blue of the World will be publicly celebrated. Apollo Brown’s version of 12 Reason to Die might be better than Adrian Younge’s. These are the last days of May.
While I tick down the minutes until the event unfolds, I’m reminded that there’s a world outside that of my book, a world in which I take part and which takes part in me. For example: my short story “A Means of Forgetting” recently took second place in Glimmer Train‘s final Fiction Open. For example: Glimmer Train also, simultaneous to the announcement of the Fiction Open winners, published my essay “This Twisted Labyrinth of Self” in their monthly bulletin, wherein I express my gratitude and contrition to a dead hero. For example: the Lascaux Review published the title story to Blue of the World in their newest anthology, The Lascaux Prize Vol. 5. For example: I will be giving a reading at the Springvale Public Library on July 19th (1 pm) then later taking part in the 15th annual Books in Boothbay festival on July 27th with hopefully more events happening between now and then. Plus all the other aspects of writing that have nothing to do with the public: reading the same sentence for the 10,000th time and still finding room for improvement, driving down Route 9 while meditating absently about a story that has remained unwritten for three years and suddenly realizing a way inside the narrative, digging holes and planting artemisia shoots and cuttings of buddleia and dense rootballs of fothergilla and magnolia because sometimes writing means losing yourself in the dirt, cooking chicken marinated in vinegar and soy over an open fire so my partner can have some dinner, vacuuming the floor, touching foreheads with the dog.
Anyway. For those in southern Maine, I will be overjoyed to see you at the event this Thursday at SPACE (7 pm, doors at 6:30). For those beyond the sphere of realistic travel, consider ordering the book through Indiebound (which is a way to also support your local bookstore), Amazon (where you can leave kind words that apparently effect the likelihood of future sales), or Barnes & Noble (which is Barnes & Noble).
There are coastal mountains plunging headlong into the sea. There are towering trees and hills teeming with life. Birds in the sky and fish in the rivers. Everywhere all at once. Yet there’s also this: an dead expanse of nothing at the center of the world. Every inch identical to the inch before and after… Where is there any evidence to prove that God did not simply give up?
In Pushcart Prize-winner Douglas W. Milliken’s latest collection of eerie and unsettling short stories from Tailwinds Press, ordinary people alternately seek and flee grace as they run against the unfathomable mysteries of sexuality and loss: a dementia-ridden mother expounds on quantum physics to someone she is unconvinced is her son, a young man repeatedly tries and fails to end his own life, and the owner of a horse farm communes with the ghost of the woman he loves “because memory is a debt with its own black interest, proving all distances are finite yet impossible to span.” Yet Blue of the World is also a devastating portrait of humanity’s complex relationship with a brutally beautiful landscape—a world where apple trees grow in salted sand, people seek oblivion “by smashing a hole through a river’s ice and climbing under the crystalline sheet,” and arboreal death by chainsaw seemingly lurks behind any workday misstep.
“Blue of the World reminds me of some wild, enormous mineral towers I saw once above a riverbed. Just when you thought you’d figured out the contours, another plane appeared, and then another, then a broken edge, a polished step, a rippled bowl. These stories are like that—brilliant surfaces, hidden depths, unsettled corners. Weeks since I finished the book, still I dip into it like dreaming, the perfect paragraphs new in my hands.” – Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants and The Remedy for Love
“There’s such a satisfying alchemy to Milliken’s sentences—rhythms, textures, and resonances that magic our day-to-day idiocies into almost hilarious beauty. And by beauty, I don’t mean some transcendent feeling or deliverance from our isolation, but something much deeper and stranger: the extraction of an inner warmth we always hoped was there.” – Meghan Lamb, author of Silk Flowers
“Beneath the lucid, serene surface of Milliken’s prose lie disturbing realities. His immersive fiction takes us to places where we may be afraid to look and invites us to celebrate the beauty of unsettling mystery.” – Nat Baldwin, author of The Red Barn
“Milliken is a master of leveling the field of experience and revealing the things we all carry with us—awe, insecurity, nostalgia—whether we’re looking up at the stars or about to be swept out to sea.” – Celia Johnson, Creative Director, SLICE Literary
This morning I went out onto the porch with my coffee […] but as soon as I stepped out, I saw on the deck boards a little grey lump. A big black beetle was rolling the lump around. Sometimes burying its head into a softness. And as it moved the lump around, I realized what I was seeing was a very small, very dead bird. I do not know what bird it was. It hadn’t any feathers to speak of, just the moldy fuzz of a hatchling. The beetle unfolded the bird’s bunched-up neck and articulated its clenched legs. I know the beetle was just feeding, but it seemed it was trying to reanimate the bird. As if by exercising its limbs, it could bring it back to life. I crouched there on the porch watching the beetle work to resuscitate this little rotten thing.
