Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paperback Flashback: The Great Smith by Edison Marshall

Celebrating vintage paperbacks--both the cheesy & the profound.
But mostly the cheesy.

And now, Captain John Smith as you've never seen him before...

Colonial porn star!

(click on image to enlarge it)

 (click on image to enlarge it)

This 1943 novel about the legendary explorer and Jamestown chopping-block hero is one of many historical novels penned by Marshall, an author who fancied himself a big-game hunter and once claimed to have written "the most widely-read story in English written in this century."  He had Hemingway choking on his whiskey with that one.

I grabbed The Great Smith at a recent estate sale somewhere here in Montana, lured by the incredibly irrelevant pecs of the title character on the cover of the Dell paperback.  Notice how he's the background character, but yet our eyes are immediately drawn to that stiff, awkward pose and the bizarre head which looks like it belongs on a Swedish actor in a movie whose primary soundtrack goes wakka-wakka-bow-bow.  We even look right past that demure hint of exposed boob thrust in Smith's direction by the resident of the Turkish harem.  And no, you're not dreaming--that really is a topless Pocahontas on the back cover.

Ye gods!

Opening lines:  "A fig for the first seventeen years of my life.  They were no more notable than the first two years of a stallion's eating, and running, exploring the pasture, and sniffing the mares to windward.  I was busy growing up, and made a fair enough job of it, too, as you would have seen had you met me in Boston town, on our waterish Lincolnshire coast, on the night my man's life began."

Page 100:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dispatch From Jackson Hole (Part 2)

It’s Day Two of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino is preaching the gospel of How to Get an Agent.  As Sambuchino is quick to tell us, he literally wrote the book on literary agents so he knows his shit.

“What can an agent do for you?”  He ticks off his points on his fingers, delivering his sermon with machine-gun-fire intensity.  “Number One, they build intense relationships with editors in New York City.

“Two, they negotiate contracts for you.  I work for a publishing house and, trust me, contracts are not written for your benefit.  Agents are like your attack dog, fighting for you at every single possible point.

“And Number Three, agents make sure you get paid.”

Ah, money.  If any of the 100-plus writers attending the conference claim they’re “not in it for the money,” they’re only fooling themselves.  Of course we want the lucrative publishing contracts, the auctions with Knopf and Viking vying to outbid each other, the foreign rights and movie sales.  We want the six-figure advance.

And Sambuchino is here to tell us how to make it easier to grab a slice of that pie in the sky.  Like I said, he knows what he’s talking about.  The man published more than 600 articles in the past 10 years, wrote ten plays, edited books, and just sold the film rights to his humor book How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.

Did you catch that?  Hollywood is making a movie based on his book about surviving vicious garden gnomes.  Surely, Sambuchino is doing something right.

“Don’t waste an agent’s time,” he says.  “If you’re going to pitch your novel to an agent, remember this: shorter is better.  Three to seven sentences, max.  And conflict—the most important element of any pitch is conflict.  A good pitch will tell us right off the bat what’s at stake for the main character.”

*     *     *     *

George Singleton (Work Shirts for Madmen, The Half-Mammals of Dixie) tells us how he goes about writing a successful short story.  “I put two characters in an uncomfortable situation.  The best stories start in the middle of conflict—in medias res, the turning point of the characters’ lives.  I like to throw my people into the deep end of the pool and yell, ‘Start swimming, baby!’”  As an example, Singleton recites the opening line of his story “Crawl Space”

My first house was built by newlyweds on the verge of divorce.

I think: Now that’s a sentence that makes you want to read the next line and the next and the next.

Singleton goes on: “Listen, there are two kinds of writers in this world: one who sits in the woods with a sniper rifle and carefully scopes in all his targets and waits there for a long time patiently watching for the kill.  And then there’s me.  I shoot wildly in the air with buckshot, hoping I hit something.”

In an earlier talk at the conference, Singleton split our sides with a rambling, buckshot-style autobiography that was one part stand-up comedy routine and one part sage writing advice.

“I’m here to tell you I made mistakes early on, really stupid stuff,” he told the students gathered in the auditorium.  “But my point is, if I can get published, anybody can.  In fact, everybody’s getting published these days.  Those two mules pulling the stagecoach around the Town Square out there just signed a book deal with a publisher.”

Singleton goes back to the start of his life (“I was born in 1958…”) and moves forward through time in rapid, ribald fashion.  “When I was just a kid, seven or eight years old, we went to visit my grandmother.  She said she had a present for me.  ‘Wait right here,’ she said, and she went off to another room.  When she came back, she handed me a chocolate Easter bunny.  I should mention that we were visiting her in August.  So, here she’d been keeping this bunny for me all this time—that thing was stale by this point, turning all white and crumbly around the edges.  What’s more, someone had bitten off the head.  I thought, What the hell?!

He immediately launches into another story, this one about the time his father, a Merchant Marine, fell into a ship's cargo hold and broke 57 bones in his body.  When he got out of the hospital, he walked around with crutches, which he used to thwack young George on the back of his legs to get him to do his bidding.  If you've read Singleton's short-story collection Why Dogs Chase Cars, you'll immediately recognize the parental thwacking.

Singleton started writing when he was 20 years old.  “I wrote and wrote and wrote.  It was like a disease.  I’d get up early and type stories and hand them in to my college professors.  They all told me, ‘George, you need to write in first person, not third.’  But I said no, I wouldn’t do that because then everybody would think I was writing a memoir and not fiction.  Two different professors—Richard Bausch and Fred Chappell—told me the same thing.  But I still said ‘No’ because I was hard-headed.  I was a young punk.  These guys were all 95 years old (even though they were really only about 30) and they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Even though he eventually gave in, took their advice, and started writing award-winning short stories from the first-person point of view, Singleton still comes across as grouchy and, yes, hard-headed.  He’s anti-establishment (“English departments are, to me, nothing but little dogs fighting over little bones”) and self-deprecating (“Don’t buy my novels, most of them aren’t worth reading—stick to the short stories”).  But he’s also gracious, generous and, despite the faux prickly exterior, a genuinely nice person.  In fact, he’s the kind of guy who’d go out of his way to feed cubes of sugar to those mules parked by the elk-antler arches on the Town Square.  During the Q&A session after his talk, he always asked each questioner’s first name and made a point of addressing them personally.

