Thursday, August 22, 2013

Flash Fiction from
Disturbed Sleep (FutureCycle Press, 2013)
By M. Kaat Toy
Parading Without a Permit
On the world stage, Ophelia wore a lavender gauze gown in a shade pale enough to see through to let people know she wasn’t all there and no longer cared to hide it. Its lightness used to weigh on her as another unforgivable trespass, but now, drifting on its wings in between to be and not to be, it is a blessing like everything: Hamlet’s feigned madness, her own madness unavoidably sincere, the branch she laid herself to sleep on breaking over this shallow brook, its escape opening up.
The angry differences eroding a chasm between her and everyone she had ever known or was likely to had changed from a river of bitter rue to this sweet, floating violet repast: Bathing herself in others’ pain, she experienced the wonder of their having survived it, a glut of gratitude filling the span inside her where, judging others lacking, a strait had opened up.
“I stopped you because I was wondering if you were all right,” the policeman said, growing larger the longer she stared toward him. “Did I mess up somewhere?” she asked, touching the wound on her forehead and examining the blood. Nodding, he answered, “At least we know you’re alive.” Searching for some truth in this, she enumerated to herself all the arrests that had impeded her character development. “Parts of me anyway,” she replied.
Tableaux Vivants
St. Sebastian, his head in a horned helmet, rides through the woods shooting arrows at believers tied to trees. They are there to learn to forgive him. His is the harder task. The narcoleptic nun’s head droops as he pierces her heart. All night she prays in her sleep; all day she sleeps during prayers, so her Mother Superior assigned her to beg for attention. Her punishment is to accept rejection. She tells herself to smile as St. Sebastian shoots her again. “Most of your audience will not be able to grasp what you are communicating,” her Mother Superior has said.
On this eve of the Blessing of the Animals, the nun offers stories at supper to amuse St. Francis: of Great Rabbit who made the world of mud that Muskrat brought from the bottom of the sea and of Wolf who stole the sacred sack of Death and unwittingly released it into the world. St. Sebastian and his followers demand she present a PowerPoint of pictures. When she cannot produce this, they forbid her to speak. She would like to scream, but there’s no point in being histrionic, she reasons. Excusing herself, she walks down the hall to begin the long night’s work she dreads. Oh dark horse, not yet, not yet, she counts on her rosary beads.
“I hope none of you are foolish enough to believe in a Creator,” St. Sebastian, forked through with feathered arrows, announces at the morning service. St. Francis nods noncommittally as he brings forth a lone, lowly sparrow abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Sebastian signals to begin a long hymn to insincerity. They should really get rid of St. Sebastian, the nun thinks but, remembering the power of thoughts, asks for forgiveness and blessings for this spiritual centurion of subtle understandings.
A young woman brings her cat to the altar. “Don’t let my kitty die. Don’t let my kitty die. Don’t let my kitty die,” she pleads. “I’ll be a good girl.” St. Sebastian stares skyward from his martyr’s tableau, not looking at the young woman, the nun observes, realizing she will have to be the one to lead her to the grieving room.
The Tower Beyond the Wall
Love is always increasing or decreasing, she reminds herself as she takes the first step up the gritty wall she has encountered in the dark. Its length is immeasurable, but she can reach the top with her extended hand. With each step, the wall dissolves beneath her and rises above her as she reaches again. “Blessed are they who persecute themselves,” the Ancient of Days said, “for they cannot escape.” The wall is made of letters her disapproving sister slipped her in Bibles, now covered in elemental mud.
“One thought of light balances a thousand thoughts of darkness,” she recalls. She pictures light, and the wall is gone. Before her unfolds a plain filled with women washing dead babies, baptizing them. This is what they disputed before her sister departed, her sister who thought only washing could save her. “Doesn’t each soul determine its own fate?” she asked. Now the answer comes: Her fate was to accept or reject her sister’s faith and negotiate the passage that ensued. Crossing the plain where each woman is her sister, each infant’s name is Loss, she improvises--I am the Fire cast upon the world; as above, so below, a twin flame blazing as the Indivisible One--and holds thoughts of white light above her head so another wall won’t block her.
Before her, four triangles converge in a pinnacle of power: the Tower of Babel where the world’s people explore their voices on this ziggurat oriented towards Orion’s Belt. God never said, “We shall confound them,” but freed us to scatter and confound ourselves as she and her sister have done. She enters the Tower labyrinth. At its core she finds thirteen fast friends playing at the mystery, shuffling slates of knowledge lost and yet to be discovered, time having collapsed around them. “The yield will be vast though the workers are few,” they tell her as the walls shift into new configurations that ring out higher, new gamelan chords. These are my people, she perceives; thus, she will wait here for her sister to arrive beyond the bang and pain of words.

Copyright©2013 by M. Kaat Toy. Reprinted with permission from FutureCycle Press. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Way of Being in the World: Poet James Tolan

James Tolan
Having been the editor of my high school newspaper my junior and senior years, I aspired to be a journalist. The leap to being a poet a few years later is one I never would have anticipated. I can’t recall ever caring for poetry. It was a language foreign to me and often comical. I remember my sophomore English teacher perched on a stool in front of our class, her legs braided around themselves and her upper lip swollen from a bee sting, she was reciting her own poetry to us. “I love these hills, Mother,” she began, and my friends and I tittered.

