Showing posts with label Grindbone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grindbone. Show all posts

19 February, 2012

Scant Minutes Til The End of a Long Distance Romance

Bus Station flowers
still cold from refrigeration
hands wrapped around
tightly. Red knuckled.
Eye out for a bottle of wine.

Bus will arrive any minute, he thinks.
Does she like white roses?
Are they even real?
Do roses come in white?

Lover Boy believes he was short-changed.
But what is a few dollars,
in the name of love? Besides,
he was in a rush. He forgot.
Meant to buy mums;
but he didn't know
what they look like. That
he thought that she never mentioned.

Sometimes, you just get stuck no matter what.

Remembered she mentioned
mums were her favorite flowers.
Once in passing. Pillow talk.
Early on. When the sex was still good,
and he didn't mind the way
she hogged the sheets
and farted in her sleep.

One eye on the clock.
The other on his surroundings.
Gets hit up by a bum,
shoos him off with the flowers.
Another approaches. He gives a dollar
to avoid the conversation. The flowers
look like they were starting to wilt
seeming more yellow
under a different light.

Do roses come in yellow?

Eyes a crusty old man
holding a plastic shopping bag
full of smelly clothes
and a key to a padlock.
The man holds these things
as if they are his most precious possessions.
Lover Boy despises and envies him;
but the stench made it impossible
to ponder further, as Lover Boy posited
that the smell is bad for the flowers.

11 February, 2012

Winter Beach

It's a rainy day by the sea. Overcast skies are supplemented
by the sounds of traffic on Ocean View Avenue;
but it's Saturday morning, so there's no great hurry.
Even here, the world sleeps in a little on weekends.
The caw of low flying seagulls outside the window
and the chirping of other winter birds
are the only proofs of life
and the only evidence
of daylight.
               Yesterday sun was shining.
Sounds of waves were drowned out by traffic,
by noise of F-18 and unmarked black helicopter
fly bys. Rhythms thrown off
by the cheap motel television
that won't shut off, by the heater that rattles
like a B-52 engine.
                              These are the sounds of life:
surrounded by four dirty brown walls,
protected by a broken lock. Occupants of other rooms
rummage around,  pack up, noisily make plans
to visit the aquarium, other points of interest.
Then there are other rooms – they come and go
in cyclical patterns. Families with small children
grocery shopping in vending machines.

And we are the lucky ones.

06 February, 2012

Fade Into

Imagined it all
somewhat different.
Rather, bold.
Brightly lighted
mini marquees.
Macabre parades.
Acquiescing smiles.
Limp handshakes
from spineless autocrats.
Divine Prognostications.
Deferential treatment
by those conspiring
to have me killed
in a grizzly manner
meant to look like
a pointless suicide.
It would be raining.
And the cats
would be cranky.
Weather pushing me

26 January, 2012

Porkopolis, Intermezzo 2:

"Sometimes solutions aren't so simple / Sometimes goodbye's the only way." - Linkin Park

(From the pub's website and virtual tour)
There wasn't as much of a crowd as I had hoped.

Sometimes it's easier to read when the room is full, especially when it's an unfamiliar one. I'd been getting used to reading in front of people at the open mic I helped start back in Mount Carroll; after six months of sometimes entertaining but most likely offending a fair number of religious folks and farmers I think I managed to get my stage legs, such as they are, back. (Not often the farmer's wives, though. I have found that, generally, farmers'wives are an unshakable lot; it's generally the husbands that get a nervous about colorful language around their womenfolk. But the wives have been dealing with blood and animal husbandry for years.)

I didn't know what to expect, other than to expect a bar -- which is a different crowd than a coffee house full of church goers. The Motr Pub in Over-The-Rhine... well, in the more gentrified section of Over-The-Rhine, along Main Street ... is a nice space that is destined to be replaced by some other bar with a slightly different decor. I couldn't remember what was there when I lived in Cincinnati; but according to friend and fellow writer Mark Flanigan, there was a bar named Coopers in that space in 2005. And before that, another bar. It's just one of the spaces, he told me, where bars move in, fail, move out, and another one moves in.