It’s hard to know sometimes when a project actually begins. The oldest story in Blue of the Worldwas drafted in the October of 2009 for a contest I did not win. The most recent was composed in July of 2016 for the simple excuse of I wanted to. Somewhere in between, seventeen more were written, though I know many of the ideas go way back to the unrecallable crags of the early- to mid-00s or possibly even further (who can say). Regardless, on April 15th, Blue of the World will officially be a tangible book in the world as part of Tailwind Press‘s 2019 catalog.
In a celebratory display of welcome, a multi-disciplinary performance event will be held on May 30th at SPACE in Portland to mark the collection’s Maine release. Co-presented by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, the event will feature readings and live music, as well as interactive pieces and other dark slips of the unusual. More details to come.
Across the distance, I saw the kitchen light was on. You were sitting at the table when I walked in, playing solitaire and drinking a glass of ginger ale in your hospital gown. It’s the last thing I’d seen you wearing. Two moths fluttered about the yellow light above your head. There were eyes of wet on your glass.
Before diving into the goofy details of the past two month’s cavalcade of performances, I find that it’s necessary to play a little catch-up vis-à-vis recent publications. Since last July’s printing of “Small Shiny Fish” in Canada’s Broken Pencil, I have published my first poem in over ten years (“Jack Pine in Breeze” in Gibson Fay-Leblanc’s Deep Water column), my second (prose-) poem in ten years (“Thomas” in Winter Tangerine, which is not only stunning in its totality but also includes a festively-creepy reading of the piece), and a short piece continuing the anti-pastoral upbringing of Regan (“Chestnut v. Buckeye” in the new online ‘zine Muskeg). And on another order of magnitude, my full-length collection Blue of the World is all but finalized and ready for printing—due entirely to the ceaseless effort, faith, and vision at Tailwinds Press—in anticipation of a Spring 2019 release, while my novel Our Shadows’ Voice progresses along a similar path with the diligent souls at Fomite, who are aiming for a Summer 2019 release. So all in all, it’s proved to be a busy season in my grey, asbestos tower.
After a respite of days following our Rockland performance in a desanctified church, Scott, Genevieve, and I reconvened our act for a performance at Biddeford’s Engine, where in our matching Dickie’s coveralls we explored the permutations of longing and fuckupery to a room of pie-eaters and confused children. It was exciting to feel the songs begin to tighten and shift in ways both organic and unexpected, and in addition to the two songs on the record on which she sings (“Cold Coffee” and “Brier Island Blues”), Genevieve also joined us on a rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s interpretation of “If I Needed You.” Meanwhile, the world’s worst classic rock cover band did their loud and sleazy thing in the street right outside the venue. Like the man says, “You can’t always need what you get.”
The following week, I got to take a solo part in the annual Waking Windows Festival in Portland, where I took the opportunity to read a selection from The Opposite of Prayer, which has gone regrettably neglected since its release this spring. In a fortuitous turn of events, I actually got to perform right before this guy read his manifesto, proving to be an even greater than anticipated one-two punch of fan-boy dream-come-true and utter amazement at the raw talent exercising itself in real-time. Then I watched Ivy Sole take down the house. A very good day for sensual weirdos.