A fifth-year senior nine credits shy of graduation. I was attending a free yoga class on campus and was distracted by the young woman near me, who was practicing in a pair of floral-patterned jeans. I wanted to scoff at her for wearing tight jeans to yoga but found myself mesmerized instead. I was down and out and couldn’t afford to take her on a date, so I wrote her a poem, an affected pseudo-surrealist love throb complete with my phone number. The poem was magically effective at gaining her affections. I kept writing her poems and she kept asking for more. I was delighted and decided to try and parlay those poems into three credits of poetry workshop.

I had no idea that the poetry professor on campus at Northern Illinois University, Lucien Stryk, was what he liked to call “internationally famous locally” as both a poet and translator of Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry. All I knew was that the poems pleased their intended audience to an extent I found giddily delightful and so, I thought, should earn me three credits. The first of the love poems I turned in to the workshop he judiciously critiqued. I deemed him incapable of recognizing my genius and planned to drop his course when the next student poet was cautioned against using the word caress in her poem. Stryk pointed out that it was an overly poetic word and should be avoided. I immediately dashed off the following, which I handed in as my next poem for the workshop:

Just a Feeling

Some days
I’d just rather jack off

or caress your teeth
with a ballpeen hammer.

It’s nothing personal
just a feeling.

I intended the poem as a dismissive gesture on my way out the door, but Prof. Stryk liked it, found it funny. The young woman who had used the word caress the week before was peeved, questioned why I could use the word and she couldn’t. Prof. Stryk gave us a lesson in the importance of surprise and the unexpected with my poem as the example.

I stayed in the class. I wrote more poems, following his admonitions to use fresh and unexpected language and images, to trust the language to guide the poem and not our will or what we thought we wanted to say. Two of my poems, including “Just a Feeling,” appeared in the student literary journal that semester, and I was hooked. I read Stryk’s poems, his anthologies of Midwestern poets, his translations of Basho and Issa and Shinkichi Takahashi, the poets in Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry (our class text in which Stryk was included but never discussed). Among these books I found poets and poems whose language I understood, or wanted to understand, and admired, poems whose imagery and metaphors I found luminous. More than words on a page, I found in those poems a way of being in the world that I recognized in a nascent way as my own.

This has to be the difference between a calling and a career. I didn’t choose to be a poet because I was appreciably better at it than I was at being a journalist or a philosopher, a ballplayer or a library assistant, nor because it afforded me social mobility or financial prospects. Being a poet chose me, found me just when I most needed to be found, when I was broke and listing, rudderless and ready to go down, dragging out my undergraduate education because I had no idea what to do next. Poetry afforded me a way of being in the world, offered me a life I knew I wanted without being able to explain precisely why, knowing only that it was the only life I had found worth living well.

Inspiration from the beginning has been a moot point. At first I wrote to get the girl and keep her, since I write to converse with those I most admire among the living and the dead, the poets I read and read and read, and the only way to have a conversation with those close friends I know through their poems is through poems of my own. The magic of inspiration is no more than filling my mouth with the words of others, with poems I unreasonably love and admire, or poems that vex and trouble, only to find that new words come spilling out of me sometimes of their own accord.

The trick, the craft of the art, is how well I dance between those words that arrive from a second voice and the form they take as they enter me. Years ago, from the get go really, I learned not to lead. The poem would be what it would. The more I tried to assert my will, the more it fell to rhetoric or dullness or the nonsense of cleverness. The work for me was and continues to be to listen, to hear what the poem wants to be and to allow it to take me where it needs to go.

The personal result, not surprisingly now from a perspective a quarter century long, is that I no longer trouble over who I am, no longer seek to discover my self as if that self was not what was made through being and doing. I define myself as a poet and just as my art and craft as a poet is to offer shape and form to those words that find me so too does that work shape and form who I am. The process is not willed or intended nor is it the goal. The goal is to make poems as good as I can make them and in the process such making makes me. That is the paradox and metaphor of this life; I become who I will be through doing what is given me to do with as much grace and attention as I can muster and learn. How can I offer form to the words that visit me unless that form is born of my self, the form of me? My self is far less the personal and so much more the form, the home I shape for my life, through what I make and how I make it.

Sometimes it comes all in a rush and I am lucky to catch nearly all of it, perhaps a few cuts or adjustments to language or line, but largely born whole. Often those are the special ones, the poems that carry the greatest energy, magic, music, and surprise. Most of the time my mechanism, my ability to listen and hear not only the words as they come but also what form they offer in terms of line, stanza, and overall design, is not as quick as I would like, as quick as the poem needs, and the poem, like any living thing that has not found its natural shape, its proper form and place in the world, becomes ungainly or stops before it is complete because I am unable to keep up, unable to discern the form required to hold the energy it brings. Then I can only count on patience, the hope that if I stay with the words given me, find for them their right form, the voice or its kin will return while work and move that poem to its conclusion. Sometimes this happens within minutes or hours or over a few days. It has taken as much as fifteen years. Often it doesn’t happen at all.

