Monday, February 28, 2011

Blue Plumb Banshees

My story "Coming By It Honest" is up today at Blue Fifth Review. Thanks to the Blue folk for working this story into something better than it was when first they laid eyes on it.

Southern scribe Charles Dodd White has extended a most kind invitation to me to become a contributor for a new web destination called Plumb. This will be exciting, and Charles already has several talented contributors lined up. Stay tuned.

Editors and readers...go nominate stories for storySouth's 2011 Million Writers Award over at Jason Sanford's house or the banshees will forever crowd your grave.

Friday, February 25, 2011

These Mountains, These Words: Part 2

In Pancake's short story, “Trilobites,” the main character, Colley, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he will not be able to take care of dead father’s farm. The land and his inability to work it weighs heavily on the young character, trapping him and intriguing him at the same time, and comes to the forefront through vivid descriptions of that confining landscape. Fittingly, the story opens with one of Pancake’s favorite characters – West Virginia.

"I open the truck’s door, step on to the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least east for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and have never much wanted to leave."

Like the mountains he worked so hard to portray in his work, Pancake’s approach in style is simple, but his message is vital, vital enough that he felt it important to make room for it and his language and remove what might be referred to as lyrical language or, the less distinguished term, purple prose, from his efforts altogether. This is a style often criticized and rarely used properly or with much success. Often, the result is the too clear image for the reader of the writer poised at the keyboard working words into sentences to make paragraphs, the tangible product of that diligent and talented writer at work that many authors hope to show to the world to redeem themselves, the effort and their profession. Most of the time this can be as disruptive to the reader as a mechanic at their elbows, clanging and scraping away at a hateful transmission or dented fender. Much of what is considered good or even great writing employs this ornate style. Two good examples can be found in the works of Michael Ondaajte and Tom Robbins. This approach is one of metafiction at its best -- language for language’s sake. However, and particularly in Ondaatje’s case, this style is central to the theme, as in his novel, Coming Through Slaughter, about the life and death of jazz innovator Buddy Bolden. The book chronicles his genius, his breakdown and the complex world of his music. The language and structure of the book is pitch-perfect in telling this story, its rambling and wild images and lyrical strangeness and shifts in point of view, all of which are reflections of techniques used in creating the improvised jazz sound Bolden helped create and which led to his untimely death. Likewise, as in the following passage, this style also works to establish the split lives of those who suffer from depression, as did Bolden:

"He’s mixing them up. He’s playing the blues and the hymn sadder than the blues and then the blues sadder than the hymn. That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together…It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins."

In this passage, we have less ornate language as are predominate in earlier passages, but we have the highest level of imagery at play and the even the plain language of the old black man watching and listening to Bolden playing the cornet from across the street has a certain poetic quality. In this case, it works for the purposes of the overall theme of the novel. But in most cases, lofty imagery and flowery writing is hardly put to such hard work.

The urge to create something on the page that reflects back on the talents of the writer and his ability is not only overwhelming, for many young writers, it can be hard to understand any other reason for sitting down to work. The beginning writer might hear from friends who have just read the latest work questions about the language. For the casual reader, this is the most important point, the words used, the arrangement of sentences, even if the reader is not clear on how often they place importance on this single aspect of literature. But then, isn’t the whole point to impress the reader, to render them speechless with amazing works of literature? Maybe so, but the true writer, as Pancake may have felt, seeks to bury deep within the reader’s heart, not just with language, but with that which is being shared, the underlying meaning that hopes to find a home in the hearts of kindred spirits. Perhaps astounding the reader with vivid and amazing language is the widely held view on the subject, but the argument stands -- what does the writer risk in sticking to this idea? In the case of Tom Robbins, an indisputable master of the craft, the risk could be the loss of the very subject of the work itself in the amazing wake of his own words and expertise. Take for instance this imaginative and impressive description of Leonard Cohen from Robbins’ liner notes for the 1995 release of Cohen’s tribute album, Tower of Song:

"It is a voice raked by the claws of Cupid, a voice rubbed raw by the philosopher’s stone. A voice marinated in kirshwasser, sulfur, deer musk, and snow; bandaged with sackcloth from a ruined monastery; warmed by the embers left down near the river after the gypsies have gone."