George Singleton is about the farthest away from a swollen-ego author you can get.  And for three happy days he’s here with us, dispensing advice like a literary Pez:

“You must be stupid to succeed in your writing…You’ll get plenty of rejection letters, if you’re sending out your work to real publishers and real agents.  Anyone can get published online these days.  Anyone with a bank account can publish his own Great American Novel Complete With Typographical Errors Because No Editor Was Involved.  But to get published for real takes time, patience, commitment, stubbornness, and the brains of a hammer.”*

*     *     *     *

We stand in a semi-circle at a picnic site a short distance up the Cache Creek drainage.  We sip from plastic cups of chardonnay and eat cubes of cheese as we listen to cowboy poet Jaymie Feary recite part of a classic poem, “Anthem” by Buck Ramsey.

And as I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I'll be this poem, I'll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we'll be good, and we'll be free.

Behind us, we hear a snort of horses.  We turn to see a chuckwagon-dinner caravan go by, the covered wagons packed with tourists as they head up the trail to the cookout.

The writers—the ones not from Jackson—whip out their cameras and smart-phones and snap photos.

Then local writer Susan Marsh reads from an essay included in her anthology Stories of the Wild:

The first forest ranger in this country, Rudolph "Rosie" Rosencrans, arrived in Jackson Hole in 1904.  He surveyed and drafted the first maps of the Buffalo Valley, part of the original Yellowstone Forest Reserve….Rosie left a record of his daily work, glimpses of a ranger's life a century ago.  His diaries are on display in the historic Blackrock Ranger Station at Moran.  I spent a day last winter looking through them, entranced by the stack of lined yellow pages that once passed through Rosie's hands. On his frequent trips from Blackrock to Antelope Springs, Rosie must have used the long-abandoned trail in Spread Creek, a shortcut through the foothills.  In his diaries I searched for mention of the trail.

Rosie wrote with a fine-nibbed fountain pen in elegant formal script.  He wrote of boundary marking, fence-building, trail-clearing, and backcountry patrols.  He recorded each day without embellishment or emotion, regardless of what happened.

"July 9, 1907.  Started in the afternoon for my district [from the Supervisor's Office near Jackson].  Crossing Grovont found mail driver drowned, thus helped to hunt for him and also to save one of his horses.  Being wet, stopped with Ranger Lee for the night."

"April 14, 1908.  Started for the upper Yellowstone country, made camp at 3 p.m. on Two Ocean Pass.  Started again at 6 p.m. and arrived at Shoshone Cabin on Throughfare at 11 pm."  Thirty miles that day, on skis.

The wild frontier of Rosie's day has now been rendered safe.  Technology has left little chance of such a drowning; mail arrives by electron.  The rivers are contained by dams and dikes.  We have tamed those parts of the world we use, and have left the wilderness to reclaim abandoned trails.

The words cast a spell as certain as soft birdsong.  It’s a warm, breezeless evening and we’re reluctant to leave this small slice of wilderness just east of Jackson.  We linger, drink our wine and, yes, network with agents, editors and fellow writers.  In the spaces between birdsong, conversations are punctuated with “If you have a minute, let me tell you about the novel I’m working on…”

*     *     *     *

It’s the last day of the conference—a Sunday morning when most of us should be in church praying for mercy and guidance in our writing careers.  Instead, we’re all hot-wired with nerves as we sit in the auditorium and wait our turn on stage for the Student Readings, the showcase finale of the conference.

In five-minute rotations, we stand at the microphone and read from our work.  In order to be fair to everyone, a conference volunteer keeps track of time on a stopwatch.  When the alarm goes off, we stop where we are—even if it’s mid-sentence—and give way to the next trembly-voiced reader.  It’s like speed dating with words.

A woman reads from her novel-in-progress, a mystery set in Montreal featuring a fledgling reporter who must identify the body of someone she knows.

Another reads from an essay about “a family vacation gone horribly wrong” when her toddler fell from a second-story window.  Our hearts are in our throats by the time the five-minute alarm goes off.

A Jackson resident gets up and reads from his self-published book, a novel with the tantalizing title The Screaming of Horses (“Now available on Kindle and Nook,” he plugs before he sits down).

For my five minutes, I’ve picked a piece of flash fiction about a guy who has an odd encounter in a Wal-Mart parking lot with “a man with a useless arm.”  I think it’s a pretty funny story, but I can tell the audience thinks it’s more “weird” funny than “ha-ha” funny.  I’d hoped I might at least get a chuckle out of George Singleton, but—just my luck—two readers before me, he gets up to go to the bathroom and never comes back.  This is probably best for all concerned.

*     *     *     *

And then it’s over.

After the last book has been signed, the last handshake-and-hug dispensed to fellow students, and the last hopeful wink to an agent sent across the room, I head north out of Jackson.  The highway runs past the Dairy Queen, a laundromat, and a wildlife art gallery with a bronze herd of deer running down a slope.  Then it rises sharply and there are the Tetons on my left, the peaks I grew up with, my comfort-food of mountain ranges.

A park ranger’s pickup is ahead on the side of the road, lights flashing.  As I approach, I see the ranger standing at the back of the truck.  He’s in his late 20s, sunglasses, tan uniform, florescent-yellow safety vest.  He stares at the ground as if calculating a math equation.  He scratches the stubble of his jawline and shakes his head.

An elk, neck wrenched at a geometric angle, is crumpled on the shoulder of the road.  A hoist with a large hook juts from the back of the park ranger’s truck.  The ranger looks back and forth from the roadkill to the hook.

There’s a story here, I think.  I accelerate, hurrying home to my keyboard.

