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.

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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.

March 2018 Update (archived)

vyz3jh1_qiaewzvzobljamsi3asem92fo_zaa731efgb0w1xm6svgfufd6ht_faiHaloumi is pissed because I won’t let her destroy everything I love. I feel okay with my decision to stop her.

Anyway.

Because I think it’s way more interesting to write about the things I’m excited about versus the things that I’m doing, I’m going to continue my list of on-going influences and motivations.

1. “Baby Retains Faith in Humanity after 45 Years at Bottom of Well” by The Pacemaker

Ranking (in my mind, anyway) as one of the best bands no one has ever heard of, The Pacemaker had this fantastic ability of collaging songs out of random scraps of music contributed by each member—a riff here, a phrase there—yielding a catalog of, not the incoherent patchwork you’d expect, but solid, comprehensive compositions full of beauty and surprise, all lynch-pinned together by Zach Webber’s emotive/absurdist narrative lyrics.

“Baby Retains Faith…” is no exception. Shifting between three movements, the song translates itself from a steady rock-and-roll swing (it’s just a hair too reserved to be a swagger) into a spare post-rock meditation, building finally into a head-bobbing crescendo that is simultaneously victorious and heartrending. But what’s kept this song stuck in my craggy brain lately isn’t the four-part virtuosity of the players, but Webber’s lyrics and—more importantly—the delivery of said lyrics.

As the newspaper headline-esque title suggests, this is a story about a “baby” who has lived nearly a century in an abandoned well. And to start, the narrator seems pretty relaxed recounting his plight. After all, he could still see things (“at least for the first few years”), and he had his brothers and sister to keep him company. Not so bad. But eventually the darkness steals his sight (what is there to see anyway?), and then one by one, his siblings wither up and die. But still, he talks to them, especially his sister Linda, even if she never answers, he keeps talking to his sister Linda. Time goes by. It could be worse.

What functions as the true heartbreak of the story, though, is when the baby is finally rescued. Being blinded by darkness for so long, now he’s blinded by light. Again, no big deal. But then later, a movie is made of his life. And the movie ends with the reunited family hugging and crying, his parents wailing, “O! how we regret leaving all you kids for dead!” If only it were true. Hollywood made a happy ending. But what’s a forty-five-year-old baby to do, starting over his whole life all alone without even the desiccated corpses of his siblings to keep him company?

The story is so absurd as to be meaningless. But that’s why music is an experiential medium. Not words on a paper. Not notes on a sheet. You sit and listen while a thing happens to you. And what Webber does in taking on the persona of the abandoned is terrifying. Not because the character has been alone so long. Because even now, with his rescue reveal as being the true hell, he’s still trying to pretend it’s okay.

2. The Door by Magda Szabo

It’s not the content of the book I want to get into—it’s great, by turns hilarious and viscerally jarring as only Eastern European writers seem able to do—so much as the simple structure of its episodic chapters. Maybe things progressed very organically for Szabo, but it feels like she created a plan and executed it through to completion. These are the characters. This is the situation. These are the particular points that need to be explored (children, generosity, forgiveness, a dog, a fancy dinner, et cetera). Write each point as a sort of encapsulated fable. Stitch them together into a single, oddly complete novel.

This is probably a pretty elementary way of approaching novel writing. By which I mean: this is one of the most basic ways of constructing a book. But having spent a lifetime entering every situation through the backdoor, the obvious always strikes me as amazing. This is yet another way of telling a story. I could, in fact, make this job easier on myself if I opted for just a little bit of planning.

3. Busdriver’s Instagram account

It should come as no surprise to anyone that avant-garde hip-hop shaman Busdriver is among one of the most revered artistic figures in my personal canon these past few years. So you’d think I would have found—or even actively sought out—dude’s various social media platforms. Yet it was only in the past week that I discovered that Driver had an Instagram account.