Because I've organized and hosted a number of open mics in a variety of spaces, I expected it to be a music heavy event. Other than that, I had no other expectations. It's better to walk into those kinds of situations expecting very little.

But before I was at the Motr Pub, trying to decide what I should read for whatever audience might show up, I was standing in front of a classroom for the first time in three years. Standing in front of a classroom is a different experience altogether than standing on a stage. It's true that there's some element of performance in being a teacher... at least if you aspire to be a good teacher... but teaching implies a certain power structure that's absent in most any other similar situation.

My friend Allen, who I met when we shared an office at the now non-existent University College -- which eventually became the now extinct Center for Access and Transition -- at the University of Cincinnati.(Which, in an attempt to put that final nail in writing... their PhD in Creative Writing wasn't enough... recently announced a new School of Journalism, which will matriculate thousands of "content providers" for the corporate owned news services.) Allen helped get me an adjunct teaching gig at Chatfield College -- a job I eventually quit over a well-founded and articulate disagreement over their choice of ENG 101 text. (It's my assertion that all textbooks... the writing ones, at any rate ... are a waste of time, a waste of paper, and cost too god damn much... and lately, written so that any schmuck who can read at the 5th grade level is somehow qualified to teach college composition.)

Allen asked if I could visit his class and talk about poetry... so they could meet "a real, live, working poet." I said yes, primarily because Allen asked me and he's my friend. I also said yes because poetry gets a bad wrap. All the time. And it doesn't get a bad wrap anywhere worse than in Freshman Writing classrooms. In fact, other than Hallmark greeting cards, the other thing that has tried to strangle poetry in this country is higher education.



But I thought colleges and universities produced poets and protected the memory of poetry for posterity.

Sure. In the same way that the Nuremberg Trials protected the memory of Adolf Hitler.


Don't get me started.

The class was fun. I was nervous because I hadn't been in that Teacher Space in what felt like forever. Three years ISN'T that long of a time. But it is, in some ways. Especially when it comes to something like teaching.

But the class was gracious and after I talked a little about poetry and got a sense of what they knew... and what they didn't know... and after I forgot, because I was so twitterpaited. the difference between alliteration and assonance... the class and I read through the poems I had brought along. It was interesting, listening to them read my work. Of course, they were far more interested in what inspired the poems... which is something I generally don't talk about. The poems should speak for themselves, and if I had wanted to write a story, I would have. But I also think it's important to be a bit more gracious with students than with other people.

Later, at the reading, the thing I noticed was that not only was there not a lot of people, but that no one else was a reader. A handful of musicians... some pretty talented ones, I have to admit... had come to play and showcase their original pieces. There was, of course, only one problem.

Every song they sang was, for the most part, fucking depressing.

"Don't people write happy songs?" I asked Mark, who had come out to hear me read.

"When's the last time you listened to a happy song?"

I had to think about it. It had been a while. That didn't make me wrong, though. I knew for a fact there were happy songs. Somewhere. Big Rock Candy Mountain? "But still..."

"Shit," Mark said. "What was the last time you wrote a happy poem?"

He had me there.

When I stood up to read, the only person who clapped was Mark... because he's a good sport and because he's always been supportive of my writing and because, according to him, it had been 7 years since he heard me read. I had trouble believing it had been that long. But it had.

Reading in a bar... even one that isn't all that crowded... means belting it out over the noise. Because there's always noise. And when I was finished, Mark and a few other people clapped. Mark because he's supportive. The others... maybe because I was finished.

Later Mark stood up to read... if you've never seen Flanigan perform, you're missing out and you should be ashamed of yourself... and he was well received. I was told after, however, by the host, a musician named Lucas who sometimes sounded like John Mayer and sometimes a watered down Chris Daugherty, informed me that my friend Mark wanted me to get up and read again,

And so I did. I belted it out with a glass of beer in my hand. And while I'm still sure no one was listening, it was good to know that I could still do it. It was also good to feel like I could read somewhere other than the open mic I helped start. And it was good to know that sometimes, you have to read it like a junk yard dog to be heard.