*The same advice can be found in Singleton’s latest book Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dispatch From Jackson Hole (Part 1)

I crest Teton Pass and head for the valley floor, my Hyundai gathering speed as I head for what I hope will be a life-changing event.

In the distance, the southern edge of Jackson, Wyoming seeps from behind a butte.  This is my hometown and I haven’t been back in 17 years.  In the coming days, I will drive slowly past my childhood home like a tourist gawking at Graceland, I will hug an old family friend—a taxidermist’s widow whose log cabin is filled with undusted mounts and Bible verses laser-etched on plaques, I will link up with a high school classmate who was once a self-confessed stoner but now embraces New Age tranquility, and I will reacquaint my tongue with the legendary cheese crisp at Merry Piglets Mexican Restaurant.

But that’s not why I’m descending on Jackson Hole.

I’m here for the annual writers conference and I’ve got an empty notebook, a full ink pen, and four days to absorb as much publishing advice as my spongy brain can hold.  I push the gas pedal to the floor and the pine trees blur past the window.  I’m so excited about the conference, I nearly send my car plunging over the side of Teton Pass.

*     *     *     *

Brady Udall (author of The Lonely Polygamist) confesses he got his big break in publishing—a two-book deal—“out of sheer blind luck.”

Cristina Garcia (The Lady Matador's Hotel) said her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, started out “as a poem that went a little haywire.”

Young adult author Natalie Standiford (How To Say Goodbye In Robot) once wrote syndicated novels for Mary-Kate and Ashley—which was tough, she said, because the tween fiction had to be approved by the Olsen Twins “and, as you know in fiction, characters have to have conflicts and be flawed.  But Mary-Kate and Ashley weren’t allowed to have flaws….Okay, they were allowed to have minor flaws—one could be messy and one could be neat—but otherwise their characters had to be flawless.”

The three authors were on a panel called “How to Build a Novel,” one of the opening salvos of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, an annual event in the northwest Wyoming town known for its haute cuisine, cowboy chic, and bronze statues of gymnastic elk on every third street corner.  Jackson is also the nesting place of a fervent core of artists and writers who congregate year-round at the Center for the Arts, a $35-million multi-level building full of light and (during the conference) literary buzz.

Natalie Standiford, Cristina Garcia and Brady Udall reveal the secrets to "building a novel"

At the Thursday panel, Udall tells the audience, “You know, ‘How to Build a Novel’ is really a facetious title because there’s no one way to build a book.”

This is why he and the others are here: to convince us that the art and act of writing are nebulous destinations without clear lines on a map.  Every writer takes a different road; the panelists can only tell us about the particular route they took.  Our mileage may vary.

But there are some invariables to the equation.

“For one thing,” Udall said, “when you as a writer put a 400-page manuscript in front of an unsuspecting reader, you’re requiring a commitment from them.  You’re asking them to stick with you to the very end of the book, a major amount of time on their part.  You better be ready to fulfill that long-term promise.”

Standiford chimed in: “I would also add that as a writer, you have to have a tolerance for messiness.”

Udall:  “Writing is a very complex and difficult thing.  That’s why we love it and hate it so much.  I’m always looking for ways to make it simpler.”

As the authors continued to talk about point of view, plot-driven novels versus character-heavy novels, and procrastination, I looked at the heavy red curtain stretched across the stage behind them where someone in the lighting booth had projected the skyscraper skyline of Manhattan across the drapes.  The student sitting next to me, scribbling in her notebook at wrist-breaking speed, smelled of woodsmoke because she’d been camping in Grand Teton National Park and hadn’t showered before the conference.

New York, say hello to Wyoming. 

*     *     *     * 

Over the past two decades, the Jackson Hole conference has built a reputation among writers not only as a place to draw inspiration from jagged mountain horizons and fields of wildflowers but also as a four-day retreat where they can hone their craft under the tutelage of marquee-name authors like Louis Bayard, Janet Fitch, Benjamin Percy and Terry Tempest Williams.  This year the headliners included novelists Udall, Garcia, Standiford, George Singleton, and Brad Watson, poets Laurie Kutchins and Cecily Parks, and Rocky Mountain mystery writers Craig Johnson and Lise McClendon.

The conference also usually brings in agents and editors from New York, roughly plopping them down in the high-elevation resort town where, like fresh road kill, they quickly attract the attention of writers who smell an opportunity to network with the power-brokers of publishing.

Thanks to the intimacy of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, authors, agents and editors are accessible to students nearly 100 percent of the time—between craft classes, during one-on-one manuscript critiques, and at the cocktail party, the barbecue and the “wine-and-cheese walk” into the Bridger-Teton National Forest east of town.  This is not even including the after-hours elbow-rubbing that goes on.  Walk into the Cowboy Bar at 10 p.m., and you’re likely to find a wide-eyed writer leaning forward in one of the bar’s saddle seats as he pitches his surefire techno-thriller about a nuclear conspiracy to an editor from Scribner’s or Ecco.

Hob-nobbin' and elbow rubbin'

Surprisingly, only a small portion of those attending the conference this year were from Jackson—less than 10 percent, said conference organizer Tim Sandlin.  “This has always been a national-level conference,” he added.  “Still, you would think the locals would take advantage of the opportunity since they don’t have to shell out $150 a night for lodging.”

The Jackson Hole writing community is small but passionate, said Sandlin, himself a novelist whose fourth book in the “GroVont trilogy,” Lydia, was just released to the delight of his “Sandlinista” fans.  “There’s a thirst for writing classes here.  It’s amazing—I’ll offer a poetry class here at the Center and thirty people will sign up by the next day.”

Sandlin has been shepherding the event for the past 20 years.  The conference took a year off in 2006 after being run by the University of Wyoming Outreach Office for 15 years.  “We were down to 40 participants at one point and it just wasn’t working well for us,” Sandlin said.

So the non-profit group Jackson Hole Writers took over, regrouped and re-evaluated the direction of the workshops, readings, and manuscript critiques.

