Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts

15 November, 2019

Redactions, 1 through 3

1. trucker cap

____preferred ball caps. Some people later referred to them as “trucker caps.” The only other kind of hat ___ ever saw ___ wear was blue wool Greek fisherman’s cap; but __ only wore that one when it was cold outside. Regardless of the hat, __ always wore it the same: placed atop __ head like a crown, the brim bent just enough so it would sit comfortably against that large forehead.  

___ was the only person__ saw who wore hats that way. Not even the old farmers, the few who were left and clinging onto what land they had left until the final crop was planted and their kids sold the acres for housing developments. Their hats were clamped down on their skulls, prepared for the storm. 

__  wore his hat like he carried the storm in a billfold next to a picture of ____ .

2.  there and back again

__ keep circling _____ , back around to meet _____  anew. Keep circling back on these poetic roots: Whitman, Kerouac, Basho, Thoreau, HST… then onto Li Po, onto Tu Fu, and on and onto the mad Zen poets like Ikkyu. ___  keep circling back to the original schism, the original sin that split poetry from itself like Cain split himself from Abel.  ____ knows they are road signs. ___ knows by the signs ___ is going the right way.

3. Word as cartography

_____ , grad student, anonymous preeminent post-modernist, slaughter house scholar, and maybe the 2nd most subversive person ___  ever met once proclaimed that “Kerouac’s open road has been converted into a warehouse.”  25 yrs later, shambling as ___ is , trudging as ___ is , circling back as__  is only to find ____  on the road Kerouac mapped. Mapped, but did not create. 

Thus, ____  must respectfully disagree.


31 October, 2017

Just yesterday morning, Part 2

But if you're gonna dine with them cannibals/ Sooner or later, darling, you're gonna get eaten . . . ~ Nick Cave

cynicism art life risk blog writing
Harold Lloyd, the King of Daredevil Comedy. 1923.
Inspirational quotes are a pain in the ass.

There. I said it.

I know I'm not the only person who feels this way. At least, I HOPE I'm not the only person who feels this way. And I'm not talking about ALL quotes... clearly. I'm talking about those ones that end up in jpegs with sky blue backgrounds with soaring birds or kittens hanging from laundry lines.

If I get told one more time to "Hang in there!" I'm going to punch somebody. And I make a point to not punch people anymore.

If I get told one more nutshell of cracked faux-homespun wisdom about how the squeaky wheel gets the used fryer grease and how the mouse shit in the cream and turned it to butter and climbed out only to get eaten by an emaciated cat, I'm going to steal a bicycle and ride headlong into traffic on I-71.

And this is what happens. All the time. Whether I ask for it or not. And the worst part is, it's not even the people around me. Amanda, who knows me better than anyone, is not one to dollop canned wisdom on anyone, especially me. My daughter, who is young and predisposed because of her youth and necessary optimism* to embrace  inspirational quotes, is kind enough to her old man not to pass them off on me, in spite of the fact that they seem to work for her.

It's true. I can be harsh. I can be acerbic. My second ex-wife accused me of having an antagonistic relationship with the world. She wasn't wrong, but I submit now, as I responded then, that the world started it.**

Even people who are tangentially connected with me have learned to spare me when it comes to canned advice.

I began exuding a derision to such things when I was 17 and my dad died. People offered up heaps of casseroles (which were greatly appreciated) and advice about grief (which was not.) Telling a child burying his father that "everything happens for a reason" is not compelling and does nothing to mitigate the long grieving process. Nor was it productive, as I was told by a particularly stern minister, not to cry. I took that rebuke so to heart that I learned to bury everything. My second ex-wife was so accustomed to me NOT expressing emotion that when I did, she also reacted with a harsh rebuke that seemed like a judgment of my manhood.

People who learn to bury their emotions end up one of a couple of ways: they become killers, they end up drunks, or they end up poets.

I suppose, as the song goes, two out of three ain't bad.

Where I can't seem to escape the endless, monotonous, and just gawd awful string of canned advice and inspirational quotes is... everywhere else.