[In my ongoing attempt to convince Greyhound Bus Lines that they should bus me around the country, it has been suggested to me that instead of asking people to call the corporate headquarters and talk to CEO David Leach, I should direct inquires to the Marketing Department. This, based on the Executive Bios, seems to fall under the purview of Ted. F. Burk, Senior VP of Corporate Development. If you like what you read here, please do one or all of these:

  1. Share the link with as many people as possible.
  2. Click on the DONATE button to keep me going.
  3. Call Greyhound (214-849-8000) and ask for Ted F.Burk. Tell him they need to bus me around. Tell them it's good PR. Tell the they need the help. Thanks!   
I'm leaving Cincinnati tomorrow morning and heading for Lexington. Look for my final Porkopolis chapter SOON]

22 January, 2012

A Meditation on Nature and Experience

After so many days,
the ring cuts
into the skin. Or,
the finger grows
around it. Like saplings
grow round twine,

twisting naturally
unnatural. Let it grow
long enough, the two
are indistinguishable.

No one wonders
whether it
hurts the tree.

No one asks
whether the finger
will recover.

21 January, 2012

Ahead of the Storm

Shadows pass on the other side
of frosted glasses. I can make out
trees, the shapes of hills, traces
of Interstate 74. 45 minutes out
I know intuitively where we are,
silently lip the names of the places
like a prayer: a mantra meant
to keep myself focused.

                  Shadows punctuated
by glaring fast food signs. Rolling
down the hill, I start counting
the minutes until the cityscape
will come into view. Shadows
surrounding the lights of houses,
street lights. Anonymous beacons
for other weary travelers.

Shadows engulfing what I leave
behind me. Seven hours north, echoes
of tears where once there were kisses
the warmth of your eyes
the inadequacy of it all
the absurdity of it all. I let
the shadows wrap themselves around me
as the city comes into full view.

20 January, 2012

Harrison Street Station Run Through

"I love it when a plan comes together." - John "Hannibal" Smith 

The original title of this entry was going to be "2AM Harrison Street Station Blues." It's nice when a snazzy title happens to pop into the brain... I usually labor over, over criticize, change, despise, change and finally give up on titles. I've always struggled with titles in the same way I struggled with long division when I was a kid. I know it ought to be a simple thing, but dammit, my head just can't seem to wrap itself around it.

I was planning on writing it because even though I managed to get a ride into Chicago from Jim "No Toll Is Going To Slow Me Down" Beaudry, I had it stuck in my head that my bus was going to leave on Saturday, January 21st, and 12:15.

So there I was, sitting at one of the places available to plug in my netbook so that I could both charge the battery and check Facebook, listening to music through my ear buds, when I heard an announcement about an express bus to Cincinnati getting ready to board. "Hmmm," I thought. "If I had known there was a schedule for today, I would've probably taken that one instead."

I was about to go back to my music, my Facebooking, and my emailing, when I decided to go ahead and look at my ticket... the one I had bought a few weeks before and had sent to me in the mail. I looked at the date.

It read January 20th.

I looked at the date and time on the task bar. SHIT. That was my ride they were calling out.

I rushed packing up my computer, grabbed my other bag, and headed for the Express loading area. I looked at the date again, double checked it with my phone... because I didn't want to be the stupid schmuck  who tried to board the bus 24 hours early. My cell phone display confirmed that today is, for REALZ, January 20th.

I got in the short line, and when I got to the driver checking tickets, he didn't shoo me away; instead, he pointed to the bus and said "The same bus will take you all the way to Cincinnati."

So here I am, aboard the bus headed out of Chicago heading south and east. The world outside looks like a Cohen Bothers movie. All gray and white, to the point that it all looks almost dead body blue. (You remember that color from the Crayola box, right? ) The bus is on the empty side. I don't know if it will stay empty all the way to Cincinnati -- we have one short pick up stop in Indianapolis -- but so far, so good.

There's only three problems.