So what. Everyone posts pictures online. That’s what we do now. And to be honest, most of Driver’s pictures are just fine. Some selfies, some old snapshots of his early days coming up in the LA underground rap scene, images related to projects his fellow artists are engaged in. No, what’s great about these pictures is that Busdriver is subverting the expectation of the platform (a picture with a punch line caption) by writing detailed stories about why this picture is being shared. Sometimes it’s to memorialize a dead rapper who helped guide and encourage him in his teenage years. Sometimes it’s to explain the motivation behind certain projects. Sometimes it’s extended accounts from other artists talking about their process and product. And sometimes it’s about the bullshit his black body and all black bodies have to suffer on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. Busdriver’s way of phrasing the world fucking floors me. I love it. And as someone who hungers for Driver’s language, this discovery has been a feast amid famine.

So these are the things I’ve been chewing on. And while I’d much prefer to end it here, I do need to say that, in addition to getting myself hung up on songs and books and other people’s social media, I also somehow sold two books to two different publishers this month. So keep an eye out for a new novel and new full-length collection in the next year or so. And too, next month a new chapbook, The Opposite of Prayer, will be published by The Head & the Hand Press. I make these things for you. Thank you for letting me make them.

As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for accepting the fact that this handkerchief is in fact just a shred of old underpants. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of an actual handkerchief. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the properly monogrammed kerchief society and help make my nose clean and dignified again. And if your view of the  future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.

February 2018 Update (archived)

In the perpetual fumble to figure out what exactly to do with this space, I’m electing this month to share a partial list of recent motivating factors, starting with:

1. This picture of Trump not understanding how to shake hands.

I’ll forego the obvious humor embedded in this moment of fundamental confusion—all too reminiscent of a golden retriever whose been tricked—to focus instead on something about accidental empathy and self-identification. Because as much as I hate this bag of shit, it occurs to me that a lot of my characters could easy be caught in a similar circumstance, baffled by their mistakes and blind to where their knowledge fails (Coleman being maybe the prime example). Which might be a perfect way of describing both the lion’s share of my narrators and our current president: perplexed by their failures and too-often unsuspecting of their ignorance.

So what’s the difference between my imaginary boobs and this very real moron? Claims of likeability could be made (as awful as his life gets, Coleman never strays too far from charming), but I don’t know if that really matters. Partly because writing likeable characters is like preparing Bolognaise (pleasing to consume but unchallenging in production), but also because, back when Trump was just a celebrity buffoon with no real power or control over others’ lives, he was somehow fun to observe. A cartoon whose antics took place in the real world. The scummy friend you somehow can’t help enjoying being around.

No, the major difference between Trump and Coleman resides almost entirely in the amount of power and control they each possess. Coleman has never succeeded at anything (or anyway, much of anything), and no one’s ever been very interested in helping him out or supporting him. He’d likely squander that assistance anyway. Where Trump has clutched hold of every opportunity that’s ever come his way, Coleman lets everything slip through his fingers without even the consideration of regret, let alone chances lost.

So: what would it look like if one of my characters actually succeeded at something in a big way? What if one of these boobs suddenly had some power, over themselves and over the world?

2. Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas.

Late in the film, a mother and child are reunited. They see each other and say some unimportant words, then do the obvious thing: they hug. And as they hug, in a gesture so natural and stripped of motivation as to maybe be unscripted, the child turns his fingers into scissors to snip off his mother’s hair, clok-clok-cloking his tongue for each nick. A small action that reveals more about the character (and the moment) than any line of dialog. The gravity of reunion only goes so far. It’s fun to do fun things. And you don’t try to play with someone you’re mad at for running away.

3. These lines from Tess Gallagher’s “My Unopened Life.”

Hadn’t I done well enough with the life
I’d seized, sure as a cat with
its mouthful of bird, bird with its
belly full of worm, worm like an acrobat of darkness
keeping its moist nose to the earth, soaring
perpetually into darkness without so much as
the obvious question: why all this darkness?
And even in the belly of the bird: why
only darkness?

4. Colin Stetson’s “All This I Do for Glory.”

In a body of work boldly marked by a very masculine kind of might, what makes this song stand out is its singular sensuality. Sure, it’s more a Matthew Barney kind of sensuality than, say, Prince’s. Which is to say: primal, and maybe not entirely safe. Yet it’s also rare to see exhibited so keenly the measured swaying hips of a hunter, someone capable of killing demonstrating a tenderness that has nothing to do with weakness.

