50StatesWriters_MainThe staff at PASTE MAGAZINE kindly included me in their new project “50 States,” in which they celebrate “the geographic diversity of writers by creating a list series dedicated to featuring incredible authors from every state in the country.”

Thanks to PASTE and Mark Hayden for the kind words. Also, thrilled to be amongst friends and other local writers like Jamie Iredell, Sheri Joseph, Josh Russell, Susan Rebecca White, and John Holman, further testament to the thriving lit scene happening here.

An excerpt from my essay, “That’s It, I Quit, or This Essay Could Save My Life,” up now at The Good Men Project.AntiqueTypewriter

There are some days when I’d just as soon give up.

Over drinks with a writing friend recently, I confessed that I believed I could be happy not writing ever again. And I say confession because as all writers understand: to suggest that you don’t breathe and eat and sleep writing, that you don’t need to write, is profane. It’s like a priest saying he could be happy without God, like a mountain goat saying it could be happy without the mountain. Saying shit like that gets you kicked out of the writer’s club. You just can’t say it and ever be considered legitimate again. As I confessed my sometimes desire to quit, my friend shook his head. Nope, nope, nope. He didn’t believe it—mountain goat, no mountain.

“You won’t be able to do it,” he said, shaking his head further as he threw back a shot of tequila and chased it with a PBR, a consequence of his own struggle with writing, I suspect.

Read the rest at: The Good Men Project

P1030019My long essay, “What I Learned from a Cockfighter,” is now out in River Teeth 15.2*.

Read an excerpt below:

Hundreds of crowing cocks broadcast their territory in a never-ending loop of five notes. A concert of noise that will either drive you mad or set you smiling at nature’s harmonies. And the birds, feathers glistening like bourbon in a glass, black and red and orange, the colors of scandal and sin. They waltz as far as their tethers will allow, their beady bird eyes watching me sideways. I’m out of my element, a city kid in the country, and I step lightly.

*If you’d like to read the entire issue on your Kindle or otherwise, it’s only $3.99 at Amazon.

FrontWigOut-640x290Don’t talk here enough about music I see and like, but had a great time seeing Stephen Malkmus (former Pavement frontman) and the Jicks at Terminal West here in Atlanta. Malkmus pretty much colors within the lines of his own oeuvre, but that work has always been his and only his–original, low-fi rockers that mock the affectations of the grunge era that helped to spawn his first band and play with language and point of view (rarely his own).

His new album “Wig Out at Jagbags” is no different. Like many of his fans, he’s older, has kids, and works hard at his craft. Check out the clip from his recent show in Atlanta. Great show in a small new venue here. Even threw out a Pavement number (“Stereo”) for the nostalgia crowd. Thanks to vacantmoon for the clip.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Rebecca Lee’s wonderful story collection Bobcat and Other Stories for the Chattahoochee Review (33.2-3).

OF DUST AND EROS: A REVIEW OF REBECCA LEE’S BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES
lee_bobcatBobcat and Other Stories. Rebecca Lee. Algonquin. 2013. 212 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

One of my favorite poems is George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” in which he speaks of the “glass of blessings” God bestowed upon man at his creation. God imparts strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, but withholds “rest,” believing that if he gives him everything, man would “adore my gifts instead of me.”  As Herbert writes,

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

 The characters that populate Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories experience the same restlessness of Herbert’s poem. Lee’s characters are all propelled by desire: for love, connection, recognition, understanding, and a place in the world. Their desire as perpetual restlessness drives Lee’s stories and their characters, most of them academics, artists, and students.

The book opens with “Bobcat,” a big story in a small setting, and perhaps my favorite, about a dinner party between friends and narrated by a pregnant lawyer questioning the authenticity of her friends’ troubled relationships, as well as her own. I had just read the title story when I visited a friend one night while his wife and daughter were away. Over dinner we caught up on the routines of our lives. My friend spoke about a recent outing with his family he described as “nearly perfect” if not for an ongoing disagreement with his wife that left him frustrated and weary. He believed they would never settle the issue, and the constant friction troubled him. It was then that I fully understood Lee’s story, particularly the sentence in which the protagonist’s husband is seen squatting in an Irish field: “This field grew out of not dirt, but pebbles really. It surprised me that anything could grow out of those stones, but there was a bright-green grass that seemed to be thriving, and a lot of bluebells” (16).