1) When I arrived at the Harrison Street station, they were cleaning the men's restroom. And by the time I noticed they were done, I had to get on the bus. That means at some point, I'll have to use the rolling outhouse in the back of the bus. If you here a large plop, that wasn't a mystic shit. It was me falling down the rabbit hole.

2) I didn't buy a bottle of water because I figured I had time.

3) I'm not quite sure who's picking me up in Cincinnati yet. Or, indeed, if I can prevail upon anyone in this weather to drive downtown and pick me up.

19 January, 2012

The Third Thing

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." -Lewis Carroll

Today's my last full day in Mount Carroll for a while. I packed what few clothes I'm bringing with me, a long with a couple of books. It would be nice to have a slightly larger bag, but my other option is a large Army duffle that I don't want to have to haul around or deal with. At some point, maybe a slightly larger bag. For now, it helps me decide, quite easily, what I'm taking and what I'm leaving here. I want to be able to keep things simple, keep it as light as possible, for when I'm walking; I'd also like to avoid having to ever check the bag when I'm riding a bus or train.

Other than the possibility of eating a bowl of the Soup Du Jour at Brick Street Coffee, I'm also pondering the number three.

In various mythologies, spiritual practices, and religious beliefs, the number three is sometimes imbued with mystical qualities. For that matter, mathematician Pythagoras considered it the perfect number, representing balance, harmony, and wisdom (because it encompasses the first two numbers perfectly.) The Holy Trinity in Christianity; clusters of three in Celtic religious art; the Triple Goddess; the Three Jewels of Buddhism; the Hindu Trimurti.

I'm leaving a bunch out. One particular treatment of the number three -- the one that weighs on my mind -- was mentioned briefly in a book called The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson. It's a brief mostly biographical sketch of the life and times of Poppa Neutrino, who among other things, tried to build boats from garbage and sail them.

One of Poppa Neutrino's boats

Poppa Neutrino

He was a well read, mostly self-educated man. At one point, he tried to start his own religion, The First Church of Fulfillment, and even had a store front church. One of the tenets of this religion comes back to ... you guessed it ... the number three. Essentially, Poppa Neutrino claimed that every person needs three things to be happy, but that it's a different three things for each person. He asserted that most people only really know two of the things they want, being stuck in a never ending dichotomy and lacking balance.

I'm no disciple, but it does seem to me that there's something to the simplicity of the idea. We're a culture that pads itself from unpleasantness with possessions. We love our stuff. And even when we say we don't care about our stuff, we don't do much about changing the fact that we still AMASS ridiculous quantities of stuff.

Anyone who knows me well knows I don't care much about stuff. I like my books, some clothes, a place to write. I have certain... we'll call them eccentricities ... when it comes to writing. But I don't feel like I'm tied down to my stuff, either.

And while I haven't quite figured out my three things... I think I have a handle on two of them... I am using the number three to dictate what I'm bringing with me to start.  Three pouches of extra pipe tobacco; three t-shirts (plus the one on my back); three warm sweaters (plus the one on my back); three pairs of socks and underwear (plus what I'll be wearing); an extra pair of jeans, an extra long sleeve shirt, and toiletries. Also at least three hats... two warm and one to keep the sun out of my eyes. I'm also taking my netbook and audio recorder, my copy of Ernesto Cardenal's Cosmic Canticles, Ed MacClanahan's I Just Hitched in From the Cost,  my copy of George Eklund's new chapbook, Wanting to Be An Element. I also have a pocket version of Whitman's "Song of Myself." And of course, some pens, my journal, and a fresh one to fall back on.

Not bad for a small bag, eh?

Well, a slightly bigger one would be nice. But I don't want one that's too nice, either. And I don't want to spend my limited travel funds on something as trivial as luggage.

But more than helping decide what to being with me, thinking about the number three helps to remind me that all journeys -- the ones worth beginning, at any rate -- are as much about the spiritual journey as they are the geographic one, or even the poetic one.