As a young poet I was loath to accept poems that arrived fully formed. The poem that has in many ways been my most successful—well-published, anthologized, performed on BBC radio, and available at—I wrote in fifteen minutes in my late twenties while helping to facilitate a writing exercise for high school teachers. When my professor asked me to share what I had written in response to his exercise in order to grease the skids for the others, one teacher was indignant. I could not, she said, have written that poem just then, in such a short amount of time, but I had. I took the cue given me, heard a line that I muttered to myself, kept muttering and writing as the poem came and when the time for the exercise was up, I wrote my last line. Later, I showed it to my wife before dropping it in the trash. She called me an idiot and fished it out. I didn’t trust the poem. It seemed too easy and how, as an egotistic young man, could I take credit for a poem that came so easily. I preferred the tortured poems I slaved over, thinking those the ones I’d earned. The truth is, a good poem is a gift. And the parallel truth for me has been, the more I consciously listen, as attentive and open as I can be to the world of the life given me, the poems I read and hear, my memories, fancy and imagination, the more likely the unconscious floods me with poems that don’t require my anguish and ego.

When I first began to write in the late ‘80s in DeKalb, Illinois, I lived on the second floor of a converted nineteenth century carriage house with huge and abundant windows and a tremendous claw foot tub. When a poem would come to me I would chant the lines as they came, but I found that I couldn’t do so standing still or sitting. I had to move, but if I walked randomly about the apartment, the energy would dissipate. If it was late enough so that no one was around, I might head to the small park nearby and pace its single block. But more often I’d hop on top of that tub and pace its rim, chanting the poem as more lines came. My memory could usually hold four or five lines until I’d have to come off the tub and write the lines before I lost them. Sometimes I’d write awhile and when I got stuck, hop back up and resume the tub-top pacing and chanting, beginning with the last line or two I’d written.

Then the personal computer came along and spoiled me. I could type fast and see the form as it appeared. I could cut, paste and maneuver the text so easily. My poems grew longer and more polished in appearance. Everything came faster when it came and I was better able to keep up. Imagine though the difference between reading letters and hearing a loved one’s voice. Both have their advantages but when I miss someone I love, little affords more solace than their voice. Now I’m trying to learn how to compose aloud again, to hear my poems before or as I write them.

Many people I admire insist on a set routine. How can the muse find you, they ask, unless she or he knows where to look and when? This never worked for me. I can’t show up at an assigned time and expect to write, perhaps when I’m revising but not when generating new work. When the poems come, everything else has to go. This is probably why poets and other artists are so often difficult creatures. Anything short of my wedding or my son’s, a poem takes precedence. Even on such special occasions, I take a notebook and pencil from my pocket and duck into someplace discrete as soon as I believe I can get away with it. My sense of when and for how long has improved over the years as has my ability to give myself permission and to surround myself with those who understand. My wife and I loved the choreographer Pina Bausch, but my wife knew that I couldn’t make it through an evening with Bausch’s dance company without retreating to the lobby to write. Rarely was I beside my wife when the curtain fell.

As a poet, I’m always reading poetry, often a variety of poets at a time, other times sinking into the work of one. Not to do so seems to me akin to a musician not listening to music or the devout ceasing to worship. One of the joys of poetry now is the range of contemporary poets available and the range of fine translations from so many traditions and ages. The mercantile among us argue that poetry is a dying art because sales of individual books don’t compare with bestsellers. That’s like arguing that mulberries or truffles are outmoded foods because Monsanto can’t find a way to harvest them: best sellers iceberg lettuce, poetry a wild root. Right now I’m discovering the poetry of Paul Blackburn, settling into A.E. Stallings’ new book Olives, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, and working my way through reprints of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties. I recently finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

For many years the most damaging myth I held to about writing was that true poets and writers work independently: the garretted artist, the lone wolf. As such a poet, I learned to write good poems. Many people can write good poems, but without the attention of a community of readers, I didn’t learn how to make those poems better. Art and poetry of the best quality, the poetry I aspire to write, rarely happens in isolation. Poetry requires a community; people invested in helping each other make their art better. The trick is finding and sustaining that community of poets and readers invested in the art and craft more than the mutual care of each other’s egos.

My latest book, Mass of the Forgotten, is a collection of poems, some of which are more than twenty years old and others which I wrote last year. Finally, with much help from others, especially Owen Lewis, I was able settle on a form for the collection that not only cohered but also allowed the poems room to speak to one another and across themes. In many traditions, the work of becoming an adult is taking the dead from your back and through praise and truth telling help them to leave the world of the living to the living, to show them you don’t need them to take care of you anymore, that you can take care of yourself better now without them, that you thank them and need them to leave so your life can become your own, so they can breathe life into the living from a home of their own. That’s what this book is about.

The next collection is for my son Junuh, who’s ten now. He’s always asking me for stories, so this is a collection of largely narrative poems for him. It’s called Raveling, and I’ll begin circulating it among friends for suggestions and revisions next year. With Mass of the Forgotten out soon, I need to focus on keeping that work fresh when I read from it and to continue to write new poems because unless I’m creating I don’t feel like a poet and can’t read my own work without feeling like a fraud.
Copyright©2013 by James Tolan

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Four (additional) Poems by Milorad Pejić
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011) / Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)
Translated from the Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian
by Omer Hadžiselimović

Thrice have I gone to Cologne to marvel at the Cathedral.
And every time in the anemic month of April when
the city parks, weary newborns, are recovering from
the wet winter and when stone dominates on both
sides of the Rhine. Nowhere are you so faceless
as by the Rhine, a businesslike river that makes no
distinction between corpses and torn-off trunks
that it keeps rolling northward.

The first year we examined the underground treasuries,
blood and sweat conserved in gold. Strict guides strove
in vain to conjure up the power of the all-powerful,
to bring to life greasy bishops’ staves in showcases.
Another time we climbed up among the bell towers
to feel the loftiness of the lofty, but the magic was
gone when we saw a dove’s nest in a dragon’s jaws
and a facade washer with a stereo hung
on a lightning-rod spike.

