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.

As some of you might personally be able to attest, it’s been a serious challenge attempting to write anything these past few months. On the one hand, it feels frivolous to write about make-believe people in make-believe scenarios while actual human beings are dying preventable deaths all around us (be they at the hands of police and federal agents or in the grips of COVID-19). On the other hand, to write about the here-and-now happenings of our world seems an equally impossible task: what positive use could such a document be in this moment when it’s already so easy to get trapped in a negative feedback loop of bad news compounding upon bad news? Since mid-March, these concerns have kept me from completing (and, in many cases, starting) so much of the work I so desperately want to create.

Yet in the midst of this dystopian summer, I found a workaround addressing both these challenges. This past June, for the first time in my life, I began keeping a daily journal—composed in formally identical declarative sentences—as a record, not only the events of the world that were on and affecting my mind, but also my domestic observations of home, of family, the creatures in my yard, the blooms erupting throughout the garden. In a season of isolation and upheaval, it in many ways helped to keep my brain from total dissolution into quaking depression. And now, with that months’ record now complete, I am launching a Kickstarter campaign in support of the limited publication of June of 2020: a quarantine journal, with all profits being donated to Black Girl in Maine, a social-justice blog founded by writer, educator, and activist Shay Stewart-Bouley. While my skill has always been the construction of narratives that allow the reader to feel what it’s like to experience the characters’ experiences, Shay’s 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). She has an ability that I lack. So I’m using my abilities to help support her and her work.

If this sounds like the sort of literature-for-a-cause you’re natively interested in, please consider contributing to this campaign. There are various reward levels, from hardbound to paperback to e-book editions of the journal, so even if you can only chip in five dollars, you’ll nevertheless receive some token of gratitude in return. Each book will be signed, numbered, and limited to the exact number of contributors to this campaign (meaning if only four people are in for the hardbound edition, only four hardbound copies will ever be printed). In addition, we’ll be making personalized video-readings for certain reward levels, as well as (and this one makes me really excited) staging a COVID-safe live reading in the garden where so much of the journal’s grounding meditation takes place.

For the sake of total transparency, the Kickstarter page also includes rough breakdowns of how each contribution will be divided and allocated depending on the reward level, and in case there’s any worry or doubt: every cent that does not go into the production of June of 2020 will be passed on to Black Girl in Maine (which is to say, I will not profit from this campaign at all).

To learn more about Black Girl in Maine and the work of Shay Stewart-Bouley, please visit blackgirlinmaine.com (and be sure to watch her TEDx Talk “Inequality, Injustice…Infection”). If you have any questions or concerns about the project, please do not hesitate in reaching out to me. And since Kickstarter runs on an all-or-nothing model (meaning if I do not reach my funding goal by midnight on August 21st, the entire enterprise is a bust), please share this with anyone you think might be interested.

Mid-Year Update

In my perennial laissez-faire approach to self-promotion and website maintenance, several noteworthy publications have come and gone this wretched year without my personal publicist and marketing team (i.e.: me) remarking much upon them. So to make up for said slacking, here is a pithy list of what stories, poems, essays, art, and music have been published where and how you can find them:

  • A Fox in Tall Grass,” a brief personal essay about my mother’s death, appeared in the January issue of El Chapo Review, which can be read for free online.
  • Saline,” a micro-fiction about domesticity and recovery, was long-listed for Reflex Fiction’s spring flash contest and can also be read free online.
  • Sister of Dog Fear (Wash & Sleep Journal, ’72-’74),” another sort of study of domesticity and solitude, appeared in the spring issue of the Arkansas International, which—in a magnanimous gesture resultant from the pandemic—was made available for free online (physical copies, however, can be ordered directly from the publisher).
  • Thomas,” a rare instance of my poetic voice, was read on Maine Public Radio by our state poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum, as part of his ongoing Poems from Here series (the text can also be read on Maine Public’s website).
  • Still Point Art Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, featured three of my digital prints (“Mary,” “Strider,” and “Crickets”) in their summer (which, due to the pandemic, equals “online”) exhibition, Making a Mark, as well as one print (“Mary”) in their print journal, Still Point Arts Quarterly, available both online as a free PDF as well as a physical book purchased from the publisher.
  • Waiting for Tampopo,” an ekphrastic poem inspired by the triptych “Kylum” by Murray Hantman, appeared in Megan Grumbling’s weekly column Deep Water in the Portland Press Herald/Sunday Telegram.
  • Sulfur,” a flash fiction piece about living alone with a chicken, appeared in the summer issue of The London Reader, which can be downloaded for free or purchased directly from the publisher.
  • Four Roads :: Losing Drafts, a new EP by my chamber group The Plaster Cramp, features translations of songs by Dean Thornton, Scott Sell, Ben Trickey, and Brandon Schmitt, all proceeds of which are being donated to the Grassroots Law Project.
  • Scott Sell has released two digital cassingles—Endless Tall Boys and Midwest Mess (sales of the latter of which are also being donated to the Grassroots Law Project)—that feature various production and session-musician work by me, including my first ever recorded performances on the clarinet.

This all in addition to Bare Portland’s performances of [STORAGE], written collaboratively with Christina W. Richardson and Marissa Sophia Schneiderman, as well as eight episodes of Quarantine Story Time, the totality of which can be stream in reverse chronology here.

As always, thank you for reading, thank you for watching, thank you for listening, thank you for sharing with anyone you think might care, thank you for staying safe and staying aware in this terrifying time.

Watch the Season Finale of *Quarantine Story Time*

To conclude our first two-month run of shows, Episode Eight of Quarantine Story Time features an exploration of influence, both in how outside forces helped shape the stories, and how outside forces influence the lives of others. Also, music by Brandon Schmitt (of Delta Sierra) and perhaps one-too-many references to songs by Joan of Arc.