This year, attendance was about 150, including paid registrants, scholarship students, faculty and volunteers.  The goal, Sandlin tells me, is to infuse participants with “total enthusiasm and have them jazzed to go home and write for a whole year, then come back again next summer.”

*     *     *     *

We’re in a dance studio at the Center for the Arts and Udall is talking to us about hypnotism—not just the county fair sideshow variety, but the way writers weave words that put us in a trance.  It’s a spell that can last for centuries if we do it right.

“I love that you can sit down with a book by Mark Twain and be hypnotized by someone who’s been dead for 100 years,” he says.  That’s the power of story.”

Udall continues: “When you create a world, you’re essentially accumulating detail.  The key is to know how to gather detail and to know what’s good detail and bad detail.  You need to know which details work best for you and your story.”

To demonstrate, he gives us a five-minute writing exercise.  As we’re sitting there on chairs in front of the ballet barres of the Dancers' Workshop studio, he asks us to write a scene set in a park, at a beach, or in a library.  I think for a moment, then write in a fast, hot vomit of words:
      The body was splayed under a tree, looked like it had been dropped from a low-altitude airplane. Only half the clothes remained and one limb was missing, so that really threw the two of us for a loop when we came upon the scene in Mt. Highlands. The state park was, for the most part, tranquil that day. Confetti leaves, sun aslant, a brook talking in a quiet voice—the usual stuff.
      Standing next to the body, we looked up, expecting to see an irregular hole ripped through the canopy of leaves.
      But there was nothing. Just the lace of branches.
      Then a bird screamed and flew down to the body and we were brought back to ourselves. We were in marriage counseling, trying to work it out before everything fell apart.
“Now,” Udall says, “go back and circle which details work best and underline those that don’t.”

I go back through the sentences and when I’m through my notebook is a mess of lines and circles.  But mostly lines.

Surprisingly, I’m not discouraged; in fact, I’m encouraged by the fact I might have the start of something here on this page.

*     *     *     *

I am staying with a friend of the family, a widow in her seventies who now has a roadmap of wrinkles and weak lungs—evidence of age which I have a hard time reconciling with the vibrant apple-cheeked woman I knew 25 years ago.  She has a small house on the east edge of town, a creek tumbles over rocks just outside the front door.  I fall to sleep each night to the lullaby of water.

I look around and realize I’ve been in this bedroom before, on a night when my parents came over play cards and I was excluded from the circle of adults.  I told them what I normally said in instances like this: “I’m going to find a quiet place to read, if that’s all right?”

“Fine,” my mother said, without looking up from her fan of cards.

So I went to the back bedroom and opened up my book: Willard & His Bowling Trophies by Richard Brautigan, a novel whose key elements I remember today as 1) sex, 2) Johnny Carson, and 3) a paper-mache bird named Willard.  I was 13 years old and this was my introduction to Brautigan.   The sex was earthy and vivid and like an illuminated manuscript to my hot little brain.

At least that’s how I remember it.  Looking up the Amazon listing, Willard appears to be more along the lines of The Big Lebowski than Porky’s.  Still, I was hypnotized by Brautigan even at 13.

On that first day, after the conference has shut down for the night and I’m back in the bedroom, I think about what Udall said.  Brautigan runs through my head, but so does the idea of finding the right details to cast a spell.

There are stories in this room.  I look around.  By the bedside, there is a small lamp.  Its base is a deer leg.  Half the hair has worn off the shin.  I imagine one of my hostess’ daughters had a nightly ritual of rubbing the deer leg for luck.

I pull the gold chain.  The room fills with light, illuminating the stories of the widow and her late husband, a taxidermist.  I think of the hours it took to make the lamp, whether he shot the deer with the intention of making furniture from its body or whether this was just a leg from a customer who told him to “toss it in the trash.”  I wonder how the taxidermist’s wife felt about light coming from the limbs of animals.  I wonder if she ever started to resent the glassy-eyed stares of all the silent inhabitants of the house.  I wonder….

I open my notebook and start to write.

Photos by Sara Campbell

Monday, June 27, 2011

My First Time: Shann Ray

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Shann Ray.  His debut short story collection, American Masculine, has just been released by Graywolf Press.  Though I'm only a few stories in, I can already tell this is a viable candidate for one of my favorite books of the year--right up there with fellow Graywolfian Alan Heathcock's Volt.  Ray was awarded the Breadloaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize for American MasculineHe is also the winner of the Subterrain Poetry Prize, the Crab Creek Review Fiction Award, and the Ruminate Short Story Prize. His work has appeared in some of the nation’s leading literary venues including McSweeney‘s, Narrative, StoryQuarterly, Five Chapters and Poetry International. Shann grew up in Montana, spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and now lives with his wife and three daughters in Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.  CLICK HERE to visit his website.

My First Literary Slap in the Face

(Thoughts on Czeslaw Milosz and Toni Morrison—The Witness of Poetry and The Bluest Eye)

            I GREW UP playing a ton of basketball, and on the basketball court we all certainly get to eat our fair share of aggression.  In fact, after playing ball in college I was in a tournament in Anaconda, Montana when a maelstrom of moves ended up with my elbow realigning my defender’s jaw, and his fist in my eye. This resulted in a good old fashioned bench-clearing brawl. That chaos of life when things get unruly has always been a fascination for me, especially considering how prepared or unprepared we are when the fight sets in. But I didn’t expect things to get so physical in the literary arts.

Along came poet Czeslaw Milosz to smack me in the face.

Milosz leveled a scalding criticism of contemporary American literature when he proposed, in effect, that the literature of the West is self-insulated, self-embedded, often confessional, and in effect generally unresponsive to the nature of collective responsibility. Here the West is referred to in a political and cultural sense as the Western World, or primarily the nations of the Americas and western Europe, also known as the “colonial West.”