Lee guides us through the cozy but extravagant dinner party with friends and colleagues, in which the French dessert, a terrine the protagonist attempts, the “perfect melding of disparate entities,” reflects how relationships survive and fail in similar states (3). Such an assembly of ingredients, such care and effort to create a dessert barely contained in its own wobbling shell. The volatile mix of components feels like the marriages we witness in the story—a chaotic splendor, each one on the verge of collapse. It’s what they, and, by association, we do with this potential for collapse that keeps us invested and going forward. When a friend of the protagonist declares she wants none of it and asks why people fall in love and get married, the narrator rationalizes that “nobody really knows. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to do it” (12). It’s in the doing, in the attempt at order, that we find the answer. Lee reminds us, “You would no more expect to find peace within a family than you would expect to find it in yourself” (16). We are all chaos barely contained. Though the protagonist’s marriage will not survive infidelity and a miscarriage, she recognizes, like her client, a Hmong immigrant on trial for allowing his wife to die when he refused to seek Western medical treatment, that sometimes God requires “a living sacrifice in place of a person, to balance out the forces of life and death” (19).

I found familiar territory in the other stories too, as Lee evokes nostalgia for an academia cradled in perpetual autumn, when professors were wrapped in “elaborate historical” (65) selves, comfortable and imposing in offices overlooking campus color, when “murderous innocence” (63) and youthful desire were offered in exchange for knowledge and distinction. Her nostalgia is steeped in an appreciation for art and language, its limitations and possibilities, musical descriptions affectionately rendering scenes on college campuses, across elegant dinner tables with colleagues, and at rural artistic residencies. There were so many lovely passages that my copy of the book is dyed in yellow highlighter. This review could easily have been a collection of those lyric moments. Lee’s characters allude to Ovid, Rilke, Auden, and Wharton. Readers outside academia or the arts might find the nostalgia isolating. But academia merely gives Lee’s characters a setting in which to struggle with the universal desire for permanence and order. Lee finds particular wealth when she mines the relationships between student and teacher, as told from the student’s point of view, reflective, often whimsical, first person recollections that probe the mysteries of relationships, art, and language.

In “The Banks of the Vistula” we witness a relationship borne of deceit when a freshman plagiarizes her first linguistics paper in order to stand out. Her professor recognizes the plagiarism, stolen from a rare text of Soviet propaganda, and they embark on a game of cat and mouse in which the young woman’s professor befriends and eventually coaxes her to own the text she has stolen at a university symposium, despite its outdated and shocking content. The student Margaret says:

He was my teacher… and [he] stood in front of the high windows, to teach me my little lesson, which turned out to be not about Poland or fascism or war, borderlines or passion or loyalty, but just about the sentence: the importance of, the sweetness of. And I did long for it, to say one true sentence of my own, to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows. (65-66)

The beautiful “Fialta” explores a similar student/teacher dynamic when an architecture student discovers the incongruities between desire and fulfillment at an artistic residency (Fialta) hosted by the fabled mentor Franklin Stadbakken, whose single restriction is that residents not sleep with each other. The protagonist finds his longing for Sands, another resident, is complicated by Stadbakken’s own problematic interest in the student. He asks Sands if Stadbakken is in love with her. “‘Not in love, no,’ she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love” (169). Like many of the other stories in this collection, underneath the narrative tension we find that life is like “the simplest buildings,” which ought to be “productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth… an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity” (178).

In “Min,” Sarah, a restless American college student in the late 1980s, accepts an invitation from her classmate to spend a summer in Hong Kong working for his father at an overcrowded and politically sensitive refugee camp. She also agrees to interview prospective brides for Min’s arranged marriage, using the notes his grandmother took when fulfilling the same duty for Min’s father years before. While Sarah wrestles with her own desire, for both Min and a clearer understanding of a world out of balance and suffering “compassion fatigue,” she discovers that longing does not always lead to fulfillment (102). In the grandmother’s notes, she finds a formula for women: “two-thirds contentment, one-third desire,” a principle that “seemed to capture the entire world in its tiny palm” (117). Summer ends and Sarah concludes her interviews, introducing Min instead to an unlikely prospect she meets in a street market: an outspoken Filipino amah whose background would be “a lot to overcome” (125). As Sarah witnesses Vietnamese refugees preparing to be deported, she realizes that desire can sometimes become a liability, an ache that will never be satisfied.

Lee unearths beauty in every landscape whether in a post-dinner party bliss and the fantasy of timelessness that resides there to the “collection of mangled bones” that “every man stands before as he declares life good.” Like the husband in the title story, Lee believes words are “fascinating—their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately,” and shades each story as a “collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy.” Her characters long for fulfillment professionally and personally, but find that human relationships are thorny and happiness is elusive. In this transformation of desire into art Lee finds life in the “little treats—little chocolates and liqueurs, after the meal, so that as the night decelerates there is no despair” (28).

