Thus spake Open Mike Eagle in his hurts-so-good anthem “Dark Comedy Late Show,” and man, what a fun line to say aloud and even better sentiment to feel. So while the finishing touches are being applied to the next installment of Friends Saying Nice Things About My Art, here’s a brief intermission to mention that my essay “Anyone Can Have a Good Time” is a finalist for a Maine Literary Award for short nonfiction. The story—an extended meditation on my evolving relationship with my mother before, during, and after her death—was published late last year in Shenandoah, where you can read it for free online along with an accompanying interview.
The Maine Literary Awards are held annually to recognize excellence in the Maine writing community and are conducted by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Winners will be announced during the award ceremony on May 24th at SPACE in Portland, Maine.
by guest contributor Genevieve Victoria Casale Johnson
[For the second installment in this series of responses composed by collaborators and friends, Genevieve Victoria Casale Johnson engages in an associative/expressionistic meditation on “Reuptake,” the opening track to Blind Pelican’s Let the Sun Take the Blame (as well as a corresponding namesake single), a song I wrote pre-pandemic about the dissonance emergent from missing people who I might never see again while simultaneously experiencing the low-grade animal bliss of sunlight warm against my body. (Perhaps fittingly, the choruses are sung by Ben Trickey, songwriting extraordinaire and ages-old friend who I have not seen in more years than I care to count.) Given that Genevieve is my long-time domestic- and creative-partner, it probably comes as no surprise that she had a hand in composing this song (in fact, one of Genevieve’s early vocal melodies from “Reuptake” was later reinterpreted by The Plaster Cramp as “Pella’s V. Occultation,” Genevieve being the eponymousV. cited in so many Plaster Cramp titles). It was an immense pleasure working with Genevieve on this/these song(s), and doubly so to observe and assist as she composed this response that is very much shaped by the iconography of our home, from the gardens we’ve planted to our nests on the sun porch to the nose-to-nose half-asleep silence that speaks stronger of affection than any known words. — DWM]
It’s too cold and too early to write this on the sun porch as I’d intended. So I found a sunbeam in our bedroom to curl up in, 12 feet above and 12 feet behind the corner of the house I think of when I hear “Reuptake.” But conditions are similar. The snowmelt off the roof keeps catching my eye. We got an inch or two of snow last night that likely won’t make it through the afternoon. The sun is getting stronger each day.
This week I’ll start seeds in the basement beneath the UV glow of a grow lamp and by the end of the month, I’ll bring them up to live on the sun porch, introduce their cotyledons to a second kind of light. These three walls of glass will heat the room up into the mid-80s on sunny days and in the evenings we hope it will hold in the upper-40s. I’ll put heat mats under the more tender starts to keep them from dropping below 60.
I catch sight of the witch hazel through the melt-splashed panes of glass, scraggly neon yellow petals held by burgundy bracts on a twisting shrub that has been broken and taped back together how many times now? Until we planted it here. In the circle garden. At our home at the corner of Central and Nye. It reaches out no higher than two feet, a wide Y stretching where it can. This year it bloomed on February 4th. January 31st last year. January 26th before that. This harbinger of life seemingly out of synch with the rest of the garden. It pulled me out this year. Remember how I was searching for the first signs of a bud opening at the end of January? You would tell me it was coming. And we would check again in the mornings. When the first petal weaseled itself out of the barely separating bud, I called it.
—“It’s blooming,” you reminded me.
And the light got a little stronger each day.
And after pruning in the orchard, we catnapped on the sun porch until the sun dipped behind Cindy’s house kitty-corner from our own, nuzzling into each other until it was too cold to bear then herding the cat back inside to close down the porch for the night.
Even without my glasses on, I can see the girdles and thick bark-scars on the witch hazel from its previous lives on Brackett Street and at the Black Lodge. And I can see, too, a haze of color against the snow punctuated by the rhythm of melt past the window. Electric yellow unfolding from burgundy. A snippet of glorious life in mud season.
Genevieve Victoria Casale Johnson weaves together education and agroecology with art and design. She curates multi-genre events, leads intergenerational play programs, and creates meals that evoke deep conversations. Sometimes she stitches tiny pants for tiny people. Sometimes she makes infinitesimal donuts with friends. And sometimes she tends a subterranean garden with her house spouse.
You can find more music by Blind Pelican on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and most anywhere else you enjoy streaming and downloading independent music.