The West then, in Milosz’s view, is often dumbly bound to irony and cynicism, and stubbornly over-identified with nihilism. In extending Milosz’s argument cynicism might be aptly named the worship of negativity, nihilism the worship of nothingness, and the self-embedded culture of American literature a culture of narcissistic injury that generally produces dominant culture works of art (most often white and male; bell hooks would suggest even patriarchal and supremacist) that quietly negate human values to the point of oblivion, and that have limited or no sense of legitimate love and power.

So the battle begins. Milosz appears at the head of the alley, bares his chest and runs toward me like a man-beast. When he reaches me he tilts my head with an outstretched hand and delivers a forearm that lands on my face like a block of concrete.

I love American literature. Milosz makes me want to hate it. That makes me want to slap Milosz around. Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Phillip Roth… so many greats… supposedly all self-consumed?

Thinking that way I think I need to cut out Milosz’s legs and straddle his chest with my knees and go to work on his head. But when I look up from the ground, he’s got a slanted smile and appears on the verge of roaring with laughter. Then his face goes ugly and he yells at me. “Wake up, Fool!” he says. So I scramble up and rush the crooked old man and close my eyes and throw my fists in big windmill arcs. Unfortunately, I hit nothing but air.

When I open my eyes he’s gone. I hear his steps as they recede down the alley. Then his voice as he laughs, saying, “Hey, Fool. Listen. Listen.”

IN 1980 MILOSZ won the Nobel Prize for literature. In his collection of essays The Witness of Poetry (1983), he unyieldingly presented a dichotomy, framing cynicism, objectification, and nihilism in life and art not only as deadening to the artist and the artistic ethos, but dangerous on a world scale. As its counter, Milosz took poets to task, charging them to write with gravity and meaning, conscious of world suffering, and responsible to give voice to the voiceless.

For Milosz, meaningful poetry grounds the individual in a specific historical set of events. He speaks to the shattering results of categorical human rights transgressions across Eastern Europe, and refers to poetry as responsible for giving witness to the centrality of suffering and the resilience of the human spirit. Milosz ties the poetry of Eastern Europe directly to history, and affirms Eastern Europe’s poetry as broadly unified in its embodiment of human trauma in the wake of events such as the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, and Soviet despotic influence. The literature of the “colonial” West, he characterizes as overly focused on the individual, turned inward, and again, often narcissistically confessional. Unconsciously and numbingly capitalistic, he might also add. We might see in this “Western” artist the disembodied shadow of the rugged individual who was the central image of Manifest Destiny. When I listen, I stop fighting, and pause for a moment to try to comprehend what Milosz is trying to tell me. Miłosz saw in the poetry of the West a poetry of personal alienation, while in Eastern European poetry he saw something much more fiercely robust, imbued with a poetic strength that he felt came as the result of entire nations being forced to endure grave human atrocity. Miłosz presented the inviolable truth that one of literature’s most important functions is to bear witness to the reality of tragic events. In an early poem, Milosz declared:

        What is poetry which does not save
        Nations or people?

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech 35 years later he said: 

Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.
Here, I begin to think his initial blows have awakened me.

For if I receive Milosz’s indictment, and don’t fight it, I see there exists in the West, not just the larger global West, but also the American West a literature of witness similar to that of Milosz’s poetry of witness. I am of Czech heritage, and familiar with the history of Eastern Europe. Among the many atrocities of WWII, the razing of Lidice, a small town outside Prague, invites closer consideration. There, in an act of genocidal brutality Nazi evil was fully revealed. In one of Hitler’s so-called acts of vengeance, the men and boys of the town, over 400 all told, were lined up ten by ten behind a barn and executed. The women were killed in the streets or shipped to concentration camps in which most of them died. The children were boarded into an oversized van, more than 80 children together, and gassed to death. The town was destroyed and landfill was placed over the rubble in order to make the town “disappear.”

Yes, in Eastern Europe at that time, we find unequivocal atrocity.

But not just there.  I am also a Montanan, I spent part of my childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and I am familiar with the history of Montana. In Montana in the Marias Massacre, the Big Hole Massacre, and further south into Colorado in the Sand Creek Massacre, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Cheyenne men, women and children were summarily executed by U.S. Calvary. At Sand Creek, U.S. soldiers dismembered the body parts and desecrated the bodies. Now, when I touch my face I feel a raw and open wound. Where is our literature of witness, in Montana, and on a larger scale, in America?

AN AMERICAN literature of witness exists, only I have been blind to it.

In a strange paradox, Milosz has blackened my eyes and yet opened me to a deeper vision. In seeking an American literature of witness, for me American novelist Toni Morrison’s powerful clarity resounds. The record of atrocity in America runs through what some researchers refer to as the Native American Holocaust, as well as through the deep-seeded racism of African American slavery, among many other heinous transgressions, large and small, throughout America’s relatively brief history. Now, I see Milosz return and touch my face again, this time tenderly. And Toni Morrison leads me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of love and power—a place where I find a vital consciousness for an American literature of witness:

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.

Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.*
This sounds more like the Milosz of Milosz’s poems, not someone who wants to beat me to submission, but a man who succeeds in helping me become more whole. And I see now that the West, like the Eastern Europe of Milosz, is filled with complexity and ambiguity and there are those in the bosom of the West, the larger West as well as the American West, whose voices decry his indictment and herald their own powerful form of witness. In fact, on closer inspection, the literature of witness in the West might be called a sister or brother to Milosz’s poetry of witness. I return to Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winner and American, a woman whose voice rises from the crucible of suffering and speaks the tempered and unwavering result. Her work is identified with equity and justice, and is unafraid to confront reality with the concrete veracity of love. Nothing saccharine. Nothing profane. Hers is an earned human landscape, breathed to life through narrative that looks resolutely into the dark abyss of human torment. Morrison’s work lives up to Milosz’s high standard, and carries with it an echo of Emily Dickenson’s fated mandate—that when we read great art we feel like the top of our head has been taken off.