As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for  ignoring the tremendous tear in the seat of my pants. If you are a current  Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of new pants. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the new pants party and help make my lower-half presentable again. And if your view of  the future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.

“There was no space between us.”

Cover_OppositePrayerIt is with great pride and excitement that I announce my contribution to The Head & the Hand’s Shockwire Chapbook Series is now available.

In seven interconnected stories of power, entitlement, and privilege set throughout the northern subtropics, The Opposite of Prayer examines the pinprick where control intersects gender, language, and money, where one’s body becomes a weapon and devotion becomes a crutch.

The Shockwire Chapbook Series’ mission is to “to publish writing that has the power to spark change and entertain, […] to raise the storytelling stakes through a socially-engaged focus.”

All books within the series are $3 postage paid (you can select which titles you’d like to purchase after clicking the “Add to Cart” button), and can also be found in The Head & the Hand’s mobile literary vending machine, currently in residence at the Soup Kitchen Cafe in Philadelphia.

Grief, Power, & Pasture Fantasies

I’ve said it before that too often, there are only two modes within which I exist: one of too much, and another of not enough. So while it’s goofily overwhelming, it is nevertheless my great pleasure to say that in the next twelve months, I have three very different book projects scheduled for publication.

  • The Opposite of Prayer, a pocket-sized collection of stories about power and manipulation, due out April 12th through The Head & the Hand Press.
  • Blue of the World, a full-length collection of stories about walking the knife’s edge between self-knowledge and denial, due out later in 2018 through Tailwinds Press.
  • Our Shadows’ Voice (or maybe Awake, O You Sleepers, depending on what mood strikes at that crucial deciding hour), a novel about the messy permutations of grief, due out in the early months of 2019 through Fomite Press.

Again, this is a goofy amount of books to have coming out in such a short period of time. Which means I will likely be on the road a lot in the near future, acting weird in strange places with strange people, which is kinda my element. With that in mind, if you’d like to contribute to this travelling lifestyle, feel free to contact me about doing a reading in your hamlet or burgh.

fieldsburningfarawayWhile these too-many books steadily digest themselves from manuscript to physical thing, here are two new short stories to consider. “Atlantic Leather Co.”—a dreadful meditation on scarves and belts—is part of Issue 47 of Ireland’s Crannog. Meanwhile, Zetetic’s current issue features my irreal pasture-fantasy “Fence Post & Pilgrim.” It’s very possible that one of these two stories counts as my 100th journal publication. But today, I am too tired to count.

As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for accepting the fact that this handkerchief is in fact just a shred of old underpants. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of an actual handkerchief. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the properly monogrammed kerchief society and help make my nose clean and dignified again. And if your view of the future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.

A weapon and devotion.

After a too-long hiatus from this site, a very overdue update on the goings-on around here.

maine-review-4-1-coverIn the arena of immediate gratification, two new Regan stories—“The Savage Yard” and “Lonesome Jubilee“—are now available in the new winter issues of The Maine Review and |tap|, respectively. While the former will have to be ordered from the publisher, the later is available for free online.

And in the arena of delayed gratification, nearly half a dozen new stories are slated for publication over the next few months, as well as a new chapbook with Philadelphia’s The Head & the Hand Press as part of their new Shockwire Chapbook Series. Composed of seven interconnected stories of power, entitlement, and privilege set throughout the northern subtropics, The Opposite of Prayer examines the pinprick where control intersects gender, language, and money, where one’s body becomes a weapon and devotion becomes a crutch.

Finally, in non-literary news, two new albums with which I’m involved—a set of weird country songs I’m producing for/with long-time collaborator Scott Sell, and a full-length record by my newest band Milk St. Peter & the Unknown Knowns—are nearing completion and, with any luck, should be available sometime this coming Spring. It’s been a tremendous amount of fun to explore such very different compositional modes with these records. I’ll be pleased to finally share these with the world.

As always, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for ignoring the tremendous tear in the seat of my pants. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for the future promise of new pants. And if you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and welcome to join the new pants party and help make my lower-half presentable again. And if your view of the future looks too unsteady for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and get the equivalent rewards for one month.