Baby, can you dig your man?
He’s a righteous man

The_Stand_cover Since I first set eyes on this book (a hefty library copy), this fist edition cover image has stayed with me. A junior high school English teacher recommended the book (along with Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead! – I know, more on that later) when he saw me reading Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, still one of my favorite ghost stories. I’d never heard of King, or maybe I had (and why wouldn’t I have?) but hadn’t gotten to him yet. I was in that no man’s land between my adolescent reading – books of adventure and war, books of the sea and the mountains in which man tested his limits against nature and other men, books of discovery that inspired me to tack a map of the world on my wall and mark out wrecks and mysteries I wanted to explore when I became an oceanologist – I didn’t, too much math, I learned – and Wuthering Heights, a gothic I should have loved then, and do now, but didn’t.

I chose King’s The Stand over Rand’s Fountainhead primarily because of the cover, though Rand’s book had a sort of cool but small cover  too, an ambiguous image of frosty light beams shining from above and through the beams of steel construction. I had no idea what it meant but Rand’s book would righteously fuck me up later and turn me into the biggest asshole I’ve ever been. Still trying to shake off some of that craziness.

King’s book did the opposite: it opened me up to epic, epic like Homer did it, epic like Cervantes and Coleridge did it, then later on an individualized scale like Defoe and Melville and Whitman. Seems a backward trajectory but I learned about music in the same way, tracing my contemporary heroes backward via their influences. Surely King would approve of the route I followed.Fountainhead

So, the cover: I must have stared at the King cover for hours before even opening the book, hunched in the shadowy stacks of the public library where I worked, holding the doorstop book in my hands, the attacking figures of good and evil – what’s else could they be? – in combat amid an arid plain, sword and sickle in the aggressive air, fighting for the earth, for man, for what, I didn’t know, it didn’t matter. I was drawn to both  - the man in white like a Jedi knight with flowing blond hair and pointy Robin Hood shoes and the hooded reptilian figure in blue, the two locked in battle.

It simply looked epic. I loved that evil was in assault as good fends off the sickle with his sword. I loved that they stood alone in a vast desert. I loved that the reptilian evil had its snout-mouth open to reveal shark-like teeth. I loved that good, his face hidden behind his arm, fiercely defends but to my mind looks also desperate, the fate of man on his shoulders.

This image would fire my imagination and lead me to finish the book in a weekend, a 1200 page page-turning weekend in which I neither spoke nor slept, barely stopping to eat, ignoring family and friends and the world, content, insistent even on immersing myself in King’s epic story of Captain Tripps and its consequences, the Walking Dude (“he put his boots on and he walked.on.down.the.hall…”), Larry Underwood (“Baby, can you dig your man?”), Frannie, the Trashcan Man, Nick Andros and Tom Cullen (M-O-O-N spells Moon), Nadine Cross, Harold Lauder (always thought of an evil version of Ignatius Reilly), Stu Redman, Mother Abigail, and the huge cast of good and evil doers, a perfect modern dystopia turned post-apocaplytic showdown.

To this day, I still see this image, and it is still my favorite book cover design (anyone know who designed it?), so much better than some of the generic, lazy cover designs that I see now, and proof that sometimes we should judge a book by its cover.

Well the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker he blows a futile horn
“Come in” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.
I’ve heard newborn babies wailing like a mourning dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question man is it hopeless and forlorn
“Come in” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.

- “Shelter from the Storm”

Bob Dylan*

*I would buy Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (on vinyl then – what else was there?) simply because of this epigraph and spend yet more hours holed up alone in my room listening again and again, flipping that album over and over and exploring the details of the cover too, waiting for “Shelter” nearly closing side two (or more of a denouement) until “Buckets of Rain” slips into really close. For some reason, in a later unedited, etc., etc. printing of the book, this epigraph was replaced with a line from Country Joe and the Fish – “What’s that spell?/What’s that spell?/What’s that spell?”

Kent waited for the telephone to ring with a miracle, for the call that said it was just a mistake, that’s all, an accident, but he’s all right and she’s coming home. And then. That divine shaft of light would illuminate his loss, when that bullet of good fortune struck—struck with all the mystery and extravagance of Oh my God! The reported dead and missing called. Hey, I’m alive. It was a mistake, it really was. Thank you, God, thank you.

Would it save him from the future if he just accepted there was nothing he could do to change the past? They either lived or they died. We were there, just there, was all he could think. And that he should’ve been there in the middle of the Great East Japan Earthquake. He should’ve been amidst the rubble and dust, the toxic wreckage caught between water and fire that brought the cities down. Maybe he would be. Maybe he’d call his mother and father, and tell them, Yeah it’s me, I’m here, yep, right here in the middle of disaster central, buried under a pile of rubble in the dark, air running out, cell phone battery fading, legs crushed, sipping water that drips from the ruins of concrete and steel: The Tohoku Earthquake. 

baby_illustrations_3

Illustrated by Max Fucking Currie

Bullet