The beginning of October brought the three of us back together at BCA’s Cyclorama for the Boston Art Books Fair, where Pilot Editions—publisher of In the Mines as well as several of my other books—was in resplendent attendance. Because of certain logistical circumstances, we had to rearrange some of the songs for a more stripped-down performance, swapping out my multi-sectional electric setup for a new standard-size acoustic bass. Which was totally dope! Further rearrangement also included Genevieve’s vocal contributions on every song, thus solidifying her as a permanent member of the band (and also solidifying the reality of this actually being a band, albeit one without a name yet). Throughout the years, I have had my reasons for having reservations about doing anything in Boston, but the Cyclorama show proved all my angst baseless. It was a great turnout that yielded enough book/album sales to more than cover our gas. Also: excellent post-show pizza.
All of which leads to the present and this past weekend’s show at FOG in Rockland, where our expanding set of songs and stories were accompanied by our man Jason Goodman on drums and the unflappable Nina Noah on cello, and while Genevieve’s violin debut on “Howard Says” was foiled by a last minute broken string, it did pave the way for her mandolin debut (made possible by kismet and the identical tunings of small stringed instruments). It was thrilling to hear how new people’s acts and ideas could bring these songs into new and surprising sonic territory, a point made especially clear on our first-ever performance of “Lauren,” transported from an aching chamber piece into a sensual trance locked down with a surprisingly apropos hip-hop beat. The love evident in Rockland was kinetic, and hospitality of the FOG staff was unparalleled, as were their cocktails and post-show vittles. If every performance could begin with a baller Old Fashioned and end with a chicken pot pie, I’d be a fat and happy man.
Since we have no further events scheduled (yet) in support of In the Mines, I guess this marks the end of this leg of the “tour.” But hopes are for more New England shows in the coming months, as well as an actual multi-date tour in New York (and maybe Pennsylvania, too). I am more than open to suggestions and invitations, so don’t be shy in contacting me about scheduling an event in your hamlet or burgh.
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing and for your daily incentive to continue working in spite of the In-House Critic’s constant suggestion to stay in bed and sleep each entire day away. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for keeping me flush with prescription meds and cheap whiskey. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to tantalize me with chemical reward 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 surprise twenty-ounce pour when I’m only expecting a pint.
[Not that two performances can really be called a tour, but for the time being, this is the best my compadre Scott and I can do: traveling to one town or another for a single performance before returning home to grumble and snort through our daily rituals, waiting until our next chance to talk and sing at you.]
After convening at my house in Saco for a steaming feast of empanadas and too much George A Dickle, we performed our release event at the Apohadion Theater in Portland, Maine where: my almost-wife Genevieve made her on-stage debut singing backup on two songs, two songs were transformed into grungy anthemic rockers due to the guest drumming of our buddy Will (pictured above playing some jaunty keys on “Howard Says“), and I in my incidental hangover gave what might be the most tongue-tied reading I’ve given in years (thanks, George A Dickle, you rye-steeped bastard). Overall, a succulent welcome into the world for our new creation.
The following week’s show in Rockland was a much smoother, and thus a far more celebratory, event. The venue—a desanctified church that Steel House Projects’ Donna McNeil has converted into a home and occasional performing space—proved to be one of the most acoustically rich spaces within which I’ve ever had the fortune to perform. Our soundcheck was surgical, our outfits were boss, and our dinner was salad. The closest thing to a heckler we had was a bottle of champagne being popped mid-set. Our chops were tight and our flubs were jazz. It’ll be a tough row to mow for any future show to top this. But I am completely willing (in fact, eager!) to be wrong.
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 modulator tremelo-ing my keys so very, very sweetly.
[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?
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.
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?
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.
In 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.