Thrice have I gone to Cologne to marvel at the Cathedral.
To ask and not be answered. And every time
in the panicky month of April, when ant people
dominate the squares. Don’t ask why and wherefore
such a glorious edifice! You won’t be answered
until you yourself, an anemic ant, stand in front of
those four-sided doors. Nowhere are you so puny
and insignificant as in front of Cologne Cathedral,
with the German God.

Here is where clouds start to reflect themselves
in the black holes on the slopes of Ahkka, and where
patches of snow dry on invisible clotheslines.
In the evening, tents mill around on reindeer pastures
like turtles. That sight will stay with you for days,
whenever you look back. As will the suspicion that
you are at the end of the world.

Everything here is in its right measure, but the terrifying
roar of the waterfall does not overwhelm the squeak
of a grouse. Vast is everything and inaccessible along
the path through Padjelanta, but the codes of strength
are in the rolling of tiny stones or in the helicopter attack
of a mosquito.

It ends nowhere. Wash your face therefore in a handful
of the cataract from which, little by little, an ocean will hatch.
If at night while you are sleeping on the rocks the scent
of ironed pillowcases comes into your dream, pack up your
vitamins and soups, go home – it’s late. From Padjelanta
you will not take anything else but the knowledge
that you live in the wrong way and in the wrong place.
* A national park in northern Sweden, with a 160-kilometer-long hiking trail. 

On the noose of the polar circle I’m using up last
Summer’s last days: the color of my tanned skin is
finally reverting to the color of snow. The body forgets.

But the camera lens remembers. For months not a drop
of rain on the Pakleni Islands*. The oldtimers sit among
beer bottles and stare at the open sea through a curtain
of rhododendrons. They no longer recall what they miss. 
But we, who are foreigners everywhere, have not lost hope.
We climb at mid-day up the town’s dorsal fin, on narrow
steps, like mercury in a thermometer, to the top of the
fortress. We then go down into its bowels, saved in the

The small dungeons are built in the shape of horizontal
cones, narrowed down to points of light in the rampart,
tiny windows through which the prisoners, as through
a peephole, peer into the world. They crave for a bunch
of mandarins on market stalls, for the cry of a seagull
between the two blues . . . Through the peephole of the
dungeon, as if under the microscope, the longing for
freedom grows manifold.
* Islands located off the southwest coast of the island of Hvar, Croatia, opposite the entrance to the Hvar (city) harbour.

When I arrived in Hyperborea, my reserve
homeland, I came as a man in his prime.
The long days of summer were drying strung
on the nail of a calendar like tobacco leaves,
smelling sweetly, but my thoughts were still
roaming far away, in the basements of Gradina
Hospital, where I’d left my father behind, alone
in his last night. I know that shells were falling
on the city all night, on the living and on the
chestnut allée, and that they stopped at dawn,
but to this day that night’s shrapnel seek me out:
the peeling underground shelter’s ceilings in which
no one is sitting by one of the deathbeds.

Before I arrived in my reserve homeland, I’d only
heard of it from a Greek myth. That it’s a lonely
island where no one dies a natural death, but when
the time comes and children grow older than their
parents they go out on their own and throw
themselves off a cliff so they won’t be a burden
to anybody. I’m fifty now and time and again dawn
finds me as hoary as a birch tree under frost. 
In a couple of years I’ll be older than my father,
who is no burden to anyone. Who knew a lot about

Copyright©2013 by Milorad Pejić
Milorad Pejić was born in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1960.  Since 1992 he has lived in Sweden.  His published books of poems include:
The Vase for the Lily Plant (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1985)
The Eyes of Keyholes (Bosanska riječ, Tuzla-Wupertal, 2001 and 2012)
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011)
Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Karl Geary on Writing and Acting