And that really, they're all more or less the same. And that to ignore any of them -- the spiritual, the poetic, or the geographic -- means a loss of balance, an absence of harmony, and an absence of wisdom.

(If you like it, please pass it on. If you really like it, consider donating a few bucks to keep me going. In any case, thank you.)

Last Full Day

The taste of last night's beer lingered this morning.
Three in the morning, I can't sleep. That voice
in my head, the one that's been telling me
This is not your home woke me
thumping like a timpani drum. The cats
are calm. The walls are thin
and, even with the plastic on the windows
lets the arctic weather in. Ice glazed
like thousand year old donuts
covering everything. Small tectonic glaciers
in the shape of tire tread and work boots
gray from the grating of the plow
and car exhaust line the streets. The voice,
it tells me, Wild birds know when to fly.
It's the caged ones that die. It's too early
for riddled wisdom, and I'm out of coffee.
Cold feet, bad TV, the memory of another
December fresh like the snow was
two days ago casts long shadows in fast dreams
in which the faces belong to strangers
and they all have something to tell me,
something I must remember,
something that is the piece to a puzzle
with the picture worn off. All that remains
is a sense memory and the voice in my head
No feeling lasts, it says. So it's better to feel it all.

18 January, 2012

Two Days Past (Winter 2012)

The streets have been cleared
and the previous night's freeze
packed the last snow fall,
eliminating the drifts covering
Illinois 64 that are impossible
to plan for and more dangerous
even, than the ice that may
or may be underneath.
The wind is blowing,
but the sun is shining
and people are out
and about because no one
expects it to last. Shopkeepers
keep the windows clear,
spruce up last month's goods,
because they know
another sunny day
may not come again
and it's the early bird
who gets the worm –
so said the preacher on Sunday.
Or was it that self help book on the bed side table?
The sidewalks are cleared –
except for in front of the houses
where the grandchildren
are too preoccupied to endure
10 minutes of the tundra.
Piles of the white stuff
around the bottom of street signs
and at cross walk corners
are there to remind us –
as if the arctic chill
and frozen snot weren't enough –
more winter is coming.

Wind Down Wind Up: Travel Plan Update

This one's for Dave Cuckler and Jim Beaudry.

So my plans -- in as much as I've made them, such as they are -- are set. I'm leaving Mount Carroll Friday Morning and riding back into Chicago with Melissa's Timber Lake Playhouse co-conspirator, Jim "The Glam Man" Beaudry.  Once I get into the city, it's another hop skip and a jump and I'm on a 12:15 pm bus on Saturday from the Harrison Street station that will put me in the Nasty Nati around 7:05 pm that night. Pretty sweet, these express routes.

I can't take credit for discovering them, though. Melissa found out about them first. And since it would cost me more than $15 to drive to Cincinnati, I consider it a pretty good deal. Also, it'll be on one of the newer buses... they smell less like dirty ass, month old sweat,  and bus rape.

The first leg of the trip with be a nice refresher through past places, visiting family and friends I haven't seen in entirely too many years. A few days in Cincinnati, hoping to hoist a few beers and take in the city that I have, off and on over the years, called home. I have one actual task to accomplish while I'm there -- emptying out the storage unit we've been paying $50 a month to rent since we moved to Phoenix. That will be an odd and (probably) blog worthy experience.

This leaving will be one of the most difficult, in recent memory. I've said that before, but I've trying to figure out why. I'm not much of a sentimentalist. I've made friends here, friends I will miss; but I also know I'll see them again. Whenever I move I always just assume I'll see my friends again. Somewhere. Sometime.

I've always believed that. And while some might consider that an aberrant version of sentimentality, it's not. Anyone who knows me knows I'm lousy at keeping in touch. It's not that I don't try. But I think it's important to try and live life where you are, in the now. That doesn't mean I don't often think about friends I haven't seen; I do. Everyone I love, friends and family, are in my thoughts constantly.