Her voice a national treasure, Morrison turns a rapier-like wisdom toward understanding the human spirit. In her novel The Bluest Eye** she gives readers an intimate view of a young black girl who is plagued by the overwhelming opportunity that attends those who have blue eyes (white girls). In a final statement the black girl puts out her own eyes. The symbol of one person, plagued by another, one culture plagued by another—in which that other is at worst blatantly or violently authoritarian and at best oppressively indifferent—is the story of superiority and entitlement throughout history. Significantly, Morrison’s antihero, seeking the opportunity and privilege of her blue-eyed antagonists, loses her own vision in the process.

Under conditions that range from ignorance to dominance a common component of the alienated relational environment is distorted vision. This cloudedness, or lack of assurance regarding hope, growth, and community, takes on the quality of voluntary blindness in the oppressors who hold illegitimate power in any human system. Such a person grows defensive, resisting or even refusing to grow. With an immovable, diseased heart he or she infects the family, the workplace, the culture, and society as a whole.

I have been that blind. Milosz, and now Morrison, have opened my eyes.

In a literature of witness specific to the American West, I think of others who have lifted the veil and healed my blindness: writers like James Welch, Richard Hugo, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, and Richard Ford among others. For all of us—for Milosz and the poets of Eastern Europe, just as for Toni Morrison and many of the writers of the American West—our story, bound by time and memory, is elusive, complex, and somewhat foreclosed. When we suffer, I believe our story is not only infused with gravid import, but given life and brought to fruition through the grace of greater and more generous understandings. When faced with the long darkness of atrocity, our stories can disarm us, leaving us shattered. But in a literature of witness, below our collective losses, we find a ground of meaning with one another in which a river of life moves and roils and brings forth life.

The pathway from a living death back to a vivid and enduring sense of well-being is winding and circuitous, and often involves very painful passages that must be navigated with great courage. The more short-sighted our vision, the less likely a compelling and sustainable narrative will emerge to draw us to a better communal sense of one another. The more far-sighted we are, the less we are able to address the healing needed on a person to person level. An artistic way of life helps us reconcile the polarities and gain a sense of concrete reality with regard to some of the most transcendent and unifying aspects of human existence: truth, love, beauty, goodness, and all that is essential to being. In art as in life, the sacred can fall toward the sentimental. Through a non-robust presentation of the world then the sacred becomes saccharine and loses the subtlety and force that accompanies all great artistic expression.

Not unlike this, the polar form in art and life is what might be called the secular. Yet in contemporary times when the secular lacks restraint it ramps toward a profanity that not only goes unchecked but is often exalted.  In this, we see the echo of Milosz’s indictment of the West: the over-extension of irony, which entails a fundamental cynicism, and results in nihilistic decadence. Decay. Art without a sense of soul. This lack of soulfulness shows up in art that dwells firmly in the shadow of what Martin Luther King, Jr. might call capitalistic “interposition and nullification.” The travesty of the pendulum asserts itself: in hating values or seeking to make them meaningless, we lose the innate power of the sacred and unconsciously glorify the profane. The artist who serves the world is capable of holding in tension and with compassion the great paradox of humanity: the knowledge that we have within us not only the capacity for profane hatred but also for transcendent or Divine love—the capacity not only for wanton greed and cruelty, but for deep care. Wholehearted living, and the individual and collective action which rises from such living, is something the artist holds in trust for others and for the world.

Artists can draw us back to reality from the abstract planes associated with nihilism, and the despair of life that often accompanies a darkened lens of artistic engagement. Milosz and Morrison, and Silko and Erdrich and Alexie and Welch, and others like them, have loved the world enough to help us face reality and emerge with a sense of hard-won courage. Brave enough to speak truth to power such artists help undue systematic oppression inherent when dominant culture dominates.  Milosz's thoughts in The Witness of Poetry unabashedly question contemporary art filled with emptiness or life-negating expressions of meaninglessness—an art that emerges from the artist who flees reality, rather than the artist who remains purposefully connected to this world, to people, to concrete detail, and to being present. The artist who remains present to reality, succeeds finally in giving witness to meaning.  Milosz prophesied a turn, humanity having been given enough distance, and therefore grace, to move from meaninglessness up through the heart of human atrocity into something new that can meet the people of the world in an intimate and ultimate way: a movement Milosz called "humanity as an elemental force conscious of transcending Nature."***  He was referring to one’s own nature, our deadly and often grotesque human fallibility, and he encouraged artists not to fear and not to flee, but to live in and through memory toward a sense of renewed responsibility for one another.

When I first encountered Milosz, he hit me in the face, hard and with great force.

Not surprisingly, I was angry, and vengeful. He deserved the same, I thought.

But now I simply want to listen to him, and to others who call us to a more mature sense of artistic expression and human dignity. In fact, now I marvel at Milosz’s raw-boned audacity. With legitimate power, embodied by love, I believe the literature of the West and the literature of the American West must answer Milosz’s call. In answering well we follow those who have gone before. Their life and work, like his, draws us deeper into listening. With a listening heart we seek, and in the literature of witness from the American West we find honesty, tough-minded, deeply felt, wholehearted and vibrantly alive. Here, in the quietness that emerges when our violence turns to peace, we hear a voice that speaks for those who have been silenced by the great tide of human violation, suffering, and loss.

In this voice, there is desire and clarity and generosity.

In this voice there is hope.

*From Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Where do we go from here?”, his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1967. Also, see A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986).  New York, NY: HarperCollins, pgs 577-578. 
**Morrison, T. (1970).  The Bluest Eye.  New York, NY: Penguin.  
***Milosz, C. (1983, p 116).  The Witness of Poetry.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Freebie: Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin

Congratulations to Thomas Baughman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, You Can Make Him Like You by Ben Tanzer.