As told to Kathryn Buckley
From a very young age I would replay conversations to my advantage which I realize now is what I do as a writer. Part of the reason I used to do it was because I think in our lives we can feel very powerless, and when I would recreate the scenes without the intention of writing I would readjust things so that we were all a little bit more heroic. I specifically remember being given an assignment at school to write. I couldn’t stop rolling it around in my head and it was the same tool I was using to reinvent the conversations. So instead of using conversations in life, now I was using fictional characters and having them come to various outcomes. That was really it for me.
In terms of conflict as a writer, I think I find it extremely difficult to take myself seriously because I don’t have an academic background, if that makes sense at all. Writing was a vehicle for expression that was useful and I still find this useful. The more isolated I was the more authentic my writing felt. Not because I was necessarily writing about isolated characters but because in some way I was channeling something I didn’t know I had access to or wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. So initially it was a way for me to bring that stuff out of myself. And in terms of craft or satisfaction with craft or with my work in general I feel mostly quite disappointed. I feel like there’s something I’m surrounding all the time but can’t quite get to; there are moments I sense I am getting to them but not really. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. I think I’ve gotten better though and I’m fairly judicious when it comes to editing.
I’m quite lucky because I don’t put pressure on myself to write. I never have. If I’m writing something I’m writing something. It always starts with a character and then the world builds around him. Once I can get a couple of lines in that character’s voice then I have something to work with and it just keeps kind of rolling around. I’m not impatient with the time frame and I think that helps a lot.
If you’re being lofty about it when you talk about a good story you are talking about good art. Certain technical attributes make the thing work, make it stand up but then there’s something else, that other aspect that makes us respond to it as humans. And I think that’s the part where when a line is correct, we feel something. It moves us in whatever direction it’s supposed to. It’s very powerful when that happens and I don’t think it can really be denied. I know for myself I care a lot about dialogue being honest and yet if not done right it’s the quickest way for something to sound false. If dialogue is not authentic it falls down, flat. We all have our pet peeves and I think I’ve read some technically brilliant lines but have just not cared. There has to be something at stake.
I’ve been fascinated lately with very ordinary things and how in these almost microscopic snapshots of people and situations we can really read the world through them. My characters are humble people for the most part. If someone can read something I’ve written and come back from that with a sense of something greater then I feel like I have achieved something. There have been interpretations of my work that have puzzled me but my stuff isn’t for everybody. It’s not supposed to be. I remember hearing something and I’d love to take credit for it but it’s not mine. This writer John McGahern talks about the idea that even though we write it is not until the work goes and has its own life that we understand what it even was. I believe that you don’t write in a vacuum; it is designed to be read so that others can have their own experience with it.
Whether or not my work is based on my own personal experience is a subject that has come up before. It’s manipulated in such a way that it should feel that it is me to someone else. I have some horrific things happening in Eve in Dublin, the novel I’m working on now, but thank God it’s not about anything that’s ever happened to me. The logistics and the plot points are pure fiction but you have to find your way into that. I like to have death in my writing. It seems to work. Most of my stories start with a funeral.
I’m genuinely fond of Eve in Dublin. Now in six months I’m sure I’ll hate it, but right now I’m enjoying it. It is a love story of sorts. There is a random beauty and cruelty in young Sonny’s life. He wants to escape Dublin in the 1980’s and the narrow future that awaits him there when he finds Eve, an older woman, who seems to be everything that he has wanted. But Eve has a dark past and many secrets that will eventually test Sonny, dividing him from his community, his family, and finally Eve.
My career as a writer has been narrow for someone my age and I would like that to change. When you are doing anything outside of the norm you are the vehicle that perpetuates the thing.  It’s self motivated work. I have to get up at five to write but that works for me; I’m actually a morning person. So most mornings, like this morning, I wake up at five, work for a couple of hours and then start my day. The point is that you get up every day and you go to work. Times where I have not done that, work didn’t get produced. It’s as simple as that.
I’m rewriting Eve in Dublin now and it’s a bit easier. My work schedule is also different than when I was writing it. What I would do then was work on it at about nine. I started off at the library, but then I found it was better to actually sit in the car outside of the library. Then the cops started looking at me like I was this weird guy for doing that, so I would ask myself where I could park each day so that wouldn’t happen. I would write eight hundred words daily at that time, but now that I’m rewriting I’m working on a chapter a day from home either at my kitchen table, or if it’s winter, beside a fire. There are fifty small chapters in the novel and I complete a full cycle of rewrites per month. Someone actually once said to me that writing is like a boxer or athlete getting into shape. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m neither of those types but I do get that idea.”  I know that if I haven’t written for awhile the first day back is sluggish. It’s really after a week back that I feel like I’m doing some work.