And that's really sort of the point, isn't it? When you've been fortunate enough to find people who you consider friends and who honor you by thinking of you as a friend, they have a permanent impact on your life. I've moved around enough and had enough leavings that I'm used to taking my friends with me, calling when I can, trying to see them in the future if at all possible. (Which is why the first part of my trip will be to revisit old places and old friends... because I never say good-bye. I only say "See you later." or "Later" when I'm into the whole brevity thing...)

Leaving Phoenix was difficult, but not really. I had friends there. I still consider them my friends. I assume I will see them again, and maybe I will on my extended jaunt.

But the leaving Mount Carroll is a different experience. First of all, this is the first place I've lived in several years where I actually invested something. I decided to care about the place.

I was sitting around, hating it here... not re-adapting all that well to small town life. I hadn't really invested much of myself while we were living in Phoenix. I was teaching, and I was invested in my students. I was even invested -- early on, anyway -- in my professional life. But when you live in a city like Phoenix/Tempe, you don't need to invest in the same way that need to when you live in small town; especially one on the verge of change like Mount Carroll is. I decided to care.

And I don't regret it. Not one bit. I like to think I've had some kind of positive influence on the place.  I've met some amazing people who reminded me that talent exists in places you wouldn't expect. Living here has helped me to remember that I shouldn't take anyplace or anyone for granted, and that people can still be good (and snarky, and back biting, and hypocrites, and power mongers. But they're everywhere, and most of them have political aspirations.)

I was drinking Monday night with my friend, Dave Cuckler -- one of those talented people I previously eluded to. We were drinking at the bowling alley -- the place that has, over the last year or so, become my regular haunt -- and watching the Monday night men's league, which I used to be a part of, finish up. I was telling him about the mixed sensation of leaving. Dave pointed out that not only have I invested myself in my life here, but that the town -- or at least certain segments of it -- accepted me.

Which is, of course, why this leaving has been so strange. I haven't felt this level of acceptance since graduate school, maybe. Before that, never. After that, maybe some in Cincinnati. But not the same. And even though I have railed against local and county leaders in the press, even though I despise the winters here, and even though I had to let people down by quitting the bowling league... which, considering my average, is no loss to anyone... I will take the warmth of that acceptance with me when I go.

13 January, 2012

Day After Snow, 2012

Snow covers all our petty arguments
silences our numerous indiscretions
and turns our thoughts, once again,
towards warmth. Overcast morning
the color of gray slush on the streets,
and the rumble of the village trucks
scraping what remains off the street outside
shakes the entire house.

[I am the only one awake to notice this.
Even the cats have learned to ignore
the intrusion. And I have learned
to pay it little mind.]

The ground shakes all the time, now.
Trucks or now trucks.
News channel talking heads dismiss
the phenomenon, focus instead
on election year gaffs and movie start cleavage.

(They learned their lesson in Vietnam. Had they sent
strippers with the reporters, we could've won the war.)

[I don't watch the news, anymore
before three cups of coffee, a smoke
and a good healthy shit.]

Forecast calls for partly sunny skies
bone cracking arthritic cold. Those bits
of remaining pristine snow will glisten
and the slush will shine gray
and the footprints will stick
until Spring erases all immediate traces;
there will be no path to follow
and there will be no proof
that anyone was ever here.

12 January, 2012

Rosetta Stone Autopsy

Two days ago it was warm enough to wake the flies. Now
it's snowing, light dusting like powdered sugar
over the gray and brown post-harvest landscape.
A spoonful of sugar, or so they say, though
as the barometer drops there's not enough sweetness
to go around. The blood slows, thickens, settles
into the veins …
                              geologic sediment
that will, in the later years after my death,
be excavated when the explanations
(eventually) become important. There will be rings
in the bones – evidence of warmth and cold that,
over the years spread to the vital organs:
the heart,
                     the liver,
                                              the spleen.
The story spun by inexperienced necrophiliac historians
will be one in which they are heroes
and in which the corpse on the slab

is nothing more than an anonymous preamble
to an inevitable greatness they will copiously describe
using strip mine style explanations,
and retrofitted possibilities limited by statistical models
that are inadequate to the taxonomic task
of reconstructing a memory...
because they lack the hieroglyphic key
they themselves destroyed when, 

upon finding flies the belly,
they slaughtered them without a second thought.