Starting this week, QST will be going on a short hiatus while Genevieve and I rest and reassess what we want from this program, how we can make it better, how it can most effectively do what it wants to do. This might mean continuing as a live-stream, as a podcast, or as some other as-yet unconsidered format.

Until then, if you’ve enjoyed the program so far and would like to contribute to the fund to help sustain us in this extenuating era of human stupid, you can make a one-time or ongoing donation here. You can also buy signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer directly from my personal cache of books (the new Tenth-Anniversary Edition of White Horses, Brand New Moon, To Sleep as Animals, and Cream River can also be ordered from their respective publishers). And if you have any input on how the future of QST might look, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts.

It’s been a pleasure to produce this show for you. We look forward to sharing more stories very soon.

Watch Episode Seven of *Quarantine Story Time* PLUS SPECIAL NEWS

As the third and final installment in our mandated Horse Month series, Episode Seven of Quarantine Story Time is “No Actual Horses,” which is an oblique reference to my first book, the novella-as-mosaic White Horses, originally published in 2010 by Nada Publishing and which, for many of these intervening years, has been out of print.

It is because of this book’s long-term unavailability—in addition to a handful of other, more personal reasons—that I have decided to release a tenth-anniversary edition of White Horses, complete with new artwork, a new layout, a new introductory essay (wherein I explain some of my convoluted personal history with the text), and also a handful of corrections that update and tighten the narrative’s language while also honoring the voice and intentions of the younger Douglas who original conceived and composed these coalescent fragments. It actually comes as something of a relief, that this book once again has a chance at a continued public life. I hope some of you feel the same way.

(Also, if you place your order before April 29th, you can receive a 30% discount by applying the coupon code GIVEBKS3RT at checkout.)

If you enjoy the program, are in a fiscally stable position, and want to show your appreciation, you can purchase a signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer, as well as leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Eight of Quarantine Story Time—which will be both a Viewers’ Choice episode and also our season finale—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, May 4th.

Watch Episode Six of *Quarantine Story Time*

As the second installment in our mandated Horse Month series, Episode Six of Quarantine Story Time is “Ghost Horses,” featuring ghosts, horses, and horse named Ghost. Also: a resuscitating beetle, the birth of a foal, and a very dead bird.

If you enjoy the program, are in a fiscally stable position, and want to show your appreciation, you can purchase a signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer, as well as leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Seven of Quarantine Story Time—*No Actual Horses Horses*—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, April 27th.

Watch Episode Five of *Quarantine Story Time*

Episode Five of Quarantine Story Time, as the first installment of Horse Month, is “Mythic Horses,” featuring fantastical equids and equids of fantastical landscapes. Also: a man screaming at a shower head, a story by Jacob Cholak, and music by Scott Sell.

If you enjoy the program, are in a fiscally stable position, and want to show your appreciation, you can purchase a signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer, as well as leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Six of Quarantine Story Time—*Ghost Horses*—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, April 20th.

Watch Episode Four of *Quarantine Story Time*

Episode Four of Quarantine Story Time features work selected on the basis of viewer request and suggestion, investigating the concept of joy. Alongside the stories “Saline” and “Arena,” co-producer and domestic partner Genevieve Johnson shares passages from her personal journal. Also included in this episode: platonic prison romance, Angela Merkel, and (due to problems with our audio thwarting last week’s Pre-Show Music Time) a reprise sampling from Dean Thornton’s new album, We’re Glad You’re Here.

Also, because shelter-in-place orders have been extended in all parts of the US, Quarantine Story Time will continue for another (at least) four episodes all produced and performed under the banner of Horse Month, based on the unusual frequency of horses appearing throughout my fiction.

If you enjoy the program, are in a fiscally stable position, and want to show your appreciation, you can purchase a signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer, as well as leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Five of Quarantine Story Time—*Mythic Horses*—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, April 13th.

Watch Episode Three of *Quarantine Story Time*

Episode Three of Quarantine Story Time features brand new, unpublished fiction, as well as an excerpt from Megan Grumbling‘s libretto Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, the full document of which will be published this fall by Acre Books. Also included in this episode: an alternate apocalypse, the most arresting blue eyes, and new music from Dean Thornton’s new album, We’re Glad You’re Here.

If you enjoy the program and are in the rare position of maintaining a stable income during this viral crisis, you can purchase a signed copies of Blue of the World, Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer, as well as leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Four of Quarantine Story Time—featuring work based on audience request—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, April 6th.

Watch Episode Two of *Quarantine Story Time*

Episode Two of Quarantine Story Time features readings from Blue of the World, a collection of stories published by Tailwinds Press in April of last year, as well as a piece of flash fiction by Meghan Lamb from her new collection All of Your Most Private Places, out this month through Spork Press. Also included in this episode: 90s Brazilian metal, a sneezing dog, and songs by The Plaster Cramp.

[Unfortunately, due to high server traffic, the last two minutes of the program did not live-stream or record. We’re very sorry, for it was really just the best thing ever. Blame YouTube.]

If you enjoy the program and are in the rare position of maintaining a stable income during this viral crisis, you can purchase a signed copy of Blue of the World (as well as Our Shadows’ Voice, In the Mines, and The Opposite of Prayer) and/or leave a one-time “tip” in acknowledgement and appreciation of this installment of Quarantine Story Time. You are also free to contact me directly here.

Episode Three of Quarantine Story Time—featuring selections of new, unpublished work—will live-stream at 7:30 PM this coming Monday, March 30th.