My writing is good old fashioned fiction. I wish it was more specifically genre driven because it would probably be easier to find a home for it, like The Hunger Games which I won’t read but am not knocking. I haven’t tried multiple genres and have no interest. I know people talk about it in terms of publishing but at that price I couldn’t.
When I’m reading something one of the worst things I can say – and this applies to not just writing but also art, painting and music – is that it’s clever because it just says to me that it’s all cloak and mirrors. There’s nothing authentic about it. I also think a lot of clever writing doesn’t sustain itself. It doesn’t last; it has an expiration date. I like work that I can pick up in x amount of years and still find something in it.
I’m reading James Salter’s new book now. I’m a huge fan of his as well as the writer I mentioned, John McGahern. I think when he died it was a huge loss to Irish Fiction- no one in the last two hundred years has been in the same class as he was. I enjoy the classics and think American fiction from the twenties and thirties is unbelievably good as well. Tender Is the Night cut me in two and continued to for days afterwards, and a book called All the Living by C.E. Morgan was just gorgeous writing. It’s the most dark, simple and beautiful book. I think what’s great about the south where it was set is that you can still be eccentric down there and they’re the people we like to read about.
I’d never belonged to an established writing group, so I took some writing classes. After that a few of us broke off and met up for a while. It was fantastic but then it got real social, which I didn’t have a problem with, but people wouldn’t talk about the work until about an hour in, and when they weren’t even reading it anymore I stopped going. What I liked about the gathering initially was that it had started off as a writing group. We didn’t know each other. And then of course people get more familiar and we fell apart, but it was a shame because we were a good writing group. I don’t think that happens often.
I don’t really have a picture of myself as a writer. I’m deeply committed to my work at the moment, and I want to know how Eve in Dublin will read as a completed piece. I know how it ends, and the rewrite is so different than what I set out to produce, which is great. There are these constant little surprises that keep me interested. I knocked out a whole chapter this morning; it’s all gone but that’s fine. To set myself up for grandeur wouldn’t work for me, but if I’m writing simple stories then hopefully they’re all grand in their own little way.
I got my start as an actor after I came to New York from Ireland in 1989. Michael Almereyda was making a black and white film in the early nineties called Nadja that was being produced by David Lynch. It was a vampire story and he wanted to pay homage to Bram Stoker, which is a nice old tie into some literary Irish world. His way of doing that was trying to find a Renfield character who was Irish, and I might have been the only Irish guy knocking around his neighborhood then. I was running a café on St. Mark’s Place called Sin-é and he asked me to be in the film. Until then acting was completely outside of my field.
I’ve done theater on Broadway and this sounds pretentious, but I didn’t like it. I don’t like live performances. What I like about acting on film is that there’s a technical aspect that I respond to; I think visually, and I can mold myself into a visual understanding of a character. Put me on a stage for two hours and I am lost. I’m naked but not in the way I would like to be. A lot of the contemporary plays are unbearable, and I think they’re written for a narrow audience who can afford them, whereas what I like about film is that there’s socialism to it: we all have access and we should have access to art. And I think that’s what is nice about writing as well; we still have our secondhand bookstores.
I recently had an experience in Dublin where I worked with the director Ken Loch whom I adore and admire. I think he’s one of the great icons of contemporary cinema. I love his ethos, his goals, his political views, everything, and so to spend two minutes in his company was golden for me. The man is seventy eight years old and he bounces around like Leonard Cohen. He’s amazing. If I have the opportunity to work in independent cinema with someone like that, I grab it.
I’ve done scenes in cinema where I’ve felt a tremendous amount and watched it afterwards and the camera didn’t pick up on any of it. And vice versa as well. Once I was thinking about whether or not I washed the dishes before I left the house while filming. When I watched the film I thought, “Wow, that’s such an emotional scene.” I think men don’t become interesting until they get a little older and have more baggage on their face that they can bring to the part, and that’s just pure aesthetic. What I mean is that a John Hurt type can say hello to you and you’re in tears. A lot of acting is about that. I, unfortunately, have a face closer to a Justin Bieber’s than to a John Hurt’s, so I’m waiting for my face to catch up with me. I think when I am decent as an actor I can bring stillness to a piece, and I can ground it, but not every piece requires or wants that. I have to be in the right part for it to work.
My all-time favorite role was my gig in Morocco on the second day of the war in Iraq. America had just invaded Iraq and Morocco is a progressive Muslim country. However, there was a very strong anti-American sentiment present at the time and my character, Deecy was his name, was a drag queen. I had to walk around Morocco under less than friendly circumstances in a mini-skirt and heels. It was a road trip movie and I really got a lot out of doing that, not so much for the tiny part but because I insisted on staying in drag for the duration. Oh, it was a learning experience.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Among Those Characters: Gary Guinn