Our culture is addicted to them. Simple slogans and pedantic jingoism describe what should be well-thought out political positions. We reduce our personalities to lifestyle labels. We hide behind commercials that call us to embrace a soulless materialist replacement for faith or spiritualism. We are told to believe in ourselves and only in ourselves. We are told we are the solution to our own problems. We are told we are enough.

What a load of horse shit.

Because when it becomes clear that we aren't enough, there is no one else to blame when our best
efforts crumble.  We're told we just didn't try hard enough and somehow a cute fucking kitten hanging on a clothes line becomes the overpowering metaphor for our existence. JUST HANG IN THERE becomes a mantra that erases any critical assessment. We're not supposed to think about all this stuff. We're just supposed to HANG IN THERE and let the world happen to us.

It's bad advice. Because sometimes you do your best and it still comes to nothing. Because many times we are not enough and we need a community of peers, a community of faith, or at least two honest bar buddies to tell us when we're screwing up.

And while I reject the faux-glow of inspirational quotes, I have learned that I have to embrace the idea that there's a community around me that I sometimes have to answer to. I've had to learn to embrace the belief that I am not always enough, and that I need help more often than I like to admit.

*Optimism is the only thing that makes youth bearable and even possible.
** Or, as stated in my self-adopted credo: ego sum non forsit. forsit est orbis terrarum. (I am not the problem. The problem is the world.)

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18 February, 2016

I was a literary snob: low culture, high culture, and Southern Culture on the Skids

I didn't get this here baby just a choppin' on wood. -- "Voodoo Cadillac", SCOTS

But it's writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe. - Stephen King, On Writing
"The Sisters of Eluria"

Formal education is a mixed bag. When approached with the proper mindfulness and humor, the process can be enlightening. Or at least, it used to be able to be enlightening. The powers that be have been stripping away everything worthwhile about formal education, moving away from educating a future citizenry in favor of training an army of monkeys to bear the tax burden the corporate class feels they should not have to bear at all.

But, one of the drawbacks to a formal education -- even when it was a good -- and especially a college education -- and in particular to a degree in literature -- is that sometimes, you end up getting bit by the green meanies.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a college lit professor swear an oath against a popular writer -- in this case, Stephen King -- I'd be able to pay back student loan debt tomorrow. Seriously. There's so much jealousy and bitterness masking itself as critical contempt that it hardly seemed worth it to mention that both Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote FOR A LIVING. And while I'm not a fan of every word the guy's written -- I certainly think he needs an editor sometimes -- the fact is he's one of the more popular practitioners of the writing craft still living.

Which, if most of his academic critics were honest, is really the only problem with him. Tommyknockers could be forgiven as a serious lapse in an otherwise good string of books if he were dead and the unabridged version of The Stand were on some canonical list.

One of the things you run into in among the would-be and self-proclaimed American literati is the overwhelming notion in order to be "literary" a work must be all style. I understand this. I'm a word guy. Sometimes I just like how words sound together, and it's important to be able to string words together in an interesting.

Unfortunately, another problem you run into among the would-be an self-proclaimed American literati is that they have, for the most part, swallowed the idea that anyone who is truly engaged in the artistic process should not be able to make a living because:

  1.  America is full of tasteless philistines;
  2.  American culture doesn't respect the place of the arts.

You hear the second reason in public more than the first one because, well, the literati only talk that way to other accepted literati. But it's utter bullshit. Yes, thanks to the stripping away of literature and art appreciation classes from college general education requirements, it's true that the general population is increasingly less schooled on what is generally thought of as higher culture, and they are less apt to make connections between The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Force Awakens. I think about my old man, though, who was not schooled on the arts -- he was, in fact, a high school drop out who later went back for an education after serving in the military -- but who would proclaim, "I don't know art, but I know what I like."

He liked George Jones, Johnny Cash, Juice Newton, and the Cincinnati Bengals. He also loved going to the beach. He was also something of a storyteller, as his father was before him, and he was a voracious reader of the newspaper and watched the news every night.

When I started writing poetry, he didn't quite understand what would make me do such a thing. But he didn't wrinkle up his nose and tell me I was wasting my time, either -- something that more than one self-anointed member of the literati and my first ex-mother-in-law has suggested over the years.