This week's book giveaway is the new novel by Rachel DeWoskin, Big Girl Small.  It sounds like a great plot and, judging by the first couple of pages, the titular character has a voice as distinct as classic adolescent narrators like Scout and Holden and Huck.  Here's the publisher's jacket copy:

      Judy Lohden is your above-average sixteen-year-old—sarcastic and vulnerable, talented and uncertain, full of big dreams for a big future. With a singing voice that can shake an auditorium, she should be the star of Darcy Academy, the local performing arts high school. So why is a girl this promising hiding out in a seedy motel room on the edge of town?
      The fact that the national media is on her trail after a controversy that might bring down the whole school could have something to do with it. And that scandal has something—but not everything—to do with the fact that Judy is three feet nine inches tall.
      Rachel DeWoskin remembers everything about high school: the auditions (painful), the parents (hovering), the dissection projects (compelling), the friends (outcasts), the boys (crushable), and the girls (complicated), and she lays it all out with a wit and wistfulness that is half Holden Caulfield, half Lee Fiora, Prep’s ironic heroine. Big Girl Small is a scathingly funny and moving book about dreams and reality, at once light on its feet and unwaveringly serious.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Big Girl Small, all you have to do is answer this question:

What is the name of DeWoskin's memoir about her unlikely career as the star of a Chinese soap opera?  (The answer can be found at the author's website)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.   One entry per person, please.   Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.   Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 30--at which time I'll draw the winning name.   I'll announce the lucky reader on July 1.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sons and Fathers and Head Lice: Why Dogs Chase Cars by George Singleton

The subtitle of George Singleton’s collection of linked stories, Why Dogs Chase Cars, is “Tales of a Beleaguered Boyhood.”  Fortunately, one character’s beleaguerement turns out to be every reader’s delight.

Singleton’s stories featuring Mendal Dawes of Forty-Five, South Carolina, are funny, wistful, profane, funny, charming, funny, and—above all—funny.  They go down quick and easy as meringue scraped off the top of a lemon pie, but the buzz they deliver lasts longer and is far more satisfying than anything sugar can provide.

Speaking of sugar, while reading Singleton’s 2004 collection (published by that paragon of contemporary Southern lit, Algonquin Books), I kept thinking about another terrifically funny, wistful, etc. collection of linked short stories also set in the South: Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp--which, if you read yesterday’s blog post, you already know I am flabbergastedly in love with, the kind of unhealthy love normally found between 78-year-old widows and their sweater-wearing poodles.

Nordan’s 1991 collection, also published by Algonquin, has a sweeter edge than Why Dogs Chase Cars, and it’s not just because Nordan’s protagonist is named Sugar Mecklin.  Music of the Swamp is lit by the indirect lamp of nostalgia with most of the stories set in the Mississippi Delta of the 1950s (when Nordan himself was a wee shaver).  Why Dogs Chase Cars, on the other hand, carries the weight of Reagan-era cynicism and mockery with a splash of misanthropy.

This, of course, only makes the fourteen stories even funnier.  It’s like we’re licking lemon rinds and we can’t stop laughing.

Both Music of the Swamp and Why Dogs Chase Cars explore the bonds between fathers and sons.  Sugar’s Daddy, a hopeless drunk named Gilbert, "attracts bad luck like a magnet" (Publishers Weekly) and warns his son that "the Delta is filled up with Death;" while Mendal’s father affectionately calls his only child “Fuzznuts” and “peckerhead” and is not adverse to going to great lengths to set up an elaborate practical joke months in the making in order to teach his son a valuable lesson about his place in the world.  Mendal’s mother is out of the scene—she either died or left the family under mysterious circumstances when Mendal was a baby.  Though the maternal absence deeply affects Mendal, his father more than makes up for the missing parent.

Mr. Dawes loves his son, but can be a vexation and embarrassment.  A jack-of-all-trades, he is also a compulsive Burier of Objects.  Their entire property is filled with mounds and holes-in-progress as the elder Dawes hoards old metal gasoline-station signs, hardware-store yardsticks, and empty barrels labeled “Toxic Waste,” the latter with an eye to the future when it could be profitable to own a patch of condemned land (don’t ask—it eventually makes sense and comes full circle for the scheming parent).  Mendal grudgingly admits his father is “maybe the only man in all of Forty-Five with the ability to look past tomorrow.”  On the other hand, he is the kind of father who will remove the muffler from his son’s baby-blue Ford Galaxie so he can keep track of said son’s whereabouts according to thundering rumble of the engine as he cruises around town.

Mr. Dawes also seizes every opportunity to teach Mendal a series of Life Lessons:
My father, in an attempt to make me know that people lived differently than we did, went out of his way to find albinos, one-armed men, burn victims, waterheads, and vegetarians for me to meet. He drove me all the way over to Augusta, Georgia, the previous summer to shake hands with Siamese twins joined at the chest.

Mendal has a reputation around school “for being some kind of loner hermit freak” due in large part to his father’s eccentricities.  In one of the funnier episodes (“Asphalt’s Better Than Cinder”), Mendal’s father forces him to befriend Bennie Frewer, another school pariah rumored to have head lice.  When Mendal complains about having the lice-ridden boy come for a sleepover, his father says,
“Look, son. There are times in life when you have to do some things for other people. That’s just the end of that.” When my father said, “That’s just the end of that,” it meant that the monologue might go on for half a day. “I’ve been trying to teach you that there are other people from other stations in life. Evidently you’re not getting it. Get it, boy. What I’m trying to teach you is that there are some people out here in the world that ain’t got it as good as you. There’re some people, you know?” My father went into the kitchen and picked up a yardstick from Snead’s Builder Supply, which he’d used to hit me on the hamstrings before. He slicked his black, black hair back, then wiped the Brylcreem off on his blue work pants. “Goddamn, sometimes you sear my sack.”

As it turns out, head lice is the least of Mendal’s worries when Bennie Frewer comes to stay the night.  But that’s all I’ll say about that so as not to spoil story for you.