Beautiful, there’s no doubt. Enviable, to say the least. The beginning writer, any writer worth his weight in copy paper for that matter, cannot help but stop after reading this description and envy Robbins’ skill, his turn of phrase and command. Robbins himself likely stood up from his desk after finishing this sentence and took a deep breath, realizing he had captured that most desired of game for the working author, that magic moment when everything in his chest of tools worked in perfect harmony. But does this passage and the rest of the notes included in this 1995 tribute album, which are no less brilliantly written, really pay specific and focused tribute to Leonard Cohen? It is Robbins’ mastery of language we think of after reading, most likely, and Cohen as hardly more than the scruffy canvas on which it was expertly played out. Losing focus of his subject or subjects is something Breece Pancake could never be accused of, and this itself is an achievement in literature found in few other places. Perhaps one of the most notable of places this can be seen is in the works of Ernest Hemingway. Joyce Carol Oates wrote that she was “tempted” to compare Pancake to Hemingway in her New York Times review of his posthumous 1983 collection.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

These Mountains, These Words: Part 1

The following is the introductory first section of an extended critical essay I wrote on the life and writings of Breece D'J Pancake. I may post additional sections here as a series of sorts because the essay is lengthy and there's no need to be long-winded all in one day. Better to let the air out a bit at at a time. I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

•••

These Mountains, These Words:
The Selfless Writings of Breece D’J Pancake


On April 8, 1979, graduate student Breece Pancake walked into his backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, sat beneath an apple tree, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

He was 26 years old.

The act gave birth to perhaps one of the more enduring mysteries the world of literature has yet provided, and left many to speculate and question, search for answers. In an August 2002 letter to John Casey, Pancake’s former teacher, famed writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I give you my word of honor that he is simply the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”

The aftermath was a strange one. His teachers and his mother, Helen, worked tirelessly over the course of the next four years compiling his body of work, which consisted exclusively of neatly trimmed short stories, into a collection which was then shopped around until published in 1983. The morbid stigma surrounding the publication was the subject of much discussion. This young man had killed himself on the verge of an astounding literary career. Critics, even those who joined in, were quick to give any praise heaped on the finished collection a skeptical eye, conjuring references to the posthumous publication of John Kennedy O’ Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as a possible catalyst toward a trend of holding tortured artist in perhaps too high regard based solely on the circumstances surround their early death. But Pancake’s work withstood the speculation, even if the reasons for his suicide did not.

Pancake’s work, his style, was not complicated, writer Andre Dubus III summarized it in three words: “subject, verb, object." Like the hard, grainy surface of a rough-cut kitchen table, his words are oak, slammed with elbows and dream-talk and love and hard-won food, desire and hope, family and perseverance. But could this power and control of language sustain nearly thirty years of interest in his work? Having only three short stories published before his death and, four years later, a single, Pulitzer-nominated collection simply titled The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, how did this young West Virginia son make such an impact? The answer could be found in the West Virginia native’s ability to remove himself, the young and talented writer at work, from the written page.

Just as he left friends, family and colleagues in 1979, disappearing and taking with him the stories yet to be written, Pancake’s prose leaves not a single trace of selfish pride behind, that sentence slapped on the page as a self-presented badge of honor, written for no other purpose but to exclaim one’s own personal talent. Each word found on any page of any story in Pancake’s body of work is performing a single function – to serve the characters who are pushing and climbing and struggling stubbornly through to find their own destinies. Across this temporal scope there is no intrusiveness, no vanity to Pancake’s words. The power of his art is not in service to anyone other than Colley, Enoch, Harry, Alena, Buddy or any of the other characters who speak to us through Pancake’s pen. Each sentence has an understood majesty, like the sloping hills and ridges of the Appalachian Mountains of which they tell, rounded and simple, beaten down to reveal shale-bone against an unpretentious blue summer sky, but full of the richness of history, fossils and the mined out black strips of long-dead giants trapped beneath that beauty.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CMT's 100 Best Drinking Songs Countdown As Viewed By A Bad Poet Six Years Ago


I thought to drink some tonight.
No ride.
Instead I flipped channels
and stopped on country music.
I caught my wrist,
or my wrist caught me,
or we both forgot that corn
was the best bait for catching trout,
and I stopped
and watched part of the
best drinking songs countdown.
Number 24,
What Made Milwaukee Famous,
Jerry Lee Lewis.
The next one,
Number 23,
Wine Into Water,
T. Graham Brown.
some guy said it made him cry.
I flip the channel after Brown drops the ball
and Lewis takes a back seat
or takes a side seat and a front seat
and the only thing left was a back seat
with bucket seats
and memories or regrets
and young cousins and beer.
Either way,
the Killer moved on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jesus On A Tractor Trailer


Okay, so I lied about being away for awhile. Here's a picture I took on Town Mountain Road in the County of Floyd about five years ago. It's a painting on the side of an abandoned tractor trailer once used to move who knows what, lumber furniture, etc. Anyways, the bible belt, you know? Here's part of the buckle.