[Expository note: given that writing fiction has become, for me, a truly alarming struggle during these pandemic years, the act of writing promotional/acknowledgement material for my recent publications (and other creative endeavors) has become well-nigh impossible. To counter this (with any luck temporary) linguistic enervation, I have enlisted the aid of some of my most beloved and talented friends to act as my hype-people while I rekindle my spirit and relearn how to write. The first installment in this series is provided by the artist and writer Anne Buckwalter, a dear friend, a generous spirit, and an absolute genius in the realm of subtle detail. Her paintings catch my breath and her stories stop my heart. I am so honored for her words, words I now get to share with you without any further preamble.— DWM]
I grew up in a family of woodcarvers. My dad carves uncannily realistic ducks and birds, and his dad was a master decoy carver and cuckoo-clock repairman. I didn’t inherit their talents — I can barely put together a basic shelf, let alone a convincing avocet — but I like the idea of bending a hard, unforgivable material into something supple and suﬀused with life. Such is the feat of Douglas W. Milliken’s small and spirited wooden carvings, referred to by the artist as dendroforms.
I had to google this word. The prefix dendro means tree-like, meaning the wooden objects are eﬀectively self-referential, though they bear no resemblance to the form of an archetypical tree. Instead, they take on anima-imbued shapes that are not quite animal in the anthropomorphic sense, but nevertheless seem to have the capacity for life. The forms communicate a history of long existence, as if they are remnants or talismans from another time. Perhaps this is because they arrived to my apartment in Philadelphia carefully packed with descriptive cards explaining the material (all of the wood was sourced from local areas near Milliken’s home in Maine), the stain (all natural dyes, such as red wine, aronia berries, or black tea), and the finish (beeswax, linseed oil, etc) and a small drawing of each one— silhouettes ranging from long and sinewy (the Adrian Brody of the group, as I referred to it) to short and stocky (the George Costanza).
Trying to match each form to its correlating description felt like an exercise in species classification, and I wondered as I matched how critical this task was to interpreting the objects from an aesthetic perspective.
Very critical, I believe. As any other hopeless weirdo who also attended six-plus years of art school can attest, the context in which a work is experienced is as important as the work itself. Rather than seeing these objects on a shelf or in a vitrine in a white-cube gallery, they were delivered to my home where I could touch them, read about their origins, delight in their idiosyncrasies, experience their symbolic and literal weight (the former much heavier and the latter much lighter than I had anticipated). I moved them around my kitchen table like the pieces to a haunted prehistoric board game, I caressed them like the worry-stones I used to carry around as a kid, I played with them like toys, smelled them, I attributed them personalities (The Professor, The Athlete, The Drag Queen) and chose favorites. Within an hour of them being in my possession, they had become strangely intertwined with my own history, my own lost childhood.
Whether or not this intimate exchange was all part of Milliken’s intent is unknown, and arguably irrelevant. This is why the digestion of art is a dialogue rather than a monologue: what the artist means for one to get out of the work must be simultaneously considered as a vital component and disregarded altogether. However, having both read Milliken’s stories and heard his music, the dendroforms seem to me to be spiritual siblings to his other creative endeavors, and all three are inextricably connected by a unifying, weathered thread: the coexistence of roughness and smoothness, an unpredictable sharp edge or twisted knot on an otherwise soft plain. This eﬀortless contradiction, to me, is an ultimate strength of all of Milliken’s work, and his wooden forms are no exception. Though I might find myself endeared to their physical qualities, they are much more than that — not simply charming playthings, but hard proof of life, personal relics, not trying to exist as anything but what they are.
Though disparate in appearance and utility, it is easy to love Milliken’s carvings with the same tenderness I love my dad’s shorebird carvings. I have a shelf of my dad’s birds in my kitchen, and I set one of the butterfly pea flower tea-stained dendroforms between a least sandpiper and a mallard. Where the bird carvings play their tricks on me, wanting me to believe that tiny hearts beat inside their breasts and they could at any point fly away, the small, smooth lump of wood between them pulled no punches, told no lies. The opposite of a decoy. Not alluding to life, per se, but still full of it.
Anne Buckwalter is a painter and writer currently based in Philadelphia. Her creative practice explores female identity and the coexistence of contradictory elements. Inspired by the folk art traditions of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, her work arranges disparate objects in mysterious rooms and ambiguous spaces. By imagining obscure narratives that embrace paradoxes, her paintings delve into questions about the female body, intimacy, and gender roles. You can find her work at www.annebuckwalter.com.
To see more examples of dendroforms, as well as other occasional documentation of my life in art, consider following my Instagram @douglaswmilliken. You can also direct queries there, or through the Contact form on this page.
I’m going to open with an obvious statement with which we can all relate: 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, the 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.