What Mendal wants more than anything (except, perhaps, to have his mother returned to him) is to escape from Forty-Five, “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’”  It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn't take a Dr. Scholl's insert to keep one’s soles dry.”  In the story “No Fear of God or Hell,” Mendal vows: “If we’d’ve had a travel agent in town, I would’ve booked a plane to Mississippi, or any of those other states where I could get lynched quickly and without notice—just so I could flat-out die without much fanfare.”  Every boy trapped in a small town believes he is not living in the real world, a place of normality that exists somewhere beyond the town limits and is surely filled with people completely devoid of eccentricities.  You know, people like you and me.  But, as in the best of literature like Singleton’s (and Nordan’s and T. R. Pearson’s and Eudora Welty’s and Flannery O’Connor’s), it is the weird, the off-beat, and the off-kilter which make the worlds of these stories more “real” than reality.  Through hyperbole, we approach the truth; through the weird, we find the sane; and through humor, we get down to the serious business of understanding life.

In answer to the question posed by the book’s title, why do dogs chase cars?  One character tells us: “They can't form a noose without opposable thumbs.  They don't know how to turn on the gas in the kitchen.  It's impossible for them to slit their wrists.  They don't have trigger fingers.”  But, really, it boils down to one thing: like Mendal, those dogs just want to get out of town.  Lucky for us, they never make it very far.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Southern-Fried Opera: In Which I Sing the Praises of Lewis Nordan

Sometimes, it's best just to throw all critical restraint and impartiality out the window and give in to drooly fanboy urges.  Such is the case with this review of Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp which I wrote more than ten years ago.  This is not the last, best word I can write on Nordan--that appreciation, with the bulk and critical heft of a master's thesis, is somewhere down the road; but since I just finished reading George Singleton's Why Dogs Chase Cars and that collection of linked short stories is like the kissing cousin to Music of the Swamp and because I'm in a fanboy kind of mood this morning, I thought I'd blow the dust off this old review and bring to your attention the merits and delights of Mr. Lewis Nordan, a man I like to call The Best Writer You've Never Read.

*     *     *     *

In affairs of the heart, you never forget your first kiss.

In affairs of literature, you never forget the moment you discover a great writer and he plants a big ole wet one on your lips. You sit there holding the book, staring at the page, your heart racing and you just know it’s gotta be love. The swoony, cartoon-birds-fluttering-around-your-head variety. It may be a short story, a memoir or a novel—doesn’t matter. It’s the words on the page that have set you all a-flutter and made you want to run to the nearest rooftop and sing a mini-opera: “I’m in love! I’m in L-O-V-E!”

I can remember the exact moment my heart went pit-a-pat. It was the winter of 1992. In my hands, I held a book by a writer I’d never heard of. His name? Lewis Nordan. The book? Music of the Swamp.

“Hmm,” I thought, “sounds like the title from a really bad 1950s monster movie.” Then I opened the collection of short stories and started reading:

The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a bird’s nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman’s mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. In fact, worlds seemed already to be opening to him.
In fact, it was my world that had just opened. I'd discovered the nation’s most overlooked, under-read and under-appreciated literary gem. Which is not to say that Nordan does not have fans; they are legion and they are rabid (like me).  But he has never gotten the national literary attention he deserves. He’ll probably never be Oprah-ed (perish the thought) and I’ve yet to see him interviewed on Good Morning, America, but surely a big ole display at the front entrance of Barnes and Noble wouldn’t be out of line.

On with the opera roof-singing...

And sing is exactly what Nordan does on every page of Music of the Swamp. The cover of the book calls it a “novel,” but it’s only a novel in the same way that Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel. It’s really a collection of short stories, each a rollickingly funny self-contained capsule that can be read one at a time. And, though you’ll want to read Nordan all in one big gulp, you’ll need to sip it slow--you’ll be laughing so hard you need to catch your breath between stories. (I’ve often thought Nordan’s books should come with a Surgeon General’s WARNING: Reading this could be hazardous to your health. If you experience dizzy spells, a sore abdomen or shortness of breath, put the book down and sit a spell.)

In Music of the Swamp, the stories relate the oddball childhood of Nordan’s most frequently-used character, Sugar Mecklin, an 11-year-old narrator who, I suspect, serves as a funnel for all of Nordan’s own boyhood experiences growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Sugar lives in Arrow Catcher (Nordan’s Yoknapatawpha), a Mississippi Delta community populated with Southern-fried characters straight from Nordan’s literary predecessors (Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers). Here, you’ll meet folks like Sweet Austin, who takes Sugar out to the swamp and shows him a man’s corpse caught upside down in a tangle of brush; Gilbert Mecklin, Sugar’s lovable, whiskey-drinking, no-good daddy who listens to Bessie Smith records (“wrist-cutting music”), who advises his son, “The Delta is filled up with death” and whose life is filled with “benign bad luck;” Dixie Dawn McNeer, who “was overweight and wore heavy makeup and had a pathetically angelic look about her” and who dreams of singing soprano at the Met someday (the heartbreaking story of her birthday party is the best in the whole collection); and the white-trash family named Conroy, whose next-to-youngest member, Roy Dale, is Sugar’s best friend. The mini-portrait of the family is classic Nordan:

There was a passel of Conroy children, all red-haired and sunken-cheeked. I was never really sure how many. There were the twin girls, Cloyce and Joyce, children who spoke in unison. There was a misfit child named Jeff Davis who believed his pillow was on fire. And, of course, there was the boy near my age, Roy Dale, and a very young child, about four, named Douglas, whose only ambition when he grew up was to become an apple.
Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter. In this all-too-short collection of stories, there is sweetness, there is sadness, there is laughter. But most of all, there is the music of words. Nordan’s prose tumbles off the page in a breathless rush not unlike Faulkner’s. And, just like that distinguished Southern gentleman, Nordan cares deeply about his characters. Every one of them is described in a compact portrait—often riotously funny, but always deeply-felt.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Nordan to everyone I meet [in fact, I’ve been known to chase strangers down the street, beating them about the head with softcover copies of his novels until they relent and either a) snatch the book from my hands and agree to read it, or b) give me a quarter for my troubles.] But, if you’re new to Nordan, then Music of the Swamp is as good a place as any to start. Lord knows, I did and I haven’t been the same since.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go up to the roof and start warming up.