Boogie Woogie For Now.

I'll be writing for awhile. See you on the other side of the side, you know, around the corner, beside the piano where we played boogie woogie, you the left hand and I the right. See you there soon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Open Wound or The Raw Nerve

Writer Nicolette Wong, a talent you should have a look at, wrote recently of being sick at heart. Three words that stirred me to the keyboard, stirred my mind, the gray stuff beneath my skull running amok twisting those three words like a long strand of hair hanging over my serious brow and between nervous fingers.

Sick at heart.

It's dark and beautiful, no? And true. And beautiful.

Tolstoy wrote that writers, artists, creative people, people sensitive to the emotions and feelings flowing in waves across the world, suffered from "a great wound." I've always thought of it as a raw nerve, jerking up through the layers of skin in, say, a forearm and doused with rubbing alcohol, jerking in the strange air, pain its only purpose.

I know why I think this. One evening, about dusk, I visited a friend's house. Between us, ages added together, we were still less than twenty-five. Young boys. I wanted him to go riding bikes or the such. A body shop did his dad own, and this is where I found him, pushing with a retracting blade to skin loose the hood decoration of a T-Bird, that large bird of lore remembered perhaps from the Smokey and the Bandit movie from those days before the world changed.

But he was working to get this bird off the hood. And I helped. I'll not bore with other details, but my friend, striking toward himself, cut a three inch long gash and a half inch deep cut in his forearm.

I saw the yellow vein pushing up through the skin. We walked calmly to his grandmother's house where she opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol and poured the contents onto his forearm. The nerve, that yellow string of life, jerked and pushed against the sides of the severed skin. My friend, a strong boy and a strong man now today, never cried.

He told me years later he would have cried if I had not been there, standing on the porch when the remedy was administered.

Like my friend, those of us with creative tendencies cry inwardly, dripping it onto the page or the canvas or into the hollow insides of a saxophone. We hide our pain while telling the world everything we know about it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Fictional Cover Letters I Wish I Would Have Sent

Dear Hazeltap Vintagepoke,

I rarely read. I can’t concentrate very well when I try, and I have very little time for such indulgence. I’m surprised I even have time to write you today. I have been monitoring a friend of mine for the past week. He is close to perfecting the ability to turn into a werewolf. Progress has been slow but he’s trying very hard and I am supportive. I’m sure it will happen any night now and I want to be there for the transformation. He has agreed that if he still has the capacity to comprehend good and evil to spare my life and bolt into the nearby hills instead of clawing and biting me into pieces. This is awfully big of him, I think.

But as I was saying I don’t get a great deal of time to read so I’ve not seen anything published in your magazine. No worries. I am adroit and have excellent reflexes and can adjust to things easily. I picked up this ability while learning to climb cliffs along the Appalachian Mountain Range. There is a cluster of cliffs just across the street from my home and I have climbed them dozens and dozens of times. The skills I have acquired from this activity I believe go without saying.

In closing I will say your magazine was chosen at random following a hat drawing that took place at a community park near my house called the Long Fork Community Park. I wrote the names of numerous magazines on small slips of paper and asked someone to pull one from the hat. Your magazine was the cream, the one. I was happy for this for no real reason I can rightly explain.

Thanks in advance,
Sheldon Lee Compton

–––



Dear Joseph Hottentotter,

I have a story for you to consider, but first there's something I must say. I’m melancholy tonight. Also, in our various meetings about what work might fit best for your magazine, I recall things, funny statements flung from you to me and now back to you and anyone else who accidentally reads this.

#1: Phil Spector looks like he has a tumbleweed on his head.

#2: Someone else take care of every problem I have.

#3 (A portion of conversation as the lunch hour approached):

Me: How about Billy Ray’s?
You: What kind of stuff do they have there?
Me: I don’t know. Like open face roast beef sandwiches. Things like that.
You: What kind of satchels do they give you with the meals?

#4: He can’t help his face. (This said after hearing criticism about Clint Eastwood seeming a parody of himself in Gran Turino).

#5 (An exchange about the merits of St. Patrick’s Day):
You: He chased snakes out of Ireland.
Me: That’s cool.
You: It’s also impossible.


Thanks for the consideration,
Shel

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Strange Meals and Memories To Share.

I watched a girl eat worms once. I wrote a story about it called "Playing" which can be found at the PUBLISHED WORKS links to the left of this post. But, here's the thing. I watched a girl do this. And not only this. She also placed a thick and snotty slug, I want to say about half a foot long, around her next. A necklace of slug, boneless and clutching.