11 January, 2012

Update: Of Leavings And What Remains

My bus ticket to Cincinnati arrived in the mail this past Saturday. I'm leaving from Chicago on Saturday January 21st and taking an express route, which will put me in the Nasty Nati on the same day I pull out of the Harrison Avenue Station.

The ticket cost $15. It would have cost me $10, but I waited a couple of days before I purchased it.

Leavings are strange things. Who to say goodbye to. Who to tell what. Loose ends to tie up. I told my editor at the paper last week about my plans, and suggested that he find someone else to cover my regular beat. Tom's a good guy and he's always treated me fairly, so I sort felt... well... behooved... to give him decent notice. I'm getting prepared... in my head... for what comes next.

"You really need to go." Melissa on my travels. She's horribly worried that I'm going to write about her, with good reason, I suppose. She's never been comfortable being inspiration/fodder for my writing; I'm sure that there are more writers' spouses who feel like her than not. That she ends up looking better in the end seems to make little difference. I can't fault her for her feelings. She's an honest and extraordinary person who needs and deserves stability. And I'm the kind of person who feels most alive when I'm writing and on the move.

Leavings are strange things. And I always feel like I'm in the process of a leaving. These lines from James Merrill's poem "The Will" keep echoing in my mind:

In growing puzzlement I've felt things losing
Their grip on me.

That's sort of what it feels like. I'm not letting go of things. But they are letting go of me. I say I never feel really alive unless I'm on the move, and I guess that's true. But memory is a funny thing. And by funny I mean absurd and ironic. Memory is absurd and ironic because even though things are letting go of me, I am eyeball deep in the process of etching it all in my mind... these things I will take will me as I begin. I am always ready to go. But I never want to forget where I've been. I want to keep the people I love close to my heart.

But it seems I can only do that when I go away.

26 December, 2011

Buk Notes: John Fante

It's not necessary to read John Fante in order to understand what Bukowski was shooting for; one of the nice things about Buk is that even if you don't really get it – and most people don't – there's still something to enjoy. Readers of Bukowski who dream of being writers have tried – without success – to repeat what he did; generally, they begin with the notion, not without reason, that in order to write like Bukowski one has to live like Bukowski. The first mistake comes, however, in thinking that any form of emulation is the same as art. The second mistake is in looking at his body of work and seeing only “a drinker with a writing problem” as a writerly friend of mine once proclaimed him to be.

Although he openly balks at influence in his later work, Charles Bukowski does give one writer credit. And no, it wasn't Hemingway. And no it wasn't any of the Beats, with whom Bukowski is often mistakenly categorized. The writer that he credits the most – beyond the French writer Céline – is John Fante.

Fante is the author of Ask the Dust, Dago Red, West of Rome, The Road to Los Angeles, Brotherhood of the Grape, and others. In the Black Sparrow edition of Ask the Dust, there's a short preface by – you guessed, Charles Bukowski – in which he claims that Fante's work was the only work he found in the library that seemed like it was written for him.  Fante wrote about growing up in a poor blue collar family in Colorado, about being Italian-American, about being Catholic, about being a writer, about being a writer and selling out to write movies, about his troubles at home, about his combative relationship with his children (including the writer Dan Fante), and about his own feelings of inadequacy. Fante was one more in a slew of West Coast writers – that include Nathanael West and John Steinbeck – who had trouble making it in the East Coast / New Yorker style controlled world of literary publishing.

When you read Fante, you begin to hear the echo that drew Bukowski in and that echoed in his work as well. As a matter of fact, you hear the same thing when you read Céline, or Steinbeck, for that matter, though they are as stylistically removed from Fante and Bukowski as Mahler is from Metallica. You see more of Buk's style in Fante – but of course, it's not the same, either, any more than Hemingway wrote like Sherwood Anderson. Fante's sense of hyper-drama is different from Bukowski. With Bukowski, the tone is more acerbic, and even at his raunchiest, more judgmental. Fante's hyper-drama is comically inflated:

So it happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story-writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J.C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty thief charge, reporters swarming around me, flashlights popping, give us a statement.”