The other thing I think of is when I published Living Broke: Stories, some of the best reception I got was from people who didn't, as a general habit, read books. They liked my stories because they identified with the people in them. All the stories were honest, un-sanitized, and sometimes brutal.

I get some of the best kinds of responses to my poetry from readers who tend to avoid poetry as well.

It's not that Americans don't have taste. That's not the problem.

The problem is that many of the purveyors* of the arts market them as some kind of exclusive club. It's not.

Sometimes it's about throwing chicken at the audience.**

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*Purveyors, not creators. I'm talking about commodifiers and sellers of art, not artists.
** If you haven't been to a Southern Culture on the Skids live show, you're missing out.

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.]

17 January, 2011

14 December, 2010

Essay: Intractable, Part 1

I grew out of a narrow tradition; as a writer, my education began with The Great Books on the dusty top shelf of the reference section in the library. I read Descartes, Spinoza, Aristotle, Plato. But that was later, when I was in high school. The first book of any literary consequence I ever read was George Orwell's 1984. I was ten. The magnetic weight of that book struck me, even though I didn't understand it thoroughly until I had read it many more times. And even though I didn't understand it all that well, I did begin to understand one thing: I began to understand that if I was going to write – which, by that time, I had already begun – that my goal was to write something that had that same kind of magnetic weight.

Naturally, I had no idea what an impossible standard it was that I set for myself. I had no idea that most writers are NOT artists and that by deciding that I WOULD BE an artist was more or less assigning myself to more trial, misery, glory, pain, and epiphany than anybody would choose if they had any sense.

If Orwell was the book that made me want to be an artist, then it was James Thurber's story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, that made me an English major. He's a writer that's generally ignored by both the academics and the outsiders; academics ignore Thurber because he wrote primarily to entertain, sometimes to poke fun, but never to tear down the upper middle class readership of the then young and frenetic New Yorker. He was no Sinclair Lewis. Outsiders ignore him because the New Yorker has become everything that's wrong with contemporary American writing and the intelligentsia; it's insipid, snobbish, lacking in balls or editorial integrity, and is completely isolated from a large segment of writing in America, and has been since Steinbeck. When I read Thurber now, I see him as one in a lineage of American writers that began with Mark Twain; like Mark Twain, Thurber is often pigeon-holed based on his early work. But that's not the only thing they have in common. Twain and Thurber were successful as artists because they showed a clear sense of the absurd. Thurber understood that Mitty, in his day dreaming, had more to do with what America was becoming than the wide-shouldered, straight-backed version that played out in the movies and popular literature. America was, in Thurber's time, a land of desperate, spineless dreamers. And in that realization, there is brilliance that still shines even though we have changed from desperate dreamers to just plain desperate.

But I loved books, and I was developing a love for literature; so I did what seemed to make sense. I threw myself into academia, into the canon. Some of them I loved; most of them I didn't. A few of those have warmed up to me over the years... not because I've developed a greater understanding of their place in the canon but because I'm hitting an age where their words speak to me instead of at me. Robert Frost is one. Dickens is another... though I limit myself to Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop. Whitman spoke to me at an early age; but then so did Chaucer and Milton. Milton is one I have always appreciated because his humane treatment of the devil in Paradise Lost remains a literary achievement that few have come close to. I don't agree with his intent or his final statement on the matter of humanity, the devil, and what it all means; but he was a Puritan's Puritan. He put protest in Protestant. So I overlook my glaring disagreements because … well... he was kind of an asshole. And even when I disagree with other assholes – because I have often been accused of being one myself – I at least like them. Just a little bit.

But even though I loved academia, I was struck with how dogmatic it could be. All institutions are dogmatic, whether they're academic, religious, or political. So I sought out other voices: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Corso. On The Road and Coney Island of the Mind stick out to me as significant influences on my development. Development, not style. I discovered literary rebellion. And it was wonderful. But to really appreciate and understand it, I had to move outside of academia; which began a long series of bouncing from job to job, in and out of academia. Getting divorced had something to do with that, as well. But I see that less a cause and more part of the effect of how I was developing, what I was becoming.