It stuck, and stuck hard. My aunts and uncles and cousins and parent came to her aid, pulling the die-hard creature from this place where it had found warmth from a jugular vein it knew nothing about.



For weeks after this happened she had a dark mark around her neck, the mark of that slug, that hell-bent slug, its intentions tattooed around her, a mark.

But the dark trail left eventually and she moved on, began eating pennies and nickels and quarters. I never asked her to do this, only watched. I never cheered and encouraged. Only watched, aware that something was taking place that would stay with me. And here it has stayed and now been shared. For what it's worth, been shared.

Monday, February 7, 2011

You Imagine They Understand Every Word

You did not attend AWP, the gathering of all things writing and writers and write. This bothered you until you came across photographs from the gala. Crowds of people, elbow to elbow, birds on wires, saved only by flight from ground shock and death. People, crowds, reading, talking in time frames akin to the elderly and the way they nap. Here for a moment and then asleep again, then awake. Repeat.

In college, when you could have attended without paying fees, etc., you stayed in the hills as well. Trapped or protected. You were never sure. But you listened to stories during next residency and the one after that. And the talk of writing about the talk of writing wore you to a nub, a stalagmite formed in drops dating back to the boiling sea, you standing with your mouth moving and your drawl dropping all across people's faces, hanging from their ears.



Every fourth or fifth word, you figured. That's about what they ever understood of your twanged words, thrown out with auctioneer-speed. It was best when they talked and you could nod and stare pensively, whichever the comment called for or demanded.

Still, some part of you enjoyed the stories, enjoyed the evenings in the lobby of the Brown Hotel in Louisville with your classmates, enjoyed, and still enjoy, talk of writing and writers and write. It could be called back to watching mechanics at the coal truck garage across from your old homeplace trading theories on how to best fix this or a new idea of where to put this piece to lose the rattle and on and on. It was talk of craft, the building or fixing of things with people who spoke the language, understood the work.

So you think of AWP and a reading here or there, a chance meeting with someone whose work you have admired from afar. You make up a story in your mind about shaking that person's hand and concentrating on speaking s-l-o-w-l-y so the drawl doesn't drown them. And you imagine in this made-up story that you understand every word they said.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I Don't Have a Good Title For This. Too Much Pressure.

Submissions have opened back up at A-Minor and I thought it might be cool to give some preview of some of the folks who will be appearing there over the course of the next several weeks.

At this point in February I'll have work coming up from Barry Basden, Dorothee Lang, Howie Good and Foster Trescot.

Filling out March will be Elliot Andreopoulos, Susan Tepper, Jason Lee Norman and Meg Tuite. April is booked as well, but I'll leave a little to the imagination.

Some suggestions:

• Watch the movie Winter's Bone.

• Listen to the song "Sway" by Heartless Bastards.

• Read anything and everything all the time, but read Darryl Price's poem "Against the V" up now at Fictionaut as soon as you can.

• Write. Even if it's not worth much of a damn. Write, as long as your body says to do so in the same way it demands you breathe.

Sort of wish I was in Washington, D.C., but then I remind myself that I'm only a hellbilly and I'd probably just end up slurring incoherent nothings to anyone in earshot. And if you think a East Kentucky accent is tough to follow, try tagging along after a few shots of the red stuff.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Live Nude Poems: Live Nude Poems--New Draft, and Bourbon Penn Arrives

Live Nude Poems: Live Nude Poem--New Draft

Rusty Barnes has penned one of the coolest poems I've read on the subject of death in a great long time. Follow the link above and enjoy.

Also this is a new lit mag I'm excited about. Ryder Collins rocks some awesome words in the first issue along with a host of others. Check it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I Wish I Had Two Different Colored Eyes

Please do yourself a favor and order Normally Special, xTx's new book from Tiny Hardcore Press. Order this, or sit alone at the lunch table. Sorry, but that's the way it goes. When something's good you gotta be there.

Pank tells us that Hot Metal Bridge is looking for submissions. Send something, please.

Mr. Jeff Callico, founder and editor of Negative Suck has started another zine called Dark Chaos. Read more here at the Fictionaut interview. Best of luck JC!

Howie Good currently has a fine poem up at Juked.

It's February and that means Jason Jordan just walked through the door with a new issue of decomP. Always the good goods.

I've enjoyed elimae from outside the window for a long while. I looked through it again today and found this trio of flash pieces called "10,000 Dollar Pyramid" from Robert Vaughan. Favorite line: "During the course of her life Cleo screwed every single President."

Jeffrey Miller, author of WAR REMAINS and a solid chap, is happy.

Dark Sky Magazine published my story "The Shiniest Shoes in the Graveyard" today. Again with the happy.