My great-great-grandfather, a second lieutenant in the 1st Kentucky Mounted Rifles, CSA, brought his family to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas following the Civil War. His solemn photograph, taken in his later years, hangs at the head of a family collage on the dining room wall. But even in the old man, without the uniform, with his stark face and white beard, you cannot miss the Confederate officer. The long thread of history that precedes him—the Protestant Rebellion in England, the Plantation of Ulster in Northern Ireland, the long struggle with poverty ending in the potato famine and the long voyage to the hard scrabble of a new start in Appalachia—is of little consequence compared to that moment when the young second lieutenant rode away from his Kentucky home. Or so it seems to me as I look at the photo. His shadow lies over my sense of family, even though all the other photos hanging on that dining room wall are cast in a very different shadow, the shadow of the Ozark Mountains. There is the second lieutenant’s son, my great-grandfather, who developed a process for melding metal that made him a blacksmith of some renown in the region, and who ended his days in the state hospital for the insane. And below him, there is his son, my grandfather, who built up a mercantile business, lost it in the Depression, and became an alcoholic.
On various branches of the family tree hang distillers, horse traders, thieves, preachers, and teachers. Especially teachers. In the first half of the twentieth century, my father’s generation—the Guinns, the Faubuses, the Bucks, and the Gages—was fertile ground for teachers, men and women who, in the 1920s and 1930s taught in one room or two room schoolhouses in small rural communities like Delaney or Crosses or Greasy Creek, after finishing their own high school education at the county seat in Huntsville. They were readers, all of them, and it surely must have been they who turned me and my cousins to books and gave us a love of language. The thick hillbilly accent of the rural Ozarks prior to World War II, the language of the novels of the late Donald Harrington, was mostly absent in my family. I cannot remember an aunt, uncle, or cousin who sounded as if he or she was raised in rural Arkansas. A product of the Great Depression, they had recognized the value of speaking and writing well and had cultivated the skills thoroughly. When they left the hills for the economic opportunities of the larger towns and cities, they became businessmen, bankers, and even a governor of the state.
And they were storytellers. At family reunions, over a plate of fried chicken, they became animated: the six hungry boys of the Delaney basketball team on mules, returning from a game on the other side of the mountain, fed cracklings and cornbread by a family of strangers along the way who were slaughtering hogs; the shell shocked veteran of World War I, putting his big Radiola Grand, powered by a car battery, on the front porch and playing it so loud every evening that the road crew from Fayetteville, camping down by the White River, poked a screwdriver through the speaker; the philanderer whose wife locked him in the outhouse and left him there all night to stall an escapade; the local bootlegger, shot in the leg, fed by a committee of local women while he lay recuperating in the local jail, and the fear and trembling of my aunt Lake, ten years old, who was sent all alone to carry his lunch to him. The dirt basketball court on the Delaney square, the cannery whistle that called people to seasonal work, the train that came down the Frisco line from Fayetteville in the morning on its way to Pettigrew and returned in the afternoon, the swimming hole at the old mill dam, the swinging bridge. Story after story. The little hamlets that populated the White River in the early twentieth century are almost as real to me as my memory of my home town when I was a child. If writing is a process of self-discovery, then my writing has been an attempt to find myself in those places, among those characters.
Robert K. Gilmore says in the preface to his book Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions that the people of the Ozarks have always had a strong sense of belonging to a particular place. They are suspicious of strangers, fiercely independent, and cherishers of solitude. The land of the Ozarks, “the hills, the gullies, the hardwood, the rivers, the small communities,” has formed the character of the people who live here. And it forms the characters in my work. When Sherwood Anderson advised William Faulkner to go back to Mississippi and write about that little patch of ground Faulkner knew so well, Anderson understood the power that a place can have over a writer’s imagination. The Ozarks are that for me—a patch of ground and the characters who are grown from it.
I’m a little embarrassed to confess that, having grown up in this fertile story-telling ground, I did not know, as so many writers seem to have known, at the age of six, or eight, or ten, that I would become a writer, and that the desire to write burned in me from that early age. I do, in fact, remember, after having seen the movie Bambi, at about the age of ten, sitting down that very evening and writing a long tale about a young deer, a story that was, I’m sure, to my parents indistinguishable from the movie. And that was the extent of my burning passion to write at that age. More like a little spark than a burning flame. The truth is that I was, as my uncle used to say, a lost ball in high weeds for most of my youth. Like many other young men, I began writing poetry in college—vague, romantic, anti-war, anti-social. It was terrible poetry, but it felt good to write it and to share the praise of other dreamy young men and women who were also writing bad poetry. The compulsion to write fiction didn’t strike me until I had been teaching literature in a small college for several years. I was immersing myself and my students in the usual suspects from Southern literature—Faulkner, O’Connor, and their progeny—when the long recessive family story-telling gene began to reassert itself. Early on, I leaned a bit too heavily on the great-great-grandfather, and I will always be thankful to Alan Cheuse, who in a writing workshop at Peugeot Sound advised me to put the old soldier on the closet shelf, and let all of that material be a hidden reservoir to the real stories that would come. There is, after all, in most of our lives, plenty of material. For me, the alcoholics, the quiet women who end their lives with pistols, the disappointed ambitions, the unfaithful husbands, the jealousy, the bitterness. And, of course, the few grand successes and the many simple, long lives of work and pleasure.
I frequently discover stories in small-town or area newspapers. I’m not likely to find high crimes and felonies there as much as the petty thefts and audacious accidents that are part of most of our lives. A story about a pickup truck crashing into a small country church, reported a few years ago in the local county paper, gave me the idea for a story titled “The Scar” that ultimately found its way into the Editions Bibliotekos anthology Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt. The obituary section of the local paper is a treasure of names that seem to carry a heavy weight of story.
For most of my adult life, I have been deeply involved in theater, both acting and directing. As an actor, “creating” a character from the script of a play has always come naturally to me, developing a personality with a particular voice and way of moving, a strong yearning. I have often thought that acting was that other career that I might have pursued, that other road I might have taken. Some writers have discovered that acting is a first cousin to creating fictional characters. Charles Dickens, as a young man, considered a career in acting. Throughout his career, he acted in and directed a traveling troupe that raised money for the families of stricken writers and that once played before the Queen. When he gave public readings, he acted the characters so powerfully—Bill Sykes killing Nancy in Oliver Twist—that women in the audience fainted. My fiction typically begins with a character—a face, a voice, an attitude to life. When I write that character into a piece of fiction, sitting at my desk, I “get into character,” as I do when acting, so I can feel and think like the character. I have been somewhat surprised to find that some of my best characters are women, though I have never played a female role on stage.