Ask the Dust is about getting published... the hunger, the failure, and even in face of potential success, the inevitable failure. Fante's world is one in which there is always moral balance: something good must be accompanied with something bad. The protagonist, Arturo Bandini, is a young writer living on nothing but good will and stolen oranges in Depression-Era downtown LA. His one credit is a short story, “The Little Dog Laughed” published in a magazine edited by J.C. Hackmuth, his literary hero. He carries copies of the magazine around, passing autographed copies to people who aren't really impressed. And as if the comic hubris and ego-crushing wasn't enough, Bandini then meets Camilla, a waitress, and falls in love with her. But she's in love with the bartender Sam, and Sam despises her. The only way Bandini will win Camilla over, Sam tells him, is to treat her badly.

The book is poignant in it's descriptions day to day living, love and loss and failure, Catholic guilt, and the self-doubt every writer experiences. Camilla is impressed with him at first, but only comes around when he's abusive. She spends time in an asylum, goes back and for the between Arturo and Sam. She ends up throwing Bandini over for Sam, who wants to be a writer – he writes westerns – and who is also dying of cancer. Bandini ends up dedicating a copy of his book – which he finally writes and is finally published by J.C. Hackmuth – to Camilla and throwing into the desert.

In the messy business that fiction writing has become – or maybe, that it's always been – there's always been the question as to whether what a writer writes in fiction bears any resemblance to real life. And with a pop culture that has both hyper-reality television and fantasy laden tomes, both of which serve as escape hatches rather than magnifying glasses of contemporary life, there's even more suspicion of writers who want to write something real. Fante was roundly criticized for this in his non-screenplay work. Bukowski was critisized for it too, though mostly by academic critics who didn't acknowledge anything after the Modernists.

The art in Bukowski is something you have to read with a knowing eye to catch. He had no intention of pointing it out, because he believed (I think correctly) that it wasn't his job to spoon feed infantile readers.

The art in Fante is a lot like that. It's easy to dismiss it as masked autobiography, or – the gods help us all – “creative non-fiction” (the bane of literary trends over the past 20 years). The point isn't whether the story is about a struggling young writer or a struggling young wizard. Literature isn't meant to be an escape... though it often can be. Literature – especially fiction – is a lens that brings life into hyper-focus. Fante accomplishes this in a grand tradition that he picked up from writers like Knut Hamsun, and which can also be seen in Eurpoean writers like French writer Céline, Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, and German writer Günter Grass. For that matter, the mantle was also picked up by writers like Stephen Crane and Nelson Algren. And maybe part of the true art is that while most readers look at Fante and see a Catholic writing about Catholic guilt – and at Bukowski and see a drunk writing about drinking – there's something else happening that you only see if you bother to pay attention.

[This was written, primarily to continue a discussion that Kaplowitz and I have had on Grindbone Radio, as well as off air. I also wrote it because, well, I wanted to add my thoughts to his well written piece here.]

21 July, 2011

By and By

I wish I believed.
I know the songs
the ones that sound
so so wrong
when I sing them.
How great thou love lifted
me in the garden by
and by. Drinking
another cup of coffee
staring into the blackness –
communion with a bean –
which is as close to god
as I feel most days,
not being a farmer
or a builder of mighty things
The book it says
Jesus was a carpenter
and Peter was a fisherman,
and I find myself wondering
whether the apostles drank
import or domestic beer
while they threw out their nets
the way I did
when I first believed.

I wish the stories spoke
the same way silence does
first thing in the morning
or late into the night
when insomnia or bad dreams
strike. God, I suppose, exists
between the tick tocks
of a grandfather clock.
The ghost of the old man
who shuffles on the porch
smoking his restless pipe
knows this and together
we commune between
the sweeping of the second hand
pacing the same creaky floorboards
and scratching pen to paper
lines and endless groans
and poems no one will hear
and no one will read.