A good friend and fiction writer, Roger Hart, once told a room full of students that he thought of story ideas as pictures that hung a little crooked on the wall. Something is not quite right, is a little crooked. It suggests a setting and a few characters, and the story becomes an exploration of what that dislocated something is and how the characters find their way through it. I like that image of the crooked picture. Desire is at the heart of all tension. Characters yearn for something. If the yearning is wrongly placed or frustrated—sometimes even when it is satisfied—the result is pain. Most people will do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. I have to wonder what good happiness and success in fiction are if they do not spring from suffering and failure. And what good are suffering and failure if they do not offer a chance of redemption? All of my stories look for that redemption. It can be hard to come by in this world, and it doesn’t always look like happiness. But the world being a place that is both awful and beautiful, redemption must always be a possibility, whether or not it is realized in the story. When I discovered the work of Lewis Nordan, I felt a shock of recognition and a refreshing sense of something new and true and wonderful. After reading his novel Sharpshooter Blues, I spent the following year reading all the fiction he had published. His is a violent, magico-realist world populated by weird and wonderful characters looking for love in all the wrong ways. But it’s a redemptive world for all that.
The only kind of fiction I’m interested in writing is realism. I admire genre fiction, such as science fiction or fantasy, when it is well written, but I have little interest in writing it myself. I admire genre fiction that uses the tools of realism, when it does so in a literary way, as is often the case in crime fiction or western fiction. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a favorite summer read. A few years ago I began reading the Belgian crime fiction writer George Simenon, both his Maigret detective series and his roman durs, the hard novels that are a match for Camus and Sartre in tone and style. McMurtry and Simenon are writers who have transcended their genre. Over the past few months I have begun to read Scandinavian crime fiction, writers such as Kerstin Ekman, Arnold Indridison, and Lars Kepler, but especially the Swedish writer Hakan Nesser, whose Inspector VanVeeteren reminds me of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Scandinavian writers are highly influenced by their environment—long periods of dark, cold, and wet, opposed by short bursts of summer. Place is an abiding power in their work. Darkness pervades their treatment of humanity in the same way it pervades Camus and Sartre, and the better writers among them seem to be influenced by the mid-20th century existentialists.
Influence for a writer is a sticky question. When I’m asked which writers influenced me, I hesitate. Everything a writer reads influences how he/she writes. But the question of discernible influence gets at a complex issue. Having a PhD in 19th-century British literature and being steeped in that period, I struggled, when I began to write fiction, to silence those ponderous Romantic and Victorian voices and find the contemporary voices that ultimately reproduced themselves in my fiction. Out with Dickens (though surely not quite totally absolutely) and out with Thomas Hardy, and in with Louise Erdrich, Lewis Nordan, and Cormac McCarthy.  I would like to claim kinship with Faulkner and O’Connor, and any writer raised in the South could make that claim, but in fact, those writers, whom Lewis Nordan calls “the family,” are surely the outer verge of style for contemporary writers, are in fact, as they are called, the “gothic” of southern style. I admire the minimalism of Raymond Carver, and I love the rich, layered prose of James Joyce. But exactly how have these very different styles affected my work?
I confess to being one of those writers who struggle to establish a disciplined schedule of writing. I’ve always been able to blame my teaching, scholarly work, raising kids. But I’m running out of excuses. Charles Dickens sat down at his desk at 9:00 in the morning and worked until 2:00 in the afternoon, regardless of whether he wrote one page or twenty. Writing fiction does take a block of time, enough time for the writer to move himself or herself into the world of the work, to crack open the characters’ hearts again. It takes time to step out of the real world and into the fictive. So creating some kind of schedule that allows you to do that becomes a fundamental decision about whether you are able to write or not. I tend to be streaky—when a story is working, I ignore other things and stay with the story.
A colleague of mine at the university teases me for being old fashion in my writing method. I write with a pen on a lined pad of paper until I have finished a chapter or a story, revising whenever I start a new writing session. Then the chapter/story is transferred to the word processor, and revised again. I tend to do a lot of revising as I go, until the story or novel is complete, at which time I look at the bigger structural revision questions. At that point, the word processor is a great help, especially in the ability to move material around and to save deleted material unchanged or simply delete it altogether. In the initial writing of the piece, I like the feel of the pen on the paper. My colleague laughs when I say it, but I have a heightened sense of physicality in the writing, a sense of carving the images and lines out of nothing onto a piece of highly processed wood. I like that feeling, and I go so far as to believe it makes me more physical, more concrete, in my writing. I’m an Episcopalian, and so I have no problem at all with that idea. Episcopalians are very incarnational in their view of the world. We bring our physical bodies into our worship—kneeling, bowing, crossing ourselves, focusing on the Eucharist, the body and the blood.
I am currently trying to finish the revisions on the second novel of a projected Ozark trilogy. The first novel was set at the beginning of the 20th century, this second during the Depression era, and the third will be set in the late 20th century. Daniel Woodrell’s highly successful novel Winter’s Bone, and the movie made from it, project the dark side of life in the Ozarks, a vision of meth labs and gratuitous violence, but that subculture is not representative of the broader life in the region. The southern Ozarks are populated mostly by hard working rural and small town people, whose lives are governed largely by the forces of nature and of social and religious strictures. Their roots go back through Appalachia to Good King Billy, William of Orange, and his Protestant army. And overwhelmingly Protestant they remain. Their religious sentiment still runs deep, with their sense of moral rectitude. My family has been shaped through five generations by this ethos. My writing abrades constantly against it, like a knife blade against the whetstone. With deep religious sentiment and a strong sense of moral rectitude come the potential for both great love and terrible abuse, both grace and judgment, gentleness and violence, sacrifice and manipulation. These are the poles between which my characters move and between which I seek to place myself and my work.
In spite of writing so much bad poetry in college, I never gave up writing it. It still excites me, as one poet has put it, to write a novel in a few lines. I spend part of my writing time on poetry. I love the poetry of William Stafford, his Buddhist view of the simplicity of life. The intensity of poetic language, and its concreteness, make the reading and writing of poetry a good exercise for a fiction writer. The caveat there for me is that I have to be careful of getting bogged down in beautiful language and stifling the plot.
As I think about what I really want to communicate in my work, I remember a course I taught in Modernist literature a couple of years ago. Our only texts were Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses. One of my objectives was for the students to see that what seems to be darkness can sometimes be light. Another objective was that students understand that great literature creates highly complex characters who can be both despicable and sympathetic. Enter Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses. Working slowly through that difficult text, most of the students came to see that we are all Leopold Bloom, all outcasts, all keeping a tight lid on our deepest self, all noble in the little ways that make us human. Leopold Bloom is Everyman/woman. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the character Satan, when asked about Hell, says, “Where e’er I go is Hell, myself am Hell.” After teaching Ulysses, that line became for me, “Where e’er I go is Bloom, myself am Bloom.” The great humanistic objective of great literature, after all, is to communicate vividly our common humanity. I hope my own work does that.

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Copyright©2013